Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Bridge Too Far

I've taken the title of this essay from a World War II book by Cornelius Ryan, which chronicles the story of a failed attempt by Allied Forces in the fall of 1944 to break through the German lines at Arnhem and cross the Rhein River. It is a high stakes example of overreaching in pursuit of a noble cause (in this case, ending the war as quickly as possible).

While taking chances occurs in all cultures, I'm narrowing the focus of today's essay to how this unfolds in a cooperative context.

One of the many facets of leadership [see Cooperative Leadership from A to Z] is aspirational—the ability to pull the group forward into the unknown, especially when the group is unlikely to go there on its own. What makes this a compelling topic is that this can work wonderfully and it can be a disaster... or some of both.

People can stretch—often more than they think they can—but only so far. Where is the limit, and how do you know you're close to it?

Suppose the issue is whether to build a new community center because you intend to grow and the old one is at capacity. The questions are many:

o  How large a group are you aiming to accommodate in the new facility? Partly this is a question of rate of growth (to what extent are you willing to rely on past trends to continue)? Partly this is a question of the life expectancy of the new building.

o  To what extent do you want the new facility to be an enhancement or upgrade from current facilities? Buildings are a long-term highly visible statement of values. Other things being equal, you want to be proud of that statement.

o  How much financial burden are current members willing to accept? If population does not surge forward, or otherwise falls short of projections, that means existing members will have to shoulder more of the debt load. There's a limit to what people can bear and still grin.

o  Undertaking a large project means that money and labor are not available for other projects. Is this facility the group's most pressing need? Is it acceptable that most other projects are on hold?

o  To what extent should you try to fund the building through savings, to what extent through donations, and to what extent through loans? Waiting to accumulate sufficient savings tends to equate with delays; borrowing tends to be easier to secure than donations, but you have to handle debt load. Donations are nice (manna from heaven), yet most groups do not have a robust fundraising program and starting from scratch takes time.

Having witnessed a number of cooperative groups go through the wringer in pursuit of securing and maintaining buy-in for a major building initiative, here's a list of things that leaders might keep in mind:

1. Tracking the Energy
In general, you can expect a certain amount of nervousness associated with any proposal to undertake a large project. For the risk averse this will be knee-jerk scary and you'll need to work through this, not bulldoze over it. That means making sure that you are able to demonstrate to the naysayers' satisfaction that you have heard their reservations and are being responsive in ways that feel respectful to them. Caution: this not about the leaders being in integrity; it's about the leaders being able to successfully build and maintain a bridge to the risk averse.

While this guidance obtains for any group working with consensus, regardless of the issue, the stakes are much higher here and therefore the penalty for getting this wrong is much greater.

2. Knitting Support at Tortoise Pace
There are times to go fast and times to go slow. It is crucial, for example, when you're developing group approval for the initial plan that you go no faster than your slowest thinkers. (Don't mishear me: slow thinkers are not inferior thinkers; they just need more time to process data and know their own minds. If they're pushed to make a decision too fast they tend to dig in their heels and bad things happen, such as gridlock.)

Later, once approval has been secured, you can pick up the tempo during implementation.

3. Admitting Uncertainty 
If you paint too rosy a picture, your credible is out the window as soon as the first surprises emerge. (Of course, if you emphasize is too much on the down beat, you're raining on your own parade.) It's important to disclose the variables and not pretend confidence when it isn't justified. There's reason for the adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." By overplaying your hand you train people to discount your projections.

4. Limiting Unknowns to Manageable Proportions
Take careful note of how many critical aspects of the plan require success when you're operating in terra incognita. It's axiomatically riskier counting on success in unknown territory than relying on delivering a modest increase in what you've already proven you can accomplish.

5. Assessing Internal Capacity to Do the Work
Do you have the horses? That is, can you fill all crucial slots with personnel who have the skill, motivation, and availability for the tasks? Hiring outside often increases costs and can result in a crew that isn't well aligned with mission. This can be particularly tricky if the project manager is hired outside the family. On the other hand, it avoids the awkwardness of people who are otherwise in a member-member peer relationship having to navigate the schizophrenia of also being in an employer-employee relationship.

6. Embracing Contingencies
If success depends on everything working well, you're probably stretched too far. Nothing goes perfectly. If your plan has so little wiggle room that any setback means unacceptable delays or cost overruns, then you're in deep doo-doo.

7. Establishing Pause Points
Good plans will identify checkpoints along the way, such that you can either hit the pause button, or—if the signs are bad enough—you can hit the abort button. This means establishing targets for funding secured, personnel hired, materiél acquired, construction accomplished within seasonal (having the exterior enclosed before freeze-up), etc.

People tend to breathe easier if there is a bolt hole established in the event that targets aren't met.

8. Establishing and Meeting Reporting Standards
Transparency can go a long way toward helping people exhale. Good reporting is partly a question of frequency; partly it's depth of coverage. Are you making clear what indicators are important in your report; are you bringing the right information forward? Hint #1: It's more crucial to be forthcoming with bad news than good news. Hint #2: Keep your reports short and to the point, inviting people to ask questions if they want greater detail.

Sometimes project managers try to hide bad news in the hopes that problems will be resolved before the next report. This is a dangerous game—kinda like juggling lit dynamite sticks. Occasionally that works, but more often it blows up in your face and now you have two problems: the one you started with and the loss of trust.

9. Developing a Broad Base of Active Support
This one is a spin-off to 5) above. The more members of the group who are actively involved in the project, the easier it will be to achieve and maintain buy-in—because it feels more like their project than one being done for them, or worse, to them.

This may take some creativity on the part of leaders to manifest, yet you are at grave risk of being isolated and falling into us/them dynamics if only a small number of community members are getting their hands dirty and their sleeves rolled up in service to the project.

The key throughout is making sure that the bridge between the project and the membership is never too far.

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