Tag Archives: process orientation

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.”

Yikes!

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.

Harsh truths

Illustration from "Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person" by David Wong    http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/
Perhaps as a counter-balance to my previous blog post, I’ve been reflecting on an article by David Wong that appeared this month in Cracked.Com: “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person.”

While I don’t agree with all of Wong’s assertions, there are a few that I think we should take to heart in the nonprofit sector.  I present them here as bullet points:

  • “The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You”

Wong points out two corollaries to this:  “…society is full of people who need things….”  and “(e)ither you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving and polite you are.

He’s right, or at least he should be.

(We all know of high-profile nonprofit professionals whose main achievement is making people feel warm inside.  They don’t contribute to any lasting and positive change, but they get plenty of photo opportunities.  If this were an entirely fair universe, the world would be rejecting them, and instead it applauds them.  However, they are the exceptions.)

Most of us are plebs in the nonprofit sector, and we are obliged to solve problems in order to justify our continued employment.  That’s the way it should be.  At the end of the day, if our organization’s mission is to save whales, then we should be judged on how our efforts add up to success in saving whales.  That might involve sticking to methods that have stood the test of time, or to finding ways to save more whales with fewer resources, or to finding ways to ensure that once we save them they stay healthy for the long run.   We have to keep our eye on results, and not give free passes to people who are merely impassioned without being effective.

By this I don’t mean that personalities and processes should be completely discounted.  It’s important to be considerate, ethical, and fair.  It’s also important to value the processes enough to learn from both failures and successes.  But having a pure heart is not enough, either as a process or an outcome, when your self-proclaimed mission is to save the whales.

  • “What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People”
‘Nuff said, right?  This the nonprofit sector, right? It’s not just that people ask “what’s in it for me?” when they donate, it’s that we’re living in an WIIFM universe. If what’s in it for us, as nonprofit professionals, is the dubious glamor of altruism, I suppose that’s alright, but we still have an obligation to make our work more than a vanity project.  Again, if it were a fair world, then effective projects would get more love than vanity projects.  But even though it’s unfair, there’s still a principle involved that obligates us to be as effective as possible in benefiting the world, even when that’s less glamorous.
  • “Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement”

Thank you, Mr. Wong.  This is true indeed – not just for individuals, but for nonprofit organizations.  This one of the most compelling reasons why outcomes management is such an uphill battle in our sector.  It’s not just that we don’t like being judged by our results; it’s that we don’t like having to change.

I’m not using the first person plural (e.g., “we”) here in a abstract, vague, editorial way.  I’m using it, because I’m talking about flaws in which I fully partake.  When Wong says, “(t)he human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change,” he’s certainly speaking to my condition.

Here is his list of the powerful defense mechanisms of which I am (and perhaps you are) capable of fielding when we are challenged or criticized:

              “Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult”

              “Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message”

             Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content”

              Revising (My) Own History”

             “Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out (My) True Self”

Of course, my personal favorite is the last mentioned. When I start wallowing in it, I do my best to remember that there are more important (and perhaps more valid) ethical principles at stake than expressing what I take to be my essential nature.

In fact, it’s our obligation to submit to public scrutiny and criticism when we work in the nonprofit sector.  (At least, it is in the U.S.; I can’t say much about other countries.)  As George McCully points out in his book Philanthropy Reconsidered, we are engaged in private initiatives for the public good, and the public has a right to evidence that we deserve the trust that is vested in us.  They deserve to know that we are striving to serve them with both processes and results that are valid, and that we are quickly learning from processes and results that do not yield strong positive benefits over the long run.
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