Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not

TMA Resources held a series of three webcasts recently on the topic of “Beyond Relevance.” It was partially inspired by a blog post I wrote last September that pointed out how mere relevance doesn’t cut it for me any more. I want more, and that desire has been fueled by the fact that I get more out of my associations by engaging in social media. So the third of the three beyond relevance sessions included me plus Maddie and Shana Glickfield (community manager for NextGenWeb, the online community for the US Telecom Association) and we talked in more detail about the role of social media when it comes to getting beyond relevant.

In the planning for that third webcast, something occurred to me. Social media is very powerful, and a big piece of its power comes from its speed and agility. And part of that speed and agility is derived from a fairly odd piece of social media’s identity: it’s not afraid to die. There is a general expectation in the social media world that whatever tool you are using today is probably NOT going to be the tool you use tomorrow. Social media is organized around a culture of experimentation, eternal beta, and the overall expectation that if your tool fails, it’s no big deal. Failure is fine. Everyone just realigns and keeps moving forward.

Organizations, on the other hand, are quite the opposite. Death is a big deal–particularly if you are an association with decades or even centuries of history. It was a lot of hard work to set up that organization, grow it to where it has staff–maybe even its own building. We can’t just let that all go to waste, right? And of course, the actual costs of death and rebirth are significantly greater for a sizable organization (as compared to a social media tool, for instance). So I don’t expect organizations to be exactly like social media.

But I do think organizations need to pay attention to their focus on not dying. Our fear of death (organizationally) causes us to behave in ways that don’t support our life. It pushes us to settle for being merely relevant, because that way we can keep enough members to keep going. It makes “risk” a bad word. It can make us afraid of our own dreams and our own potential. I am not saying we need to run our organizations with reckless abandon, or close (and reopen) our doors any time we need to move in a new strategic direction. But I am saying we need to be more welcoming of failure. We need to try more things and do more things so that we can learn what’s going to work. This is not a particularly new message, of course (just ask the innovation folks).

Star jump

But I don’t know that we have made the right connection between a culture that fears organizational death and our inability to experiment on a tactical level and support innovation. Logic says we can still experiment and innovate while maintaining a healthy fear of having it all crumble, but I don’t see that in practice. In practice it’s all lumped into one problem. If we fail small, it means we are one step closer to failing big. So let’s just do what is safe and gets us through to next year. We need to figure out ways to create an organization that avoids death and embraces life at the same time. Decentralized, transparent, and no fear is probably a good start. Here are some other ideas:

  • Add experimentation as small budget line items. Give people the freedom to invest in a small project that can generate learning.
  • Tell your staff about times when you took a chance and it didn’t pan out. Then tell them again. Then tell them that you told them. Make the “good” failure (i.e., when we learn from it) more visible in your organization. If you (senior people) never talk about failure, people will naturally conclude that failure is a very bad thing.
  • Sharpen your metrics. As much as social media doesn’t like “ROI,” it also (as a community) works very hard on figuring out how to measure what matters. We don’t do this enough in our organization. We have “standard” metrics that don’t always help us make decisions. If you want to embrace failure, you’ll have to know (better) whether or not you’ve failed.

Those are off the top of my head. Any other suggestions for how to create organizations that (like social media) can more fully embrace the messiness of life?

{ 28 comments }

maddiegrant April 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm

SocialFishing: Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/aJA5Gg

ltwhite April 28, 2010 at 12:41 pm

RT @maddiegrant: SocialFishing: Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/aJA5Gg good as usual

unhatched April 28, 2010 at 1:15 pm

RT @maddiegrant: SocialFishing: Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/aJA5Gg

Get_PR_Smart April 28, 2010 at 1:52 pm

No fear of failure? RT @maddiegrant: SocialFishing: Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/aJA5Gg

adfero April 28, 2010 at 2:20 pm

No fear of failure? RT @maddiegrant: SocialFishing: Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/aJA5Gg

SocialFishFood April 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/bUv2d4 #socialfish

MaryAnne Bobrow April 28, 2010 at 8:39 am

Jamie,

Great thoughts here. Part of the struggle of volunteer leaders is that many current leaders have failed to adapt their thinking to be inclusive of multiple generations. And failure to adapt to the needs of younger members may well spell the death of many associations. Far too many associations still PERCEIVE that they know what their members want when in fact, they are mired in the clique of too few to see beyond their own arrogance.

brianjohnriggs April 28, 2010 at 12:59 pm

RT @SocialFishFood Organizations Fear Death.Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/dx7MXM Nice post. Do away with the fear and move forward.

maggielmcg April 28, 2010 at 1:28 pm

RT @jamienotter: My guest plost on Socialfish today: why the fear of organizational death is a problem. http://tinyurl.com/35mabsh

ElizabethB April 28, 2010 at 1:35 pm

"Why fear of organizational death is a problem"http://tinyurl.com/35mabsh (via @jamienotter) Soc media power comes from its speed & agility

textpack April 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Organizations fear death. Social media does not http://bit.ly/bfjaQn

Text Pack April 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Organizations fear death. Social media does not lnk.ms/8T619 http://lnk.ms/8T619

JDeragon April 28, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Our fear of death (organizationally) causes us to behave in ways that don’t support our life http://bit.ly/cAJ664

AlanSee April 28, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Our fear of death (organizationally) causes us to behave in ways that don’t support our life http://bit.ly/cAJ664 … get busy living

stlpeterman April 28, 2010 at 2:34 pm

RT @AlanSee: Our fear of death (organizationally) causes us to behave in ways that don’t support our life http://bit.ly/cAJ664 … get busy living

yourmembership April 28, 2010 at 2:28 pm

RT @SocialFishFood Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/dx7MXM

marcopolis April 28, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://j.mp/cKUH13

mareacultural April 28, 2010 at 3:07 pm

RT @mijarosoft

RT: @maddiegrant: SocialFishing: Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/aJA5Gg by @jamienotter

rayhansen April 28, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/dx7MXM

Jeff Hurt April 28, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Jamie:

Great food for thought here. Here’s a spin on your second bullet:

Create a culture that embraces failure as part of the learning process. Many people learn by trial and error and some associations are stuck in fear of failure to apply that concept. Encourage pilot programs and taking calculated risks so that the organization can learn to adapt and change with the times.

DenaBotbyl April 28, 2010 at 7:40 pm

RT @Jeffhurt: Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not by @jamienotter [So True!] http://ow.ly/1Ekc9

vantagepnt April 29, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Love this!! RT @SocialFishFood Organizations Fear Death. Social Media Does Not http://bit.ly/dx7MXM

Stacy Ashton April 29, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Not afraid to die! What a thought! My organization (Community Volunteer Connections) is a volunteer centre that’s been “alive” since 1976, so there is definitely a lot that could be lost there. But if we’re not continually trying to figure out what engages people, we really are in trouble. As an Executive Director, at least once a year my fear response kicks in as I look at the funding picture and compare that to our vision for volunteering in our community.

That being said, we are a small enough organization that experimentation is possible. We’ve had some successes — our Flying Squad for one, which gets volunteers signing up on an email list to get last-minute and short-term volunteer opportunities (mostly events) emails to them, so they can get involved no matter how chaotic their schedules. Turns out, this is exactly how high school students like to volunteer, especially because it’s super-easy to sign up to volunteer with friends — a side benefit we didn’t even think about when we set up the program. In our fourth year of operation, we have 231 Squadders, who participated in 119 community events last year.

And we’re working the social media experiment now, on twitter (@VolunteerConnec) and a brand new blog (www.volunteerconnectionsblog.net).

We’ve had failures (aka learning opportunities) too, in the sense that we’ve invested in projects and approaches to volunteer engagement that haven’t paid off (yet). It’s not easy for an organization to admit that a project hasn’t worked out as planned — especially because we’ve used up the limited resource of a funder to find out. But what if we considered ourselves social ventures, and our funders think of themselves as social venture capitalists?

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