Super Bowl ads, civic engagement, and the risks of too much money

Submitted by Ed Morrison on Sat, 02/03/2007 - 21:56.

At times, too little money is better than too much. Anyone who is worked with start-up companies understands this point.

With too little money, entrepreneurs are forced to be resourceful. They focus on challenges really matter. They learn to learn from their mistakes. When times are tight, entrepreneurs take small steps to test ideas then expand the successful ones. They gain powerful insight from their mistakes.

In the manufacturing world, having too little money corresponds with lean thinking. Lean management thinking eliminates non-essential material and processes in order to understand the dynamics of the core system. Lean processes force focus and "deep dives" to understand what is relly going on.

This discipline tends to disappear when entrepreneurs have too much money. We got glimpse of these excesses during the "dot com" boom in the late 1990's. With too much money, grand gestures replace sensible experiments. (Remember the millions wasted on forgettable Super Bowl commercials? As Forbes noted, "More than a dozen Internet companies spent an average of $2.2 million for 30-second spots, amounting to more than $40 million of stockholder cash and not-so-hard-won venture capital.")

Too much money tempts entrepreneurs to outsource their thinking to consultants. Awash in cash, they hire "the best". This mistake leads to a hard landing when entrepreneurs learn that their interests are not aligned with their hired guns. They overlook the fact that their outside consultants are also running a business...a different business. So, while business interests may be aligned for a time, the consultant all too quickly powers on to the next Big Project to keep the cash flowing.

Fat wallets create another problem. Too much money weakens the impulse to learn. With too much money, mistakes are quickly shoved aside, excuses made. Start-ups with too much money have a tough time confronting the learning power of their mistakes. In a delightful book, Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation, Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes point out the importance of what they call "post-failure management". "The essence of post failure management," they write, "is identifying excusable failure and approaching it as an important part of the innovation process to be examined, understood and built upon".

When you have too much money, though, appearances matter. Thinking tends to revert to simplistic patterns. Instead of learning, we rely on outmoded ideas that stand in the way of our ability to innovate. Mistakes become occasions to assign blame, not understand better underlying complexities. ("Who could have been so stupid?")

As a civic start-up, has the Fund for Our Economic Future fallen into the trap of having too much money? Will Voices and Choices amount to little more than a grand gesture? Do the civic entreprenurs at the Fund truly understand the underlying complexities of civic engagement in Northeast Ohio, or have they bet too heavily on outside consultants? Have we just seen a hugely expensive Super Bowl commercial for "civic engagement"?

The answers will come in time.

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Voices and Choices vs. GCLAC

I had some involvement supporting V&C and encouraged others to do the same but it never stuck with anyone, I think you surface some of the issues - FFOEF was buying big ticket solutions from outside consultants who were not able to sell themsleves much less anything they were supposed to sell... whatever that ultimately was... a process? a collaboration? cross boundary innovation? solutions and next steps? I'm still not sure what. That cost $3 million from 60 foundations.

In the same time period, I've worked with the Greater Cleveland Lead Advisory Council, which is a cross boundary collaboration of 80 government agencies and other organizations from city, county, state and federal levels who have significantly advanced the effort in this region to eliminate lead poisoning, with $1.4 million in foundation support, largely from one foundation - St. Luke's Foundation.

After several years working with these people from so many different backgrounds and with many jobs and purposes I see us as joined together in a shared mission and with very little structure and organization we are improving public health, education, the environment and so the standard of living of the region.

How to help others organize around other important issues... GCLAC could be a case study.

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