No One Cares About Your Perfect Plan

Last week I tried a recipe for “sweet and sour eggs.” I browned the flour and butter exactly like the book said, I waited precisely two minutes before I stirred in the hot water. I even sifted flour (who does that?).

You might have guessed from the title of this blog what happened next. The first taste was utter disappointment – it was one of the most disgusting meals I have ever made. No one would eat it. I followed the recipe perfectly. I did everything the directions told me to do. And it was still a complete failure.

So what happened? I sifted flour! I executed perfectly! And still failure? Eric Ries calls this ‘achieving failure’, or in startup speak, successfully building a product on time that nobody wants. In nonprofit speak, it means perfectly executing a program or process that doesn’t have any impact on your mission or doesn’t achieve your goals. Eric Ries explains,

“We spend a lot of time planning. We even make contingency plans for what to do if the main plan goes wrong. But what if the plan goes right, and we still fail? This is the my most dreaded kind of failure, because it tricks you into thinking that you’re in control and that you’re succeeding.”

Unfortunately the current nonprofit institution encourages ‘achieving failure’ in a multitude of ways, especially through incentives to treat your strategic plan as if it were written in stone. It’s also easier to achieve failure if the staff of your organization is not intimately familiar with or doesn’t have direct contact with the communities on the ground. If staff members are not from or familiar with the communities in which they work, it is more difficult to tell the warning signs that they are ‘achieving failure’ and not achieving success.

Thankfully, there are many organizations and brave individuals creating alternatives in this tough terrain. Data Center, a research justice organization based in Oakland, California, is a prime example. In 2006, Data Center made a commitment to fully embrace its social justice values within the organization’s operations. To do this, the staff implemented a Shared Leadership Model, which more evenly shared power among all staff.

Two things stand out about Data Center’s work. First, Data Center focused relentlessly on the end goal and their values, not the perfect plan. This helped them avoid the trap of focusing too narrowly on successfully implementing one strategy. Second, Data Center’s Shared Leadership Model was used to increase its own accountability to communities on the ground. Increased accountability ensures that they know when strategies aren’t working. These two things help Data Center avoid achieving failure.

Values-Focused Planning

In Reflections on Shared Leadership, Miho Kim, Executive Director of Data Center, tells the story of Data Center’s transition from a traditional hierarchy to the Shared Leadership Model. As they explored the concept of shared leadership and built a structure that supported it, they focused first and foremost on their values. Their goal was not simply to try a new leadership model, but to manifest the value of shared leadership. Kim explains,

“The framing of the conversation should always be, “what is our value and how do we make it happen?” Pay equity, in other words, is a means to that goal–rather than an end in itself, or a static ‘product’ that gets placed on the moral pedestal of the organization, isolated from all others.”

Focusing on the end goal is easier said than done. How many times have you had a goal, crafted a program and milestones around that goal, and then focused solely on the milestones instead of the original goal? It’s easy to point to milestone after milestone, deadline after deadline, and claim that you’re executing your programs well. It’s much harder to ask tough questions that get at the core of whether you’re making an impact and to keep the bigger picture in mind. Plus, it’s not always easy to know what those questions are. And most organizations that have put so much effort into planning put their heads down and execute the plan once it’s finished without questioning it.

To avoid ‘achieving failure’, not only was Data Center careful at the outset to keep their eyes on their vision, they knew that they must stay relevant to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. To do this, they saw their values as foundational to anything they do in their Shared Leadership structure. “Policymaking is one possible route, but once formally prescribed, it can sometimes be a setback when circumstances change (and boy, do they),” says Kim.

This relentless focus on the goal rather than the proposed solution is an important part of Data Center’s strategy and lean thinking. If the current iteration of the shared leadership model stops working, we can certainly expect Kim to work with the team to adapt its current model to meet their new needs. This is an important antidote to achieving failure.

Increased Accountability

The Data Center is also careful to keep feedback loops in place so that they know they are making an impact. One way they do this is by increasing accountability to the communities with which they work. In a piece that explains the Shared Leadership Model, the Data Center staff, Board, and Patricia St. Onge writes:

“In particular, we’ve been engaged in defining, implementing and sustaining concrete practices to dismantle systems of oppression and increase our accountability to communities on the ground. In order to tackle challenges and dysfunction endemic to social justice-minded nonprofits, we have been developing long-term sustainable leadership–particularly by people of color and working class people–by sharing it across the organization.”

Sharing leadership is vital because it empowers many different people to speak up if something is not working well. In this regard, among other important things, Data Center is more quickly and better able to recognize if their program is not effective.

Unfortunately this problem of organizations not being accountable to communities on the ground is endemic to the social sector. In his piece “White Savior Industrial Complex“, author Teju Cole uses the 2012 Kony campaign to explain some of the ways the nonprofit sector is not held accountable. Cole asks us to think harder about how people, especially wealthy, White U.S. Americans, are implementing their ‘projects for social good’. He argues, “There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

Here Cole is calling for nonprofits to be more accountable to communities on the ground, which creates a built-in feedback loop that helps avoid achieving failure. Data Center’s Shared Leadership Model is making innovative strides in this regard.

You turn: When has your organization achieved failure? Do you have a shared leadership model set in place and is it helping your organization foster innovation and succeed? Please share with us in the Comments section!

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