Chris Dornfeld | Crain's St. Louis

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Chris Dornfeld


St. Louis-based Bonfyre is a private social communication platform aimed at creating and increasing employee engagement around events, project teams, employee groups, learning programs and more. Companies can use Bonfyre to send out information including internal announcements, trivia and surveys to gather input from employees and bolster corporate culture and communication.

The Mistake:

Neglecting to proactively seek out input when planning a significant workplace change.

When I was chief information officer for the city of St. Louis, I was responsible for helping reshape technology to better utilize it across government organizations. I spent the first six months or so meeting with people, trying to understand the problems and identifying opportunities to improve the technology and its performance in government.

After about the first year, we had a clear plan and priorities. With the help of the mayor, we created legislation that reorganized technology groups from seven different teams into one agency. Ultimately, that was great and very successful. The mistake was that we came up with a plan and solutions in a little bit of a vacuum.

So I faced a path of resistance. Although people would be on board with the changes in front of me, very little got done in the short term. There were a lot of reasons why. Some were valid and some were clear indications to me that people responsible for implementing these changes weren't really on board. I didn't do a very good job communicating effectively with the team about the process, why these things were important, why they were beneficial and the positive impact they would have.

Thinking of a solution is not the same as solving the problem.

The Lesson: 

Thinking of a solution is not the same as solving the problem. Eighty percent of the real work is changing the thinking, behaviors and processes of the people around you who are impacted by the changes you are making.

You really need to take the time not just to listen passively, but to seek input from all stakeholders. No one is going to walk into any executive’s office and tell them what they don't like about a plan. You need to seek out constructive criticism. The way we’ve applied that at Bonfyre is by trying to build a very collaborative organization and seeking out a diversity of ideas when implementing things.

A clear picture of destination is important, but so is the process and how you include people. I've heard people say, “My door’s always open.” But that's not really going to cut it. You have to seek feedback and be explicit about what you're looking for. We spend a lot of time discussing culture. Every year, we actually go through a culture review involving the entire company to talk about the behaviors we want to see collectively. Because, when we say we want a collaborative culture, that might mean different things to different people. So we actually want to talk about how that translates to behaviors, share that in an open forum and hold each other accountable to that.

It's highly relevant to every organization to establish a culture of collaboration. It’s not practical to put 10,000 people in a room, but you can certainly use technology to facilitate better communication, more transparency and more feedback so people do have a voice.

I think it's very easy to fall into the trap of not focusing as much energy on process and effectively including the stakeholders as it is focusing on developing solutions. I think it’s often why projects, and certainly technology implementations, fail. It's not the technology itself as much as how it's developed within the organization, how it’s understood in the organization and how it's ultimately implemented.

The takeaway is that every organization has a plan for where they need to evolve toward, something they need to accomplish or improve upon. The metrics might be different and the reasons for doing it might be different but, ultimately, they are successful if the process is effective. I think most people focus on destination, but process is probably more important.

Chris Dornfeld is on Twitter at @dornfeld and Bonfyre is at @BonfyreApp.

Photo courtesy of Bonfyre.

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