Escaping the Venus flytrap: five suggestions to avoid the seduction of false optimism

Ari Betof
Ari Betof
Feb 13, 2019 · 5 min read

Author’s Note: This article is the follow-up to “The seduction of false optimism,” which was published last week.

How much risk is there in falling prey to the seduction of false optimism?

Picture the seduction of false optimism as a Venus flytrap. Landing on the carnivorous plan doesn’t mean certain death. Not knowing, could.

If you are filming a video of a Venus flytrap capturing a human finger, the risk is bounded. But for an insect, landing brings catastrophic risk. As the second video shows, touching down is not actually the problem. What is deadly is the combination of the fly being vulnerable and not recognizing it has landed in a compromised position.

The same is true for organizations. If the stakes are too high and you are too slow to recognize the trap you have fallen into, you’re not only going to fail. You risk failing in a spectacular fashion that will have constituents and even legislators calling for your head.

Want proof? Just spend some time reading about the collapse of Mount Ida College. The stories paint a picture of a school that continued to believe it was viable right up until the end. Not only did the school accept an incoming class, but it continued to raise money from donors and even looked for merger opportunities right up until the point the board announced that UMass Amherst would be buying the campus and that the students would be given acceptance to UMass Dartmouth.

Photo credit: The Boston Globe

The ensuing weeks saw key officials hauled in front of Massachusetts legislators and the fallout has bolstered a call for greater controls and reporting requirements for private colleges. Employees and students were blindsided by the full scope of Mount Ida’s precarious position. No one could make appropriate decisions. Professors who thought they had jobs and income suddenly didn’t, and students who grew to love their school were left with no home. Arguably the worst off of these were the incoming freshman class, many of whom had already declined offers from other schools to take a spot at Mount Ida; some even had financial aid offer letters in hand that helped entice them. These parents and students weren’t just treated poorly, but were left shattered at the very moment they should have been experiencing joy.

A more thoughtful approach can be seen in the closing of Newbury College. Just a few miles from Mount Ida, Newbury fought to stay open but also fully recognized the steps they would need to take if closing was the only option. WBUR reportedin December:

“Newbury has been talking to staff at the Department of Higher Education since July. That earned it praise from Attorney General Maura Healey and from Gov. Charlie Baker. ‘They are trying, I believe, in good faith, to make this announcement early enough that both existing students and prospective students have options and possibilities with the decisions they make and give faculty and staff time to plan as well,’ Baker said.”

Some independent schools, colleges, and nonprofits recognize where they have landed and can reverse course before it is too late. More often, the seduction of false optimism causes leaders and trustees to keep their eyes narrowly focused while the plant closes its grip around them.

Other organizations raise their heads and look around only after they are hopelessly caught. Acknowledging the end is inevitable — these leaders and trustees must take the only path of stewardship left available to them by caring for the human lives that intersect the organization and planning for the orderly transfer of the institution’s records. That is a horrible place to find oneself, but the alternative is to be Mount Ida.

Five Suggestions to Avoid the Seduction of False Optimism

In the face of a dynamic and challenging landscape, how do you remain optimistic while avoiding the seduction of false optimism?

Below are five suggestions to keep leaders and trustees out of the teeth of a Venus flytrap:

1. Commit to a culture that embraces Jim Collins’ concept of “Confronting the Brutal Facts.” Too often the culture of the organization suppresses critical information that can cut through the glare of false optimism.

2. Create systems that promote mission-driven, data-informed decision making. Organizations need to avoid either making decisions without proper grounding or becoming too data-focused at the expense of the mission. Both extremes are dangerous.

3. Don’t just trust industry standard metrics. Do the work. If you are using predictive indicators, analyze whether these data actually function in the way you expect within your individual organizational context. Ask penetrating questions to clarify if analysis of reported data stands up to scrutiny.

4. Avoid the trapping of groupthink. Many nonprofit leadership teams and boards talk themselves into decisions. Groupthink can result in spaceships exploding and planes falling from the sky, all with the best of intentions. It is certainly capable of leading to the insolvency of nonprofit organizations.

5. Learn from others. The head of a thriving independent school was recently talking with me about Hampshire Collegeand its efforts to explore a strategic partnership. Despite plans to retire in June, she informed me that the school had created a working group to dive into the details of Hampshire’s situation and seek takeaways from this real-time case study. She has cultivated an agile school culture that values looking outward. These habits of organizational inquiry will serve the school long after the final day of her headship.

There are, of course, highly qualified consultants and firms that can help your organization. Firms like Organizational Sustainability Consultingcan serve as partners to study, analyze, plan, and execute a strategy to avoid the seduction of false optimism. Simulations like a fiscal stress test — which I will discuss in an upcoming article — help cut through the distortion of rose-coloured glasses. But, the commitment to leaning into discomfort and the heavy lift of institutional resolve must always come from within the organization.

Remain optimistic. Be resolved. Just also ask yourself if your actions are rooted in the universe of what is possible and plausible.

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