I recently had the chance to debrief on the failure of a promising corporate program. The program was a good idea and there was a ton of evidence that the organization needed it – an update on its compensation and performance management. After the pre-project meeting one of the long service people told me “we have tried this three other times and it never was fully implemented”. He was skeptical about another attempt. Ultimately the organization decided not to use consulting help but did pursue program re-design on their own. Months later I checked-in and found out that the project had started but eventually got put on hold, largely because of lack of support from organizational leadership. It made me wonder, what would make an organization pursue and fail at something four times in a row? A visit to my local garden center gave me at least part of the answer.
It seems that almost annually I get sucked in by tomato plants on sale at the garden center at the end of the planting season. They are usually half price, strong looking, and already have fruit. What could go wrong? This year though I had just cut back the withered vines of the tomato plants that did so poorly the year before so I resisted the lure of the cheap tomato plants. I wondered, “what if all the dead tomato plants from all the prior years were in a pile where I could see them?” If I was faced with all the dead plants of my past I would likely either resist the urge to pursue more of what has unsuccessful, or deal with the root cause; bad dirt. Yes, I have bad dirt. My red clay that is not only the key ingredient in bricks, but pretty much already like a brick to start with. It is not a hard fix, many gardeners in my area have raised beds that drain well that they fill with rich black dirt probably imported from Iowa.
Isn’t that part of the problem with many new organizational programs? We don’t know about the prior failures because they are not evident or we don’t listen to the people who know. Often the problem is just “bad dirt”, such as leaders who won’t support the program, poor timing, or little chance the program will really be well implemented or supported on an ongoing basis. But the program is designed or borrowed from another organization. It was half price, already had fruit, what could go wrong?