Helping organizations (especially educational institutions) to be more efficient and effective has always been a pastime of mine. I know “pastime” sounds like a strange word to describe something as serious as trying to reorganize a school, but that is how it feels to me – almost like a hobby. I have always believed that organizations should serve my needs and the needs of my friends (especially when we’re the ”customers”). Maybe it was because of some early successes that I came to believe I could do these kinds of things over and over again.
My first big success in changing an organization was in high school. I was elected Student Body President of my high school along with three other Student Body officers: a Vice President, a Secretary, and a Historian. These were all really capable people that had a lot to offer the school.
As it was structured, the vice president was supposed to oversee all the clubs and all the student gatherings. The secretary was supposed to take notes on meetings. And the historian was supposed to put together a record of the school year at the end of every year — these assignments were completely uneven. And they were slightly gender-defined. Over the years, women had always been elected as secretary and historian and men as president and vice-president.
I set out to change that. I thought it would be smarter to have three vice presidents, all over-seeing different things — one doing clubs, one doing student assemblies and gatherings, and one doing the more administrative stuff. To change the rules we had to have a vote from the entire faculty, and then all the students. This was a big deal at the school. It was the first time that there had been an attempt to amend the constitution of the school. The faculty voted first and approved the new structure.
Once the faculty had given their assent, I remember that History and Government teachers at the school gave special classes on the United States Constitutional Amendments and explained that what was proposed was the equivalent (on a school level) of replacing the US Congress with a parliamentary system. Ballot tables were set up in the main hall of the school and we hung banners encouraging people to vote. As it turned out, 90% of the students voted for the new constitution and it ended up being a much better way to run the school!
This was an enormous ego booster for me. I felt that I’d done something truly historic and remember thinking that if I did nothing else in my life, I’d left my legacy in the new way that my high school was governed.
With that one vote, I became convinced that I (with the help of lots of friends) could change the organizations around us. My self-confidence was not hurt by my experiences in college. I studied a little bit of Japanese language in university. There were lots of Japanese literature courses, but once you got past third year Japanese, there were no language courses that emphasized current Japanese events or business or politics.
A group of 15 friends and I all wanted such a course. We asked professors if they’d design something for us, but they were all too busy. So we came up with a brilliant suggestion: If we designed a class, gathered the materials, and each session was taught by a different member of the class, could we still get credit for the course?
Surprising the answer came back, “Yes.” We convinced a PhD student to take on the responsibility for giving us a final exam and doing the official grading. Thus we, as undergraduates, designed and taught a Harvard college course. Faculty members told us that they’d never heard of any students doing that before in the history of Harvard!
So, given all of my good luck and success in changing educational institutions, it is little wonder that when I got to Harvard Business School I decided to try to change that too. A group of the student leaders of the MBA program got together and decided that we wanted more group projects as part of our degree program.
We talked to many of our fellow students and found that there was strong support for the idea. With a petition in hand (signed by most of the current MBA students), we were given time in a faculty meeting to present our case. A vote from the faculty followed. And the outcome was unanimous! EVERY single faculty member had voted against our petition. We were crestfallen. We wondered HOW a petition from students asking to do more work, rather than less, could be rejected so completely by the faculty. It didn’t make any sense to us at all.
I learned a few important lessons from this failure. The most important was that in trying to change an organization, you have to look at the change from all the key stakeholder’s perspectives. In the case of my high school, no one really cared about the change (except the student body officers). Students’ lives and teacher workloads weren’t changed by it. So getting people to vote for it was quite easy.
For the Japanese language faculty there was no reason really for them to oppose a new ad hoc language course. We offered to do all the work and their department could claim higher enrollment numbers than they had ever had before. So it was a real win-win.
But at Harvard Business School, we as students were offering to do more work, but reformulating the MBA program would have taken a lot of extra work on the part of faculty members. There was not an obvious upside to all this hard work they would have undertaken.
In fact, there would have been a lot of uncertainty. The case study method was a proven educational method. Group projects as an education method were relatively unproven at that time. The faculty worried about how to make the projects fair, how to evaluate them, how to develop them. All of these questions, combined with lots of hard work and unproven worth, made it certain that the faculty would vote against us.
I learned that we had failed because we had not thought through the stakeholder interests in the decision. It was a naïve of me/us to think that we could force an organizational change on the most powerful stakeholders. They let us know (with their unanimous vote) that we had not understood some of the most basic elements of change leadership. It was one of the most profound lessons of my MBA career.
But now as I look back on it, I realize that my MBA defeat actually did change the world. No, it didn’t change the world of the faculty, or of generations of MBAs who followed after me. But it did change my world. I would never look at the world the same way again. I realized the importance of stakeholders and the need to see the world through their eyes if you really want to get something done. If you really want change, the people most concerned with that change must have a good reason to alter the way they live or think.
Moral: And, my world changed in one more important way: I learned that just because you’ve been successful in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that that you’ll continue to be successful in the future or that you’re all that good at something…. Maybe, up until that time, you had just been lucky!