Sierra Club’s global cooling

I listened to the yammering in Sierra Club committee meetings 20 years ago, before I got into technology, and thought that the “real” world knew better.

One little incident convinced me. At one meeting of the group overseeing the Sierra Club’s old ski lodge, Clair Tappaan Lodge, someone wanted to change the name of a room, the Puce Room. A woman who’d just redecorated in there wanted to rename it after the just-passed folk singer Kate Wolf.

I really liked the old name, especially apt for the room’s cold concrete walls and rusty dripping pipes. The committee, though, was about to approve the change. Then at the last minute, the mischievous manager piped up. “Ted has been in touch with a group that’s all upset with changing the name.” I had joked to him earlier that morning that I wish there were such a group.

I played along. “Yes,” I said deadpan, “they call themselves Traditionalists for Puce, and they’re really pissed off.”

I heard throats clear and papers ruffle. Something had changed. A few minutes later we voted: 7 to 1 for keeping the old name.


In the years since, that committee continued to fiddle with the dining hall and micromanage staff. But they seem to have one significant legacy: the Club’s national board of directors has adopted their methods.

Now under consideration, about to be passed: Project Renewal. It’s the fourth or so in a years-long string of plans, reports, frameworks, strategies and schemes cooked up by consultants.

It is admirable in some ways. It institutes metrics for communications, by which I hope some of the nearly unreadable newsletters will improve.

Unfortunately, it does some things just as well as the worst of the business world. It scrubs out the best in favor of the top-down business world’s worst. Like so many poorly led businesses, this organization’s leadership doesn’t know how the place really works.

The deflowering

The flower of the Club, the force, the perfume, the motivation that kept people up all night at kitchen tables to complete work by deadline is about to become as corrupt and dysfunctional as the worst Bush-era federal agency. Something called “coordinating pairs” puts handcuffs on volunteer committee leaders—arrested, in effect, by paid staff. It’s just one example.

I assume the hope—the covert hope—of those who know what they’re doing is that one by one the arresting staff members will see their volunteer counterparts succumb to authority.

Did anyone cry out? Did someone mention the Obama phenomenon, with its surging forces eagerly signing on? Yes, wise leaders did. The Sierra Club, after all, helped show the world that structure’s force. But that was a long time ago before consultants knew that forces driven by emotion wouldn’t work.

Bravo, Sierra Club. You’ve learned a lot from the real world.

Leave a reply

Other recent posts

End of one-size-fits-all data stories

This appeared originally on the TDWI site in September behind a paywall. It’s still there, but today they’ve had the 90 days of exclusive use that I agreed to. Survey after survey reveals that about 80 percent of business users don’t use data analysis—despite all the marketing and “easy to use” tools. As if in… Continue Reading

Qlik finally set to leapfrog Tableau?

Who’s your rival? I carelessly asked a Qlik person at the company’s annual analyst reception Monday night in Miami if she hadn’t once worked for Tableau. Her revulsion was immediate. “No! Never!,” she said. We smiled. There was so much more to talk about. For one thing, how will private equity change things? Qlik wasn’t… Continue Reading

Five Tips for Better Data Stories

Originally published on September 22, 2015 in BI This Week, a TDWI publication. A “data story” sounds like such a great idea. You just mix data with storytelling and you’re done — except that most data storytellers get one thing wrong: they drown out the story with data. Such storytellers, I believe, assume that audiences… Continue Reading

Bohemian Grove a la BI

The Bohemian Grove of the BI industry convenes for the fifteenth time in just three weeks. Naturally, you ask the obvious question: Are you serious? The Grove? A summit? The answer begins with a fond recollection of the Grove. If you’ve never attended the Bohemian Grove yourself — I haven’t, though I live in the… Continue Reading