Preventing the Past: How to avoid another failed implementation process

By: Josh Aranda

I was on a call the other day with a prospective client. I was explaining our Discovery process, when she paused and said, “Ok, so I have a bit of PTSD from my last go around at this,” after which she explained what had happened during the failed implementation. She then asked, “How will you be different?” She did not say this jokingly. It wasn’t funny; it was serious. You could hear the resistance in her voice to open up and entertain the thought of another technical implementation process. These take a lot out of an organization because an implementation means taking time from your staff, asking them to pull double duty, asking them to explain things over and over, listening to hard conversations and critiques, and it is not something an organization would hire just anyone to do. Time seemed to have dulled the effect of the previous experience, but the very fact we were having this conversation seemed to resurface the past.

I was not surprised by this line of questioning, as it comes up often with prospective and current clients. I gave an authentic answer not as to why we would be different, but rather, what we would do to try and avoid this from happening. The majority of those we work with seem to have a traumatic tech story.  Most clients, or at least a few people within the organization, carry some type of baggage with them from a previous technology implementation. People buy into the promise of what technology can do, but they are often left underwhelmed or worse–traumatized.

In today’s world, we are seeing headlines such as ‘Every Company is a Technology Company’ and ‘Can Technology Transform the Nonprofit Sector?’ As much as I understand the points that the authors are trying to get across, my opinion is that it does not put technology in the right order of importance. 

Technology is not transforming the nonprofit sector, but rather, the sector is using technology as a tool to be what they are intended to be. As much as I love technology and what it can do for an organization, we cannot simultaneously show historical trends of wasting billions of dollars a year on failed tech implementations all while saying a transformation is taking place. In order to reduce the number of traumatizing experiences, we must take technology off of the pedestal.

Technology is just a tool. This tool can be one of the most versatile and powerful tools in your organization’s toolbox, but if we give it undue credit, it devalues the very efforts of the humans operating that tool. People are why a piece of technology will or will not function for an organization. With the help of specific platforms, widgets, or apps, your staff members are the final piece to making the desired impact happen.

So now the questions are: Where do we go from here? We must reflect on past mistakes and empathize with organizations that have undergone a failed technical implementation process. We must not allow these failures to remain common place in the nonprofit sector. Below is a set of practical steps and mindsets to consider when thinking about a technology change.

1. Ask, Listen, Empathize

This step is for everyone involved: leaders, consultants, project managers, and front-line staff. Not everyone has the same affinity for technology, nor has everyone had the same experiences with it. We can, however, create a similar framework for approaching new initiatives. 

First and foremost, we know that everyone wants to be understood. Being asked and listened to intently can make the world of difference in one’s receptivity to a new path forward. Once you have asked, ask again. Make sure you truly understand what your staff members are saying so you can then start to empathize with their situation. This is why it is essential for us to first ask your team’s positive and negative tech experiences. This allows us to know what factors are at play when attempting to begin a new implementation process. 

We had one client who gave their system a name. They talked about how they hated the system, they wanted to divorce it, and how it let them down all the time. To overlook this sentiment would be to disregard a massive obstacle in the path to delivering a greater impact in the community. It is critical that we understand what has gone wrong so that you can heal, learn, and improve. 

2. Start with Mission-Centered Requirements

More often than not, mission-centered requirements are commonly ignored in the nonprofit space. It is difficult, but essential, to allocate time and resources to do the work required to begin any new initiative. Again, grounding ourselves in what we learn from talking with your team is a crucial step to a successful implementation. Leaders must consider how bypassing this step could take another emotional and financial toll on the organization.  

Once an implementation process starts, it is typical for many staff members to describe exactly what they have been doing because it is the way it has always been. They neglect the necessary changes that are required to advance the mission. If a process or technology is not centered around the mission, why should someone re-build the same thing?

Before documenting requirements, start by documenting what is currently working, what is not, and what are the pain points that must be solved.  Next, strive to come up with a simple description of the feature, prerequisite, or piece of functionality that addresses each of the pain points your organization has outlined. Drill into why it is important and how it will help you achieve your mission. Once documented, circulate it within your organization to gather feedback. Do not seek consensus as it will never happen. Incorporate the feedback and finalize the document. Having this as an artifact for your organization will better prepare you to compare your current systems against your requirements and evaluate new systems methodically and intentionally. 

3. Advocate for the Cause

Whether you are working with a consultant or spearheading the initiative on your own, leverage empathy to the point it transforms into a conviction. Nonprofits must be committed to preventing future traumatic tech experiences and ensuring the technology fully supports the mission. As much as it should be the consultant’s responsibility, do not solely rely on them. Be vigilant in documenting decisions. Ensure someone within your organization has a running list of all committed tasks. Ask why, when, and how does this help us achieve our mission? Reflect on the past experiences of your team and ensure that there is no repeating of previous bad behaviors or habits. Give feedback. Remind yourself that if these efforts do not move the needle forward for your mission, it is hurting it. 

4. Over Communicate

Communicate everything. Explain why something is not being included in the technology change. It seems simple, yet I do this in my own organization. I forget to communicate why something was not implemented, even though it was taken into consideration. It takes effort and intentionality, but if neglected, especially in the nonprofit space, we introduce ourselves to a greater gap in alignment.

When there is a gap in alignment, it directly affects the impact the organization has on their mission. Communicate small successes, future roadblocks, and when you need the team to buckle down to get something done. A technology implementation, if grounded in purpose and representative of your team’s needs, will be a rallying cry for your organization. 

5. Own It

Yes, it sucks sometimes but often times a staff member’s disdain for a system can be prevented by owning issues and decisions. Whether you are championing the internal build-out, administering an internal system, or a consultant is supporting a solution, the decision maker for each part of the build must own the mistakes and decisions made without blaming it on the technology.

It is easy to place blame on a system. It is hard to commit to transformational change both on a personal and organizational level. Organizational distrust in a system is typically a manifestation of the way the architect, administrators or leaders represent the system. If you use the system as a scapegoat, it will forever be an outlet to avoid the necessary conflict required for continuous improvement, and ultimately, increasing your nonprofit’s impact.

6. Just Starting Over Doesn’t Work

Technology implementations are like relationships. If you don’t invest time, money, energy, and emotion, you will make it a short-term fling and it will leave both parties unsatisfied. If you get into a relationship for the same reasons and with the same approach as the last one, you will get the same results.

Spend the time reflecting and refining yourself and make sure you are ready for the next relationship. Document what your organization will change going forward. Ensure you share the changes with the team, the organization, and your board. Create as much accountability and support as possible to ensure that you are getting into the next relationship for the right reasons.

The nonprofit sector can no longer accept failed and traumatic tech implementation experiences. If your organization is looking to do a new system implementation, take a pause and consider the above. Reflect on why adopting a new system or optimizing an existing one is even important. Put the cause and faces of those you serve behind the decision and determine what actions you can take to make it the most impactful. 

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