As the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Often, when one well-intentioned individual or a small group of like-minded people try and push through their agenda, it does not go well. The effort can raise hackles, build resistance, create impassioned adversaries and ruin friendships. Fortunately, there are some simple steps that will pave the way to a successful and fully supported result, for guiding community change.
In this post, we’ll see how a community based initiative went from being a source of distrust and discord to a shining example of collective and collaborative community action. That fundamental change in direction delivered a community asset that will be enjoyed by present and future generations for years to come.
Thanks to L.P. for the details on this case.
Community initiated projects can be as challenging as major business or technology changes. Local community groups with volunteer boards and volunteer members often tackle major new facilities or services, whether it’s a park, a playground, a swimming pool, community center or arena. However, there’s typically no one individual who has the final say (although some try and act the part), there are generally few specialists within the organization to address the unique needs of the project and there is often little money available to fund the planned venture. No final authority, limited skills and little money usually equals big risk.
Such was the case for a small waterfront community of mostly summer residents. A couple of board members wanted to build a basketball court in the existing recreation complex. Their kids played the game and missed the activity when they retreated from the city to the cottage for summer weekends and vacations. The idea had been raised a number of times over the years but had received little support. The basketball advocates vowed this time it would be different.
In an effort to improve their chances of success, the advocates chose to combine the basketball facility with the replacement of a decaying children’s playground, redo of the baseball backstop and the addition of new facilities including a soccer net, tables, seating and shade trees around the playground. The whole project would be financed with volunteer donations.
The advocates presented their proposal to the board of directors for approval and requested authorization to proceed with fundraising immediately. Was there some pushback from the directors? Of course. It was a contentious meeting. One of the advocates claimed that the board had the authority to go ahead and make all the decisions necessary. A nonaligned director pointed out that the community’s bylaws required majority approval by all association members.
Questions focused on the up front and ongoing costs and need for the facilities – how much use would the new facilities get when so much of the community’s activities were focused on the water. There were also concerns about the advocates’ desire to raise funds from outside the community and what that would mean in terms of outside use and expectations. One nonaligned director suggested a questionnaire to determine the level of interest. The suggestion was rudely rejected.
In the end, the board authorized the advocates to form a committee to develop the proposal further and determine the willingness of the community to fund the project.
To build a basketball court in the existing recreation complex in combination with the replacement of the playground equipment and the addition of a soccer net, refurbished baseball backstop, tables, chairs and shade trees. The project would be financed with voluntary donations from members of the community.
After the board meeting, the advocates formed a committee with two more supportive board members and three interested members from the community. They designated one of their committee to sample a number of community leaders to gauge their willingness to donate for the cause. The designated fundraiser was politely rebuffed. The individuals she talked to wouldn’t commit until they knew more about the project, the costs, the timeline and level of support. Back to the drawing boards!
The advocates brought this result back to the board. After more contentious and heated debate, the board challenged the committee to communicate with all community members about the planned facilities, establish the potential demographics and ascertain current use and preferences for future expansion. A questionnaire was developed with twenty-three questions covering demographics, levels of use of the current facilities, opinions about possible new and expanded facilities and willingness to donate. The basketball court had transformed into a multi-use sports court. The questionnaire was distributed to all association members in early November with a requested return date in six weeks.
And then silence. There was no further communication on the project or the results of the questionnaire until a brief mention in the president’s newsletter in May that indicated the committee was hard at work tabulating the results of the survey and taking these into consideration in making a presentation to the board. The next general communication took place as a formal presentation to the assembled members at the association’s annual general meeting in July. That did not go well.
The assembled members learned that 76 of the 100 or so questionnaires distributed were completed and returned. Regarding upgrading the playground equipment, respondents were in favour, 42 indicating yes and 28 no. On the question of the sports court, 31 were in favour and 35 against with 3 saying maybe. On the soccer net, 41 said yes, 31 said no. And so on.
But there was considerable rancor between the audience and the committee spokesman. Well-meaning questions from the floor regarding up front and ongoing costs, anticipated levels of use, the approval process and a variety of alternatives to the proposed layout were met with platitudes or dismissed entirely. One of the most contentious aspects of the proposal was the committee’s insistence that the project was an all or nothing affair.
As the immediate next step, the committee promised to provide every member of the association with a report of the statistical analysis and findings from the questionnaire, and a summary of the committee’s proposed vision. But the damage had been done. Many members were suspicious of the committee’s motives. There was even talk of a proxy fight. And then a new president took over.
A president’s term lasted for one year. The new president knew the history of the project and the issues that had festered over the previous year. He set out to help the committee deliver fully supported assets for the community and worked with the board to guide the committee to that conclusion. His mantra: full disclosure on all matters; frequent, open communications; approval by a majority of the members; majority approval required on each component.
The project was fully approved at the next year’s annual meeting – each of the three stages received majority approval. The facilities were all delivered, mostly as planned and mostly on budget. They are being used and appreciated by the community’s members and guests. Over 90% of the community donated to the project, contributing more than the estimated cost. The excess was set up in a reserve fund to cover ongoing operating expenses. Not bad results for an undertaking that had initially threatened to split the community!
How a Great Leader Delivered Results
The new president was aware of the lack of support for the project and the lack of trust in the project’s advocates. So he set out to build the support and trust to improve the project’s chance of success through the following actions:
- He sold the other directors and the project’s committee members on the need for full disclosure of the project plans, costs and progress
- He convinced the committee to communicate widely and often with the community, in person and in writing
- He insisted that approval of the project would be determined by a majority vote of community members
- He insisted that the three major components of the project – the sports court, the new playground equipment and the remaining elements be voted on and approved separately.
In spite of the fact that this was a relatively small community undertaking, the actions taken by the president are essential and relevant to just about any kind of project or change. Full disclosure of a project’s costs, plans and progress, effective stakeholder communication, active stakeholder engagement and participation, a formal gating mechanism and staged delivery are all proven best practices on any kind of change initiative. So, put these points on your checklist of things to do in future endeavours so you too can be a Great Leader. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering stakeholder, process and decision area best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.
Finally, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, past or present, that you’d like to have examined through the Project Pre-Check lens and published in this blog, don’t be shy! Send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks
Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a blogger on Project Times. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check – The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath – The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at email@example.com