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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Five Stakeholder Priorities

In my last post with Ruby Tomar, The Checklist Champion, we looked at the insights Dr. Atul Gawande presents in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. The book describes his journey as head of the World Health Organization’s safe surgery initiative to improve world-wide surgical outcomes. They achieved amazing results with a simple, nineteen point checklist, dedication and perseverance. We also explored how to leverage Dr. Gawande’s findings using the Project Pre-Check building blocks or by building your own framework to deliver sustainable change.

In this post, we’ll look at the trials and tribulations experienced by a businessman and entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to create a unique artistic center using a recently acquired, long abandoned industrial complex. The initiative got off to a great start. He was actively involved through the formative stages, the design of the facilities and promotion of the center to encourage artists to set up shop. But then he took his eye off the ball and the difficulties started.

Thanks to A.M. for the details on this case.

The Situation

Our subject, a successful entrepreneur and businessman, came across an interesting investment opportunity – a derelict, former industrial complex on the edge of the town where he lived. It was being offered for sale at a great price. He took the plunge and acquired the property. However, he wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the site – sit on it and hope for value appreciation or develop it into a vital, profitable enterprise.

He chatted with family, friends, colleagues and business associates over a number of months to get some ideas. He talked to local politicians, educational organizations and art groups. He consulted with other communities near and far about what they had done with similar facilities. An idea started to take hold – the creation of a community for the visual arts that would attract the cream of the local and regional artistic crop practicing a wide range of artistic endeavours including painting, photography, sculpture, clay, fabric, wood, metal, glass and other disciplines. He had made up his mind!

The Goal

Create an artistic center of excellence for the visual arts that would attract the best and the brightest and build a lasting legacy for the facility and the community.

The Project

The entrepreneur, the sponsor of the venture, enlisted the help of some local artists and an architect with experience in this kind of endeavour to design a complex using the existing facility as much as possible. The design incorporated space for forty studios of varying kinds and a gallery to show off and sell the artists’ works.

The construction occurred in three distinct stages over eleven months to allow artists to move in to the finished sections while the construction continued. At the end of the construction period, 72% of the studios were occupied or rented, the artists in residence were thrilled with the environment and that enthusiasm spread through the artistic community. Over the next year, the remaining studios were rented and refinements requested by the tenants were made to improve the creative and retail spaces.

While the construction was underway, the sponsor started working on the management structure for the center. He was a busy guy with other companies to run and opportunities to pursue. He didn’t have the time or inclination to be a hands-on manager. The approach he chose was to run the facility as a non-profit with a volunteer board of directors to oversee day to day operations and the relationship with the artists and the community. He proceeded to recruit local talent to staff the seven person board and made sure the board understood his expectation and their role. By the time the construction was complete the board was in place and fully operational.

The board developed mission and vision statements for the center and shared those with the sponsor. They used excess funds to hire a full time manager to oversee the operation of the gallery, stage shows of the artists’ works and promote the gallery. They appointed specific board members to look after artist relationships, physical plant, community engagement, education outreach and financial oversight. The education and community engagement components were very successful, with shows from local artists running in the gallery and a growing number of classes featuring all aspects of the artistic spectrum running every week. The center was a going concern and, on the surface, appeared to be a very successful venture.

But not all the artists were happy. They were concerned that much of the focus had shifted to community and education. Those activities created more traffic, more noise, more disruption. They filled the parking lot with cars belonging to those taking classes, not buying art from the center’s artists. There was also a backlash to the gallery’s practice of running shows for local artists who were not center tenants. The artists argued that they paid rent. The center’s facilities should be used for their exclusive use and benefit.

Of course, the director responsible for artist relationships brought these concerns to the other board members. Understandably, the directors responsible for community engagement and education outreach were not sympathetic. In fact, they viewed the artists’ complaints as evidence that they were doing great things. As well, some of the disgruntled artists expressed their displeasure to the sponsor. He was now engaged in another venture and had very little time to spend on the center’s problems. He challenged the board chair to get the issues resolved.

The Results

It is important to remember that the members of the board were all unpaid, part time, volunteer directors. They were involved because of the center’s perceived value to the community. They were not working for the sponsor. They were not working for the artists. When things didn’t immediately improve from the artists’ perspective, the sponsor took a strip off the board chair at a board meeting. The chair resigned. The sponsor then aimed his wrath at the community engagement and education outreach directors. They resigned. The gallery manager left because of the enmity she experienced from some of the artists. The sponsor appointed one of the remaining directors as chair, managed to find two qualified volunteers to fill the other vacant positions and demanded the board fix the problems post haste. He then turned his attentions back to his other ventures.

The reformed board went back to the original mission and vision documents. From the review of those documents, it seemed that the recent troubles had been entirely due to the artists’ complaints and the inability of the board to remedy those issues. And that was the dilemma – how to reconcile the artists concerns regarding the distractions from the education and community outreach activities and the use of the gallery to show the works of artists who were not tenants at the center with the apparent expectations of the sponsor to promote the center through arts education and community engagement. The board recognized that the survival of the center rested on fixing this problem.

So they went back to the entrepreneur, the sponsor. He was busy. He had other things on his mind. He was annoyed that the board couldn’t just get on with fixing the issues. But he agreed to meet. The board chair asked the sponsor to talk about his vision for the center and how the artists’ needs could be rationalized with the community outreach, education and gallery activities. As the sponsor spoke about his vision, the directors started to see the light. From the sponsor’s perspective, those activities were to be designed and conducted to enhance the artists’ works, to increase sales, to build community appreciation for the center’s artists and to contribute to the center’s goal as a visual arts center of excellence. Not, as had previously been assumed, to be run as activities independent from the artists own efforts. It was an Ah-Ha moment!

The board proceeded to revise the mission and vision statements. The old documents presented community outreach, education and gallery activities as standalone, independent functions. The new versions made the supporting role of the activities perfectly clear and included examples of what was acceptable and what was not. The board reviewed the revised versions with the sponsor and asked him to formally sign the documents to give them added weight. He agreed. The documents were reviewed with the artists. When all the artists had bought in, the director responsible for artist relationships also signed on their behalf. It was a chance for a new beginning.

From that point on, the artists were actively engaged in the community outreach and education plans and programs. The gallery only showed and sold the works of the center’s artists. Business boomed. The artists were happy. The sponsor was happy. The board was happy. Disaster was averted!

What Great Stakeholders Would Have Done Differently

Fortunately, the issues in the above case were identified, addressed and remedied in time to avert a disaster. The underlying challenge seems to have been a lack of communication and agreement among the entrepreneur, the sponsor of the development, with the other stakeholders, the artists (the targets) and the board (the change agent). There are five key steps that any of the stakeholder groups could have pursued in collaboration that would have avoided the issues and the associated conflict.

  1. Manage realization of the vision
    Early in the creation of the center, the sponsor was a hands-on participant. That frequent engagement kept everybody on the same page. However, as the center evolved from a project to an operating concern, the sponsor backed off and left the day to day decision-making to the board. The board had the foresight to develop a mission and a vision to guide their actions, based on their understanding of what the sponsor expected. They even reviewed them with the sponsor. But they didn’t test it by developing stories or scenarios that would confirm the accuracy of their understanding. Unfortunately, the sponsor didn’t really take a good hard look at the documents either, to confirm that they accurately reflected what he wanted. The artists? They didn’t even know the documents existed. If all the stakeholders had been involved with the creation and use of the mission and vision from the start and on an ongoing basis, the trauma experienced probably would have been avoided.
  2. Build the stakeholder group
    The sponsor did a great job of getting the board in place to cover the operating demands of the center. In fact, the community outreach, education and gallery operations were so successful they brought the underlying issues out into the open. However, confronting the board members in an accusatory fashion did nothing to resolve the concerns of the artists and provided no additional insights that the board could act upon. Transitioning from project mode to ongoing operations is often a risky time. Engaging all stakeholders in a positive, collaborative manner would have been a more productive approach to solve the challenges and to build a constructive behavioural model for the future.
  3. Follow a roadmap
    The sponsor laid out a path at the start that included broad consultation, staged construction and occupancy, board formation and transfer of day to day operational responsibility. He focused on the project but directed his attention to other undertakings and forgot about his oversight needs when the center was up and running. It is vital that a roadmap conceived to realize a particular vision also includes the activities necessary to transition to an operating mode and to ensure appropriate operations oversight.
  4. Deliver incrementally
    The sponsor conceived of the incremental delivery strategy and it worked perfectly. Building the arts center incrementally allowed him to recruit artists and rent in stages. The enthusiastic response from the initial group of artists encouraged others to take a look, and ultimately to move in. Conceiving the non-profit management approach early on and staffing the board up front helped get the center up and running quickly and effectively.
  5. Track achievements
    There were some key targets set by the sponsor, including center of excellence, best and brightest artists and lasting legacy for the facility and community. However, specific goals were never set, metrics were never established and measurement processes to track performance were never implemented. Without goals, metrics and measurement, chances are those aspirations will not be realized.

This case reinforces that old saying “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. The board had the best of intentions when they developed their mission and vision statements. But they forgot that those documents don’t just belong to the board, they serve all stakeholders. And if all stakeholders don’t buy in completely and behave accordingly, it’s just a con job. Who should initiate debate and discussion about a project’s direction and performance? Any stakeholder who has a need for clarity and confirmation! The artists did just that. Remember, stakeholder agreement on all project decisions is a prerequisite for success.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, put these points on your checklist of things to do so you too can be a Great Stakeholder. And remember to use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks right up front so you don’t overlook those key success factors.

In the interim, 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, send me the details and we’ll present it for others to learn from and comment on. Thanks

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. 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 that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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