April 2010                                                                                              Issue 2

BoardWorks International



Top Valuing Intelligent Naivety

Valuing Intelligent Naivety"I quickly understood that it was my job to ask the dumb questions," said one of NZ's outstanding leaders reflecting on her early governance experience when she was often the only female board member. "Further to the point, I was frequently thanked privately by my male colleagues for raising certain issues or asking questions to which they also wanted to know the answers." An experienced male director commented at the same workshop that, "...in the boardroom, men often hold back from asking questions because they seem to feel a gender obligation to behave as if they understand everything."
Research also seems to support these observations that male dominated boards might be deficient in their ability to inquire and question effectively. For example, one US study suggests that, compared with men, women directors are likely to show greater persistence than their male colleagues in pursuing answers to difficult questions (1).
Regardless of their membership mix and whether there are verifiable gender differences, boards should take active steps to ensure that they do not suffer from an inability to adequately inquire and question. Where this inherent learning disability exists the risks are high indeed.

Valuing the quest for answers

The problem of inadequate inquiry processes may also reflect a particularly narrow and old fashioned view of what directorial skills should be sought when making board appointments.  For example, on another occasion, one of Australasia's leading chairmen at the time was speaking to a group of aspiring directors about their prospects of getting onto a listed company board. He stated rather patronisingly that a candidate for one of his boards who hadn't managed a $100 million turnover company wouldn't be seriously considered for appointment. That put down immediately eliminated not only most of the women in the audience but also most of the men. Many of them had built outstanding careers in other fields and had skill sets and perspectives that would prove very valuable in the boardroom.  
Defining intelligent naivety
Our first mentioned informer referred to her use of 'dumb questions'.  A much more positive and accurate label to refer to the capability we wish to endorse here is the term intelligent naivety.  Explicit value is ascribed in some professions (e.g. nursing) to the role of na´ve inquirer. Like much in corporate governance this concept is inherently paradoxical.  It is about a board's ability to use the undoubted intelligence of its members, both individually and collectively, to ask profound questions about matters they may know comparatively little about.  Such questions often go to the heart of business strategy and even organisational purpose.  When well formulated and well timed, intelligently naive questions can force the whole board to take a step back, to re-evaluate its basic assumptions and long accepted analyses. 
In one respect the application of intelligent naivety is not new to most boards.  They welcome or at least tolerate the types of questions that proactive new directors should be expected to ask in order to get up to speed.  New board members are not generally expected to know as much as longer serving directors about the business.  The challenge for every board, however, is to not only accommodate the curiosity and 'need to know' orientation of newbie board members but to encourage longer serving members to adopt a similar mindset. One of the most sought-after director attributes should be the confidence to ask, and continue to ask until a satisfactory answer is forthcoming, the 'what?' and 'why?' types of questions. 
Once the attribute of intelligent naivety is understood and applied by a board it is less likely to fall into the trap of 'group think'.  This is the phenomenon which results in poor decisions being made collectively which their intelligence would not have allowed directors to take as individuals. 
Creating a conducive environment
Unacknowledged aspects of board cultures often discourage the exercise of intelligent naivety.  For example, status differences may mean that some voices are more likely to be heard (and acknowledged) than others.  Unexplored differences in expectations about the way individuals should participate may result in some individuals 'holding back' while others occupy a disproportionate amount of the board's air time.  Because board membership is often valued as a form of recognition or social inclusion, individuals may be reluctant to prejudice their relationship with boardroom colleagues by 'rocking the boat'.  Undue executive dominance of the board's thinking is also likely to inhibit directors from the expression of intelligent naivety.
The first step is to raise the board's consciousness of the value of exercising intelligent naivety and to discuss ways in which the board can encourage and support all members in its application. Resultant expectations should be made explicit by their inclusion in directors' job descriptions and in a statement of board values or operating philosophy forming part of the board charter or other governance documentation. It is important to state clearly the need for the board to seek out and articulate differences.
Secondly, this commitment needs to be reinforced by aligning key board processes such as selection, induction and board/directors evaluation processes. In a general sense these processes need to ensure that the application of intelligent naivety is rewarded rather than punished. The type of periodic governance training or professional development undertaken by many boards should reinforce these processes.
Thirdly, consider the use of particular techniques that can assist reflective and critical thinking and amplify the voice of intelligent naivety. For example:

  • adopt systematic processes that offer different ways of looking at things and use techniques that enable individuals to put forward their ideas in a neutral or an anonymous manner - for example, brainstorming (the process of posing questions or generating ideas without any evaluation during the creative process);
  • assign the role of devil's advocate or 'critical evaluator' - invite that role holder to say the un-sayable and ask the un-askable;
  • invite the board as a whole to consider unpopular alternatives
  • plan board meetings so that there is enough time to seek out and explore different ways of seeing things;
  • deliberately delay important decisions until they have been thoroughly examined.
To ensure that the potential of intelligent naivety is realised the role of the chair is particularly important. The chair be must consistently encourage an atmosphere of open inquiry. In the way the chair speaks he or she should demonstrate that they value intelligently na´ve questions and see them as a fertile opportunity to explore new angles. The chair must be impartial and constantly alert for opportunities to encourage individuals to give voice to their intelligently na´ve questions and to support them when they do. If questions are being negated because, for example, they query established basic assumptions, the chair should intervene to ensure the question is heard and addressed. As the board's discussion leader the chair should give high priority to drawing out objections and doubts, and be accepting of questions that might imply criticism. Old-fashioned humility is a major ingredient in effective board leadership.
Besides insisting that the open and honest sharing of ideas is an essential part of a healthy board culture the chair can assist by not stating their own analysis or personal preferences at the outset of a board discussion.  This can easily have the effect of discouraging other directors from raising questions that may go against those views.
Valuing the role of intelligent naivety is to recognise that no individual or group is infallible. As someone once said, 'the only dumb question is the one you wanted to ask but didn't'.


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BoardWorks International is a specialist governance effectiveness consultancy dedicated to assisting governing boards to provide effective strategic leadership to their enterprises and to fulfil their fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities to their stakeholders. It is also our aim to make 'board work' a satisfying and enjoyable experience for all who serve on or provide support to, governing boards.