A Year of Failure Ends in Success

Making a major change in your organizations AMS system can be difficult, especially during a down economy. One small staff association tried it and shares its lessons.

2009 was a crummy year for me. As convenient as it might be to blame it on the global economy or general malaise or a misalignment of the Zodiac, I attribute this to a single cause: We had to create a new website. Oh, and at the same time we thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if we upgraded our AMS?"

It sounds so good on paper, doesn't it? One of those neat, achievable, measurable, time-sensitive goals we love to include in our strategic plans. The reality is that projects like this can go in all sorts of unanticipated (and strange) directions and often do. They are like home-renovation projects. You start off replacing a leaky faucet in the bathroom and end up putting on a new roof. And the worst part of that is that you haven't got the foggiest notion where things went so horribly wrong.

Projects like this are like home-renovation projects. You start off replacing a leaky faucet in the bathroom and end up putting on a new roof.

These sorts of things ought to be linear. There should be a finite number of milestones, goals, and activities that contribute to the achievement of the overall plan. However, plans can be flawed and can lead to a result that does not satisfy unwritten context around a stated goal. So without naming any names or expressing any animosity, I would like to tell you what we learned in this process.

1. Make sure you understand what your members want. I know this is the most fundamental question of all, but you might be surprised to know how easy it is to assume you understand certain things without actually clarifying them. Before you even begin the process of searching for a vendor, you need to be able to provide a written scope of work for the project that details what the end result is going to look like.

Also, while you may think it is obvious what your members expect, it isn't. Yes, you have talked to them at meetings and other events, but that's not enough. For example, the expectations of our executive committee were different than ours. They wanted to have a website that kept pace with the commercial, private-sector websites that their companies had. We never measured ourselves against the private sector.

Now I understand that you ought to take whatever time is necessary to gain buy-in on the final product. Otherwise, you get to do it all over again like we did. And that proves to be expensive and time consuming and causes a very large amount of teeth gnashing.

2. Realize failure is a natural consequence of experimentation and innovation. Of course, this axiom is only true if you fail part of the time; if you fail all of the time, something else is going wrong. Yep, I've heard the same motivational anecdote you have about Lou Gehrig's batting average. I only understood the pain of that reality when I had to write off multiple thousands of dollars of association money invested in (pause for dramatic music) the project.

Small-Staff Stats
Name: PRISM International
Location: Garner, North Carolina, and Brussels
Staff Size: 5
Members: 630
Budget: $1.2 million

My president and other members of my board are entrepreneurs, and they made it clear that they expect some experiments to end in failure. Not being an entrepreneur myself, I guess that lesson got by me; I now understand it better than I ever wanted to. I think the trick, at least for me, is trying to balance the virtue of perseverance against the necessity of understanding a failed strategy when you are experiencing one. (It is a lot easier to see someone else's failed strategy than to extricate yourself from your own.) For me, the epiphany came in August when I was at the ASAE & The Center Annual Meeting & Expo in Toronto. By spending a lot of time on the tradeshow floor, I started to understand the alternatives that would prove better.

3. Reflecting on failure and applying the lessons can lead to an even greater success. This was certainly true for us. Again, no names, but we did end up with a product that took us in a whole new direction, including the creation of a Web 2.0 portal for our members that moved us away from listservers and static resource listings to dynamic group formation, member-contributed resources, and member matching. It was a direction we did not intend to pursue initially but one that is likely to lead to much higher member satisfaction than we were likely to have achieved with our previous strategy.

Jim Booth, CAE, is executive director of PRISM International in Garner, North Carolina. Email: [email protected]