Monday, July 5, 2010

The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese

Good morning

“And the beat goes on………………………………………….”

Why We Should Study Worst Practices

Steven Wright, a humorist much more on the stage a decade or more ago, has a unique perspective on life. One of his observations is the title above: “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Sometimes in life it’s smart to learn from the risks others take, and the mistakes they make. The dead mouse in the trap saw the cheese and went for it. Didn’t work. But the second mouse, though still cautious, was in the enviable position of reaping the reward with no risk.

We talk a lot about “Best Practices” – studying and analyzing programs and protocols that work in one place that might be replicated in another. What are we doing right that we can all learn from? A couple of weeks ago I linked to a site that talked instead about "Next Practices" – where should we be heading for the future. That author offered that “best practices” were fine if you wanted to improve your current business model, but that organizations and leaders ought to constantly be looking for a better business model, and thus trying to find new ways to get to those new models which will allow the organization to remain competitive – hence the notion of “Next Practices”.

I think we also ought to consider paying more attention to “Worst Practices” – studying and analyzing decision making and model adoption that didn’t work, and looking at why it didn’t work – so we can share ways to avoid at least the worst case scenarios, and better equip ourselves for "Next Practices".

But (for the most part) we don’t do that. There is precious little effort, despite it being talked about for at least a decade, in even trying to maintain the best of our institutional memory by figuring out how to capture (and share) the collective wisdom of our best and brightest leaders as they retire and exit the field – before that knowledge is lost to us (condemning us to repeat mistakes and suffer the conceit that every solution we come up with is new and novel). We still don’t have any model that allows us to maintain that collective experience and those insights, and that, frankly is really stupid.

And we virtually never even try to include some record, some analysis, some thinking on all the bad decisions we have, as leaders in our field, made in the past. The programs, plans, strategies, projects and thinking – that despite our good intentions – turned out to be faulty, ill-conceived, mistakes and and a waste of our time. There are some moves in this direction: Funders are asking what was accomplished over the past decade and questioning their own basic assumptions and premises and how they can better realize lofty goals. Government agencies - state and local - are re-examining their missions and what ought to be their priorities. That’s a start. And there is the occasional work out there that looked at failure and tried to understand it (see the Book “And the Band Stop Playing” by Nancy Glaze & Thomas Wolf on the closing of the San Jose Symphony Orchestra – an analysis of failure and lessons learned -- as an exception to the norm).. But despite increased emphasis on evaluation of projects, there has been too little deep, systemic analysis of failed decision making, approaches, philosophies and to me, most importantly, adoption of – and clinging to - the wrong models.

We need to learn from each other’s mistakes. The challenges of the past couple of years have been so daunting, that many of our organizations have fallen into the precipice and have lost the battle and closed their doors. Many others are living dangerously close to the edge. The rest of us need to learn from the mistakes those failures can teach us, and without meaning to sound sanctimoniously critical, the actions of many of those among us can only be characterized as failures. For whatever reason, on whatever level, there are leaders among us who make (made) bad or wrong choices in response to the onslaught of bad news; leaders unable to weather the storms. It may not have been completely their fault, and this isn’t meant to criticize anyone, but certainly some of the blame can accurately be placed at their failure of business leadership.

We need to dissect some of those situations so all the rest of us can learn from what went wrong. We need to look at what decisions were made, and when, that contributed to the failure, and what were, in the final analysis, the real risks that were taken that proved too much. Of course this is hindsight, but that’s exactly the idea. We can’t eliminate future risk of course, but we might make it less risky. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any model in place that allows us to debrief those who were at the helm when things went wrong, no way to deconstruct the decisions and actions that, in hindsight, turned out to be bad moves.

Certainly we can learn from our successes, but very likely people learn as much, if not more, from their failures. And we (the nonprofit arts sector) need to figure out some way to learn from our past mistakes – including the most recent ones in the face of all the challenges now on our plates. Where is the workshop that teaches us how to do that as individual leaders? Where is the model that will allow us as a sector across the whole country to systematically consider what might be learned from analyzing what went wrong. At the AFTA Summit’s Visionary Panel, “New and Emerging Business Models” there was almost no discussion of fundamentals in approaching the issue: what criteria we ought to consider, and how we ought to analyze both good and bad past practices, in the attempt to move forward to those “new and emerging models” we might adopt. As Glenda said to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” I guarantee you that the most sophisticated of enterprises around the globe do exactly that. We do not.

There is nothing inherently wrong with making mistakes, and despite anyone’s best intentions and savvy planning, failure sometimes happens (how stupid is the saying “failure is not an option”? Failure is not a goal, not something you choose, but as a possibility it is always on the plate.) We must spend more time understanding risk and how to take calculated risks balancing payoff and downside. Can that be taught? If we have enough information and analysis available to us, I think so. If we really believe risk taking is part of the creative enterprise, then some failure is inevitable. But to fail, and learn little from that failure, seems a colossal waste of experience.

Cookie cutter approaches are inadequate. What is a Best Practice in one set of circumstances may just be a Worst Practice in another. But knowing why something worked in one place and something else failed in another would be enormously helpful in figuring out what you might want to try in your situation. Obviously small, individual organizations cannot themselves develop this kind of analysis, and thus this is the kind of information that funders and national organizations should try to help provide.

I think the problem is partly because we simply lack the resources available to government and the private sector to spend time and energy looking at failure with an eye to learning from it, that often times we don’t dig deep enough in the development of our business and other models. And while I understand why that happens, I think we are getting to the point where we simply can’t afford that approach anymore. We need to study and analyze best, next and worst practices to learn from all three. There is another Steven Wright observation that might apply -- when he opined: “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.” We need to keep thinking about this stuff.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.