Tag Archives: dan scharfman

Let’s revisit the concept of failure-friendliness

Eight years ago, I wrote a blog article about failure-friendliness in nonprofit technology. It was very much inspired by my friend and colleague, Dan Scharfman. Since Dan died this week, and this is also a week when I have been thinking hard about the obstacles that nonprofit organizations face in tracking their outcomes, it seems appropriate to reprise the article here and now. Having coped with the need for failure-friendliness in nonprofit technology for years, I see that my understanding is still superficial when it comes to the difficulties that nonprofits have in acknowledging programmatic failure. I invite your thoughts on how we can be more transparent about and more open to learning from failure. Meanwhile, special thanks go out to Beth Kanter, for her outstanding blog articles on this topic.

FAIL stamp

Wed 26 Jan 2005 05:41 PM EST

The term “failure-friendly organization” was first introduced to me by a colleague I revere – Dan Scharfman of Baird Associates.

My first impression was that he was an unlikely champion of failure, since Massachusetts is well-supplied with nonprofit organizations that consider the technology services that he has provided to them very successful indeed.

However, many of us in the nonprofit sector have seen the following things happen with major implementations or upgrades:

  • The technology doesn’t work, or doesn’t work nearly as well as it should;
  • The intended users won’t have anything to do with the technology;
  • Major changes in technology in the outside world quickly render the organization’s choices obsolete;
  • Programmatic priorities change, and the technology is all but irrelevant;
  • The organization has not factored in the shocking cost of customizing, tweaking, maintaining, and upgrading the technology.

Although techies vary greatly in their attitudes about projects that don’t work out, we also tend to make tacit assumptions that everyone concerned understands that we are not engaged in an exact science but in an evolving process.

Techies also tend to regard failure as pretty interesting – as a good source of information about what ought to be fixed when Version 97.53.01 of the software is released.  We also enjoy working on cool tools, even if such tools don’t actually deliver the outcomes desired by those who are underwriting the project.  This form of process orientation can be less than endearing to decision-makers in nonprofit organizations.

Oddly enough, nonprofit workers tend to be very good at process orientation when they are on familiar ground.

Sometimes this process orientation is a grim necessity, with governmental agencies strictly mandating, auditing, and enforcing protocols that nonprofits must follow in order to maintain their tax-exempt status, accreditation, or contracts for services.  These are headaches that would impel just about any organization or individual to worry a great deal about operating according to plan and documenting the process, rather than ensuring a specific outcome. This of course is a very “functional” (or “instrumental“) form of process orientation.

A more “expressive” form of process orientation is also frequently seen in nonprofit organizations – manifesting as a desire to be flexible and responsive to changing situations, or as a desire to arrive at decisions through consensus.  However, it can be difficult to extend that attitude to technology, which tends to be difficult for non-specialists to comprehend, time-consuming, and expensive.

Another challenge is that organizations and individuals (including yours truly) can be reluctant to cut their losses, and say, “This isn’t working.  Let’s stop, figure out why, and decide on some next steps.”  Of course, in some settings, the decoded version of this message is “Let’s find someone to blame and punish…maybe YOU.”


Is there any solution in sight?  I only wish I had something certain and simple to offer.  Here are a few ideas, although none of them come with guarantees of success:

  • Techies need to understand the nonprofit organizational cultures in which they are operating.  Progress toward this goal is possible if the techies listen, ask questions, and listen some more.  These conversations should start early in the planning phase.
  • Nonprofit workers need to understand how technology innovations and implementations happen in real life, and have a reasonable idea of what factors can lead to unexpected outcomes in technology projects.  Progress is possible if – yes, you guessed it – the nonprofit workers listen, ask questions, and listen some more.
  • Everyone needs to cooperate in creating incentives for spotting, discussing, and correcting errors rather than evading their detection.  I freely admit that I always find it easier to do these things when the mistake was made by someone else, but am always striving to do better.

I wish I could remember who it was that first said to me, “This is not about one person against another. This is about our team against the problem.”  Anyone who can say that is a saint, a boddhisatva, a tzadik, or an unusually effective manager.

In memory of Dan Scharfman

In memory of Dan Scharfman

Dan Scharfman, a wonderful colleague and friend, died last night.

My understanding is that there will be an obituary published tomorrow, and that the funeral will be on Wednesday.

I am shocked and grief-stricken, so it’s difficult to say more right now.

To his loved ones, all I can say are some words inspired by the Jewish tradition:

May the Omnipresent console you among the other mourners of Zion, Jerusalem, and the world.

Dan Scharfman, please get well soon!

Dan Scharfman

Dan Scharfman, a much-loved colleague and friend, suffered a very serious heart attack earlier this week, and is currently in a medically induced coma at Mount Auburn Hospital. My thoughts and prayers go out for him, and his loved ones, and his community.

Dan is a revered figure in the local world of mission-based organizations and nonprofit technology assistance providers – a consultant’s consultant.  He serves as vice president of information solutions at Baird Associates, and as a member of the board of the Belmont School Committee.  He is an inveterate punster, a classisist, a devoted family man, an avid long distance runner, and a brilliant practitioner in the field of nonprofit technology.  It’s extremely unusual to find a colleague who is as at home under a client’s desk, trouble-shooting a PC that has crashed, as he is addressing a the distraught, technophobic board of a nonprofit that is facing a major information systems implementation. But Dan does that, and more.

Yesterday, I spoke at length to his close colleague and friend, Doug Baird of Baird Associates, about Dan’s condition.  There isn’t much news to report; not much is known about Dan’s prognosis yet.  However, there is much material for reflection; Doug and I found ourselves musing on the inherent injustice of a universe in which Dan, who is not only a exemplary human being, but also a fitness fanatic who trains for 100 mile races for fun, should be stricken with a heart attack.

Well, this isn’t a fair universe.  We don’t know why someone like Dan has to suffer a heart attack, and we may never know.  On both a medical level and a metaphysical level, it doesn’t make any sense.

However, I believe in the power of human prayer and human good wishes for someone who is suffering.  It’s another phenomenon that we don’t understand, and may never understand.  It certainly isn’t like ordering a pizza that is guaranteed to arrive exactly on time and with just the right toppings.  But prayers and good wishes do work for the better, and I invite you to join me in tapping into the power of love and healing on Dan’s behalf.

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