Designed to Fail: Avoiding Projects that are Doomed to Low Engagement

Hands down, this has got to be the #1 reason why most “ethical or “green” projects, businesses, farms, non-profit organizations and activism efforts fail: We start on a road trip with no gas in the car and no plan to get any. 

And that was exactly the path to failure that Lillie House Permaculture was on when we decided to use the design process to rework how we organized our efforts. In this article I’ll tell you exactly where we were going wrong, and how Kim and I changed that to make our business and activism far more successful overnight. And without that change, I’m afraid Lillie House Permaculture would not have been long for this world. We had poor sales of our nursery stock, design services and produce (which mostly got composted,) and poor attendance of the classes we were offering for FREE. On multiple ocassions, we had a dozen or more people scheduled for a free class, which I would spend hours lesson planning and prepping materials for, and literally NO ONE would show up! We’d struggle long hours trying to organize people to implement a single Permaculture project or engage in some environmental cause and never seemed to get anywhere. Now, we have a supportive community and we feel proud that we’re supporting them in return. We’re supporting the creation of over a dozen forest garden projects just this year, and supplying them with thousands of dollars of plant stock and produce samples. We’re making a decent living charging for our classes and programs, and many of them sell out! We’re now offering our first few rounds of test-classes online, and so far, those have sold out, too. 

Last time, I discussed the Permaculture idea of “type 1 errors,” endeavors designed to fail. 

So this time, I want to discuss the most common type 1 error invovled in project design, businesses, non-profits and activism efforts: the failure to engage that too often leaves us burned out and cynical, stuck blaiming others for not caring enough, showing up or helping out. This is exactly the error we made in our programs. 
But what if we can turn that blame around and accept the feedback that people didn’t show up? Most of the time, people WANTED to show up, they cared about what we were doing, but when it came to prioritizing the time and resources, they simply had other priorities. 
Let’s face it, the modern world is tough, competitive, strapped for time and resources. 
So we realized that if we really want people to show up, we have to give them a good incentive, we have to make it so worth their while that they can’t NOT show up. In Permaculture, we call this principle “obtain a yield.” We’re not the only ones who need to put gas in our tank to get where we’re going. We have to design things so that volunteers and supporters can put gas in their tanks, too, because without that fuel, eventually they’re going to stop showing up. 
When we get that right, we’ve super-fueled our project so that like the sun, or a wildfire, in burning it creates its own fuel. 
Now, back to those projects that are destined to run out of gas. Look at this chart:
As you can see, the hortizontal axis at the bottom is pretty simple, with small numbers of people on the left, moving towards increasingly large numbers on the right. The vertical axis is more interesting, Intensity of Interest, how much people want to support something. When it comes to supporting our projects, there are really just two meaningful types of support we’re measuring here: volunteering and donating. Are people actually interested enough to give the project resources or volunteer time? How much they’re willing to give will depend upon how passionate they are about the cause or product. Low levels might be a few dollars or a few hours. Large levels of interest might equate to thousands of dollars or more, or perhaps people who want to make a living out of supporting our work. 
Based on that axis, we can put any project or product into one of these four quadrants:
By the way, this is our Permaculture adaptation of a common tool in business, used to test the viability of a business or product. It’s something that Kim and I have been discussing quite a bit, and it’s equally useful for testing the viability of any project or non-profit endeavor that needs more support than one person alone can provide. 
Lets look first at the upper right hand box. This is the promised land, and very rare. This is where you’ll have a large number of people willing to give a lot of time and support. For example: Houses. A very large number of people will actually work a significant portion of their lives for the priviliege of owning their own home. And in fact, most people in our society actually work providing goods or services in this category! Cars, refrigerators, washingmachines… if you have a project or product that falls into this category, congratuations, you’re pretty much guaranteed support and success. Unfortuantely, endeavors that fit this bill are very rare. 
Next, check out the lower right box. If your project is here, people might not be super excited about it, but they’re at least willing to give you a few bucks here in there. But luckily, there are many, many of them. For example, Coke, Pepsi, McDonalds, Starbucks. There are very few people who are passionate about giving their money or labor to these companies, but millions of people are passionate ENOUGH about their products to give them small amounts of money on a recurring basis. This quadrant also defines a large number of non-profit endeavors, especially the large aid organziations. 
Next, the upper left quadrant, where only small numbers of people are interested, but BOY ARE THEY EVER!!! In today’s world this is the most interesting quadrant, and with the internet and globalization connecting people like never before, this is the quadrant that is radically changing how funding and marketing work, as has been pointed out by many critics. Innovative projects might not be able to find large numbers of people to support them, but if you want tap into a few very passionate people, then you can accomplish a lot! These people may be “angel investors” willing to contribute large amounts of money, volunteers who’ll invest a lot of their time, or even folks who want to turn your cause into their own source of right livelihood. Often these are professional or career organizations, or passionate hobbies tied strongly to self-identity and personal development. The fact that they are so niche actually helps them build identify, since we define ourselves most strongly by these narrow interests. You know, things like homesteading or Permaculture….
And from a Permaculture perspective, efforts in all three of these quadrants USUALLY allow participants to “obtain a yield” – often fulfilling multiple needs. They may help people eat, find housing, meet potential mates or friends with similar values, find personal development, and search for identity. (Hint: people invest a great deal in their identity, and people associate their identity with niche lifestyles, compelling brands, and inspiring people.) 

 (Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs from Wikipedia.) 

And yet, most of our “good deed” efforts fall into the lower lefthand quadrant. This quadrant will have a small number of people with only a small amount of interest.
Worse, we design our efforts to be one-directional in terms of support, with volunteers and doners doing all the giving and us doing all the taking. We don’t even make an effort to connect with their needs! There are a few people who may show up for an ocassional meeting or donate a few bucks, but unless your project can survive on that level of support, your project isn’t going to get far. 
But when you think about it, this makes perfect sense: we look around, we see something that seems important TO US, and notice that nobody is doing it, so we see an opening. Meanwhile, most of the stuff that would be in those other quadrants is already being done! There’s a reason why this stuff – even if it’s important – isn’t getting done. There’s just not enough interest. Which is why business start-up teacher Ramit Sethi calls this sector the “Labor of Love” sector, it only gets done with the love and sacrifice of one (or a few) individuals. 

This is even more common in the days of the internet! Why? Because on the internet we can find many people who share our passions, whether they’re community gardening or local produce, or climate change, so we start to assume there’s broader, deeper support in our own geographic area than there actually is. Everyone in our online community might think that community food forests are a great idea, but do the people in the neighborhood where we want to build one? Are they passionate enough (or have access to the resources) to chip in their time and money, or put up with maintenance or social problems that may occur? 

Most of the non-profits and community organizations I’ve ever been involved in or even personally organized myself have fallen into this lower left category! And in a lot of ways, this is exactly where Lillie House was a few years ago. 
“But this is important stuff! Somebody has to do it!” Well, maybe, maybe not. But is the answer to throw our hands up in the sky and curse humanity’s apathy?
Or can we redesign our efforts to better connect with people’s real needs and passions, provide real world opportunities that can motivate people to volunteer and contribute? 
So if you need support, you need to “sew your seed” in fertile ground to get it. I can say for sure that our success greatly improved when we started moving our efforts out of the “labor of love” box, and into other quadrants where we were more likely to get stuff done, and then designed a community around those efforts. 


2 thoughts on “Designed to Fail: Avoiding Projects that are Doomed to Low Engagement

  1. I feel as though I have read an excellent analysis of a “what” the form of failure is, but I’m missing a “how” to avoid it. How does one recognize a project doomed to low engagement? How do you tell the project that will never have large numbers but will generate sufficient intensity to fly with small numbers? Top of my head example: I want to teach green wood working courses on our site. I’ve got no realistic way of measuring interest in such an obscure niche, I don’t think I can look it up on the BLS website 😉 But the courses will have yields for the students; Spoon carving – you learn to carve spoons and the class walks you through your first, you have a spoon in hand when you leave. Shaving horse course – you leave the class with a shaving horse to use in your shop at home. I’m giving my students not only the yield of a new skill, but a physical object that they have made.
    But, just because someone that takes the course will “get a yield” doesn’t create a market that can support the project.
    What tools are there for evaluating where a project is likely to fall on the graph of engagement intensity and numbers?

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