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How to Fail at Organizational Change: A Case Study

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." Oscar Wilde

I am a student of failure because I find failure quite instructive. As a teacher of project management, I extol the effectiveness of project management but I also admit that roughly 30% of all projects are successful in that they fulfilled all the customer’s requirements without going over budget and were delivered on time. This does not invalidate project management but it does stress the need for refining project management techniques. It is in this spirit that I offer the following case study that others might find useful as they pursue Gov 2.0 and OpenGov projects.

The Beginning

In January of 2007, I assumed the presidency of a nonprofit professional organization with a membership of just over 500. I was part of a board of seven people and I came into office with a laundry list of ideas for improving our services to the membership. The main focus of the organization before 2007 was our monthly luncheon meeting, two or three yearly training programs, and a year-end holiday party. I wanted to establish an outreach program to nearby universities, develop a method for having satellite meetings for the members who couldn’t make the monthly meetings, start a certification training program, publish a newsletter, increase the number of training programs, and overhaul the website. I announced this laundry list at the first board meeting in February 2007 and received a mixed reaction.

Along with efforts, I also suggested that the organization practice “open book management” by publishing all of the organization’s finances to the website (excluding any personal information). Our organization received a monthly database from our parent organization and I arranged for all board members to receive a copy rather than the previous practice of just having the President receive the database. The open book management initiative failed due to vigorous opposition by the Director of Communication who was President just the year before and a founding board member. The new database policy passed and we had some very innovative products including one member who used the data to map our membership and determine a better meeting site.

The Newsletter Event

In the spring of 2007, I spoke to several vendors about having a newsletter produced for the organization. This was part of the job duties of the Director of Communication but, to put it bluntly, the Director couldn’t even be trusted to send out the monthly email notices of the upcoming luncheon meetings. I selected a vendor and announced to the board that a vendor had been chosen and we would spend $3,000 a year for the production of the newsletter. Considering that the organization’s annual budget was around $25,000 and we had no debt, I thought this was reasonable.

The Director of Communication immediately objected in an angry email and encouraged other board members to email their opposition to the newsletter. None of the other board members opposed the newsletter but suggested ways of lowering the cost. The Director of Communication then wrote a follow-up email that she was taking on the newsletter project and that she would produce it herself. This never happened.

Summer Events

After the newsletter event, I made sure to incorporate the other board members in my laundry list of projects. I had some half-hearted commitments but the only project I accomplished was to increase the number of training events and that was from two events to four events. This only occurred because I did most of the work for all four events. We had a Director of Education but she only showed up for the first board meeting and we never saw her the rest of the year. Attendance at subsequent board meetings fell to two or three board members and my emails essentially went unanswered.

Fall Events and My Resignation

While all this was going on, I was becoming busier at work. I taught at the University of Louisville (KY) and my classes had increased. At the same time, I was helping to take of my fiancé’s mother who was terminally ill (she later passed in August of 2007). It was at this time that I realized that I failed as President. I talked to the only board member who was still performing his duties – the Programs Director. I encouraged him to run for President and he informed that several members (both Board and from the membership) had already approached him about running for President and pledging their support. This confirmed that I was out as President.
I was fine with this because he and I shared a similar vision for the organization and I was gratified to find that he had the support that I lost due to my mismanagement. We agreed that I would resign in September of 2007 and ask that the Board recognize him as Acting President. The Vice-President (a supporter of the Program Director) agreed to stay as Vice-President. That was my final proposal to the board.

Lessons Learned

1) A laundry list of projects is not a vision – I wanted to do too much too soon and without the necessary support. I came in with the idea that everyone would see the merit of my proposals and would immediately support me. I still can’t believe that I was that naïve.

2) Don’t assume support just because you have a title – Just because my name badge said President didn’t mean I actually had any real power. No one depended on me for their paycheck and I failed to build up the trusting relationship that would have encouraged the board members to support me. I had no vision and I looked erratic and inexperienced as I proposed to post the organization’s finances to the website.

This is where my successor succeeded. We both were elected to the board at the same time four years earlier. He was the Director of Membership and I was Programs Director. In the three years I held the position of Programs Director, I did everything myself while my successor built his own mini-organization to help him with his Director duties. Even when I was Vice-President, I actually spent a year away from the organization working with another organization. So, I had no network of supporters while my successor had the support of at least ten people. When he formally ran for President in 2008, he was able to fill six of the seven remaining board positions with his people. The only person who was not his supporter was the Director of Communication. The Director started to oppose my successor like I had been opposed but the Director was outnumbered and resigned later that year. Thus, my successor was able to enact many of the projects that I had originally proposed.

3) Advocating change implies insult – When you say we need to change things, many will take this as criticism of the way things currently are. By saying we should be open by publishing the organization’s finances; I believe the Director of Communication thought I was saying that the funds were mismanaged up to that point. I was not implying this but I failed to account for the perceptions that my actions implied.

4) Not addressing the real issues – The biggest problem the organization had at that time was the increasing costs of holding the luncheon meetings. Food costs were rising, the membership didn’t like the quality of food, and we had a number of unpaid reservations. As a Program Director, I knew this was a major issue and tried to work with the Treasurer to resolve the issue. But, in my enthusiasm at pushing my laundry list of projects, I ignored this vital problem. Many of the board members communicated their concerns about the increasing luncheon costs and I know they were disappointed in my negligence of this issue. I fully believe that if I had resolved the cost issue, I would have had the trust and support for the rest of my agenda.

5) The one initiative that succeeded – My project to share the database with the rest of the board was a resounding success. The Director of Communication offered some initial resistance but the rest of the board was enthusiastic and what they did with the data was much more than I could have come up with by myself. I believe this was successful because I encouraged other board members to come up with ideas and I demonstrated my trust of them by releasing the data with no conditions. For once, I listened to my board members and their ideas of change instead of imposing my ideas on them.

One might argue that my doubling the number of training events should count as a success but it was another failure. First, the board had a Director of Education and a Program Director who was in charge of these events. My stepping in and taking over the events meant that I was still acting as a Program Director and that I was not fulfilling my duties as President. All I did was show that I was not comfortable in my role as President.

Parting Thoughts

I wrote this case study because I can sense the frustration of others on GovLoop as they pursue their Gov 2.0 and OpenGov projects. My hope is that you learn from my failure and I also invite you to point out other lessons that I could learn from my failure. Don’t worry about insulting me because I feel no shame in making mistakes. I do feel shame if I keep repeating my mistakes. Thanks for reading.

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Tags: 2, budgeting, career, communications, leadership, project management, tech

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Comment by Bill Brantley on October 15, 2010 at 9:25am
@Sonya - Thank you!
Comment by Sonya on October 14, 2010 at 12:55pm
Bill - kudos for you for the honest reflection and the kahunas to post it on this blog. I wish everyone were this evolved! I always relish any opportunity I can learn from others higher up than me in the proverbial food chain, and so often when people get to that executive office, the tutelage & mentoring cease. Thanks for sharing!
Comment by Bill Brantley on August 3, 2010 at 7:11pm
Of course the ego will be involved because that is the way we are wired. And I don't believe that people were wedded to the status quo but they did have legitimate questions about why these specific projects at this time. Yes, change does mean getting out of our comfort zones but it doesn't mean rushing headlong off the cliff too. I didn't have a vision and that is where I failed.

You are right that I pushed too hard and too fast. And I did not engage people in dialogue and create mutual understanding. Look at how I handled the newsletter issue. I talked to the vendors by myself. I chose a vendor by myself. And then I announced that I made the decision and this is how it will be. So I was more a change dictator than a change advocate.
Comment by Nina Adrianna on August 3, 2010 at 6:33pm
Re your third point: I don't understand. Advocating for change does imply that the status quo is not longer the best route. If suggesting another route is taken as an insult by someone, I think it's an indication that their ego is getting in the way--the are attaching themselves to the status quo and taking your suggesting for an alternate route personally. In your case it sounds like a whole group of people wasn't ready for change...that's not a mistake on your part. Change necessitates people to get out of their comfort zones.

The crux of the issue here might be relationships. Before any org change happens, trust between people must be established...and mutual respect. Sounds like that was lacking here for whatever reason....maybe you just pushed too hard, too fast.

In response to your self-criticism that you just didn't listen enough....I get that, but at the same time, if you're a change advocate, then don't you have to get people to listen to you? Convince them to change their opinion? So not just listening, but rather creating dialogue and mutually created understandings and goals.....which is what you mentioned when you had that success.

Anyways, just some thoughts IMHO.
Comment by Bill Brantley on August 3, 2010 at 2:49pm
@John - Great question on why use project management! I'm going to answer that in a blog posting.
Comment by Dannielle Blumenthal on August 3, 2010 at 10:05am
Just chiming in - bravo for the courage and humility to put yourself out there with this case study. I learned a lot, especially from the part where you say that sometimes suggesting change makes the organization react badly because it implies that they were doing something wrong previously. Great insight. I've fallen into that trap too.
Comment by Bill Brantley on August 3, 2010 at 9:59am
Thank you all for commenting. I agree that my primary mistake was not gaining buy-in and trying to impose change just because I thought these were good ideas. I wrote this case study because these mistakes are constantly repeated in many organizational change projects. A new team comes in with lots of new ideas and if you can't see the merits of the new ideas then you are:
* Too old (Generational Differences is a nicer way to say it)
* Too hung up on the past
* Afraid of the new technologies (doesn't matter if it's double-entry accounting, the early PCs, or social networking tools; any new technology will do)
* Stuck in the bureaucratic mindset
* Not innovative or creative

These are the ones that I thought when I was facing resistance from the board; I'm certain you all can come up with others. The point was that despite all of the theory and training I had in management, I failed to learn the fundamental technique: listen to your people.

This is where my successor excelled. Not only was he building a support network; he was building an idea network. And he was empowering his supporters to take charge of their change ideas and see them through. I learned a lot from his example.

I had a couple of people email me privately and I wanted to summarize my answers to them: As to how I felt about being marginalized and finding that my successor had already planned to replace me: It hurt. A lot. I was angry at myself and even thought that my successor could have been more supportive of my efforts to remain in the presidency. But I realized that I wasn't ready for the office and that I moved up too quickly. A better strategy would have been to serve in the other positions first to broaden my knowledge of how the group worked and to have built up a support network.

As to the person who charitably suggested that the fault wasn't all mine and that the Director of Communication shares the blame: No, it's all mine. I still don't understand her motives for opposing me but my mistake was turning this into a me versus her fight. This just further demonstrated how bad of a president I was. Ignoring the main issues affecting the organization, trying to push through a bunch of programs that were not needed at the moment, and engaging in email fights with a board member was not the way to build support with the rest of the board or membership. My successor had the same problems with her but he worked to find common ground and offered to work with her to alleviate her concerns. She was the one that refused the olive branch and thus it was the rest of the board that asked that she resign.

So, in my future comments where I might be critical of your change efforts, please understand that I am not speaking as a "ninja," "guru," or "rockstar." I'm the guy who drove the ship into the iceberg and learned the hard way about how to avoid icebergs. :-)
Comment by John Bordeaux on August 3, 2010 at 9:44am
Excellent, thanks for sharing! We learn more from failure than success, this is useful. As others point out, it isn't natural for us to share failures, and you've set a great example here.

I do wonder, and I don't have an answer to this, why a 30% success rate DOESN'T invalidate project management? Batting .300 gets you in Cooperstown, yes. But is there some room for imagination somewhere in that .700...?
Comment by Sam Allgood on August 3, 2010 at 7:35am
Thanks for sharing Bill. There are some good lessons in there that I can apply (hopefully) with a team I'm leading.
Comment by Gary Berg-Cross on August 2, 2010 at 6:16pm
On the general topic of failure there was an book review in Sunday's Washingto Post by Michael Washburn called Why we get things so wrong:

He reviewed BEING WRONG : Adventures in the Margin of Error By Kathryn Schulz


and WRONG " Why Experts Keep Failing Us -- and How to Know When Not to Trust Them By David H. Freedman


The article says "the good news, from Schulz's perspective, is that mistakes shouldn't be condemned, at least not in any traditional sense. Schulz draws on philosophers, neuroscientists, psychoanalysts and a bit of common sense in an erudite, playful rumination on error. "We are wrong about what it means to be wrong," she writes. "Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition . . . [and] it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage." By understanding the dynamics of error, we open a space for tolerance of both our own and others' failings. This is error as pedagogy, and it does not come naturally.

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