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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Gates Foundation Flounders

An interesting article from Geek Wire which itself comes from one in Non-Profit Quarterly in August of this year.  I loved the NPQ title:

Why Smart People (at the Gates Foundation) Can’t Learn


An article in the latest World Development Journal finds that staff at the Gates Foundation have trouble making effective grants because they are all trying so hard to be the smartest guy in the room.
The article examines the organizational culture of the foundation’s Agriculture Developmental program and finds that its heavy emphasis on strategic planning distracts from the practices on the ground from which they might learn and build. Specifically, it “abstracts away from smallholder farmers’ sociocultural worlds and relies on a generalizable set of development solutions.” The “bright, high achievers” on staff end up learning to manage up to Bill, presumably the alpha smartest-guy-in-the-room, instead of toward the farmers—and this, it seems, creates a bit of a bubble.
How many years have I said "echo chamber" for "bubble?"
This sounds eerily familiar as a Gates diagnosis. Bill himself has apologized multiple times for this same failing in his Foundation’s education agenda, which has repeatedly failed to produce results but which he nonetheless is taking to scale internationally. 

Here, we might refer the Gates Foundation to management guru Chris Agyris’s observations on teaching smart people to learn. These bright, high achievers, he says, are so unused to failing that they lack the skills of introspection born of humility, instead blaming results of their own failures on things external—for example, the resistance and rebellion of a populace that does not appreciate being treated as passive objects of development rather than sources of energy, wisdom, and agency.
From GeekWire:
Big or small, a well-run nonprofit must effectively manage organizational change and the human dimension of organizational life. These are the key takeaways from a recent state court decision that found the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had mishandled the hiring of a new chief data officer (CDO).

Despite its size, sophistication, and tech industry roots, the Gates Foundation missed checking some key human resource boxes when it set about to hire its first CDO. The new position was created following the failure of a major effort to strengthen the Foundation’s information technology (IT) functions and improve organizational information integration. To fill the new position, the foundation successfully enticed Todd Pierce to step away from a senior and highly paid position with Salesforce, adding his skill and experience to the Foundation’s management team. Seventeen months later, it terminated his position.

Earlier this month, according to GeekWire, King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer ruled Pierce “was undermined soon after starting his new role and was terminated for clashing with executives who didn’t believe in his vision” and awarded him more than $4 million in damages.
Going on, GeekWire says:

Earlier this year, NPQ provided some advice that seems right on point:
Most of us know from experience that when important conversations about our work get stuck in avoidant and self-referential loops, it delays our ability to advance social issues and even our day-to-day practices in our organizations. This is a well-tested tenet of systems thinking, which also advises us that in their tendency to resist change, systems often throw up false signals that detour and fatally delay change efforts. This requires that we remain attentive to the content of the conversations that are helping us to advance our work and distinguish them from those that would retard progress. There is, of course, a good deal of literature about how we can understand and implement change, but much of it will reflect the following basic structure: What we have (contrasted against) what we want—and how to get from here to there.
 For the Gates Foundation, as it would be for every organization, mismanaging a change process will be costly. Financially, having to litigate a termination, win or lose, is expensive. But on a deeper level, the cost of not effectively solving a problem and of leaving the tension of change unresolved may prove more expensive.

Could be something in all this talk for Superintendent Juneau to consider.  I think she may need to find some new members to be on her team.

1 comment:

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