There are many reasons why nonprofit technology projects succeed or fail. But there is a hidden challenge to nonprofit technology initiatives that can completely scuttle projects. It has caused many technology projects to fail, resulting in tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted within a single project.
What is this hidden issue?
Poor time management hurts technology projects
Poor time management prevents stakeholders from contributing to a project. Internal stakeholders who will contribute to—and will benefit from—the project include:
- Stakeholders providing business requirements input during the discovery phase.
- If these stakeholders aren’t given time to participate—or aren’t required to provide input—business requirements will be incomplete and won’t match the actual needs of the organization and the absent stakeholders.
- Stakeholders participating in vendor proposal review and system demos during a selection.
- If these stakeholders’ feedback isn’t solicited and included, the wrong system may be selected—or a system that would work may not be configured to address the actual business needs of those stakeholders. This mismatch will result in a lack of buy-in to the new technology, and a continuing loss of stakeholder time and energy as they develop workarounds to address their actual needs.
- End-users engaging in training during and after a system implementation.
- If these stakeholders aren’t involved, the system will be used improperly or fall out of use entirely. Lack of time commitment in this area may result in a system implementation that appears successful in the short-term but fails in the long-term.
Why poor time management happens
There’s no way to sugar-coat it: poor time management happens at organizations when leaders don’t communicate its importance and establish business practices that foster it.
For time management to be performed effectively, directors and managers must create plans for their programs and departments that allot time to activities that cumulatively totals no more than the time capacity of their teams.
In the absence of this cultural element, leaders inadvertently treat staff time as infinitely flexible.
Not firmly committing staff time to requirements discovery, system review/selection, and training can be death to technology projects of any size, but particularly projects that require collaboration and time commitments from multiple departments.
Throughout the nonprofit world, leaders often commit staff to participate in new technology projects without adequately comparing the project’s time commitments to time required by tasks already on the staff’s plate.
Why leaders don’t implement good time management
There are five reasons why leaders don’t create good time management cultures at nonprofits.
- Some leaders don’t like to think of their staff in terms of dollars. Strangely, many nonprofit leaders are comfortable thinking of consulting time in terms of an hourly rate, but not comfortable thinking about staff time in the same way. Being crystal clear about where staff time is allocated in terms of dollars places performance measurement (including tech project return on investment) into sharp relief, which can be uncomfortable for leaders that do not have well developed performance management skills.
- Lack of comfort in performance management, particularly at nonprofits in the small to midsize range (having 1-100 employees). This is in part due to a desire to avoid confrontation. Lack of good performance management contributes to cultures where many positive disciplines, including time management, are hard to enforce.
- Lack of professional development in the leadership team. Some leaders lack the professional development necessary to understand the business benefit of good project planning and time management for their organization—or they understand the benefit, but not how to practically implement it.
- Lack of buy-in from the entire leadership team. For cross-departmental endeavors, it is of limited value if one leader is performing good time management for their team, but other leaders are not. Moreover, it can create morale problems and division within an organization when only some leaders practice good time management.
- Lack of internal prioritization of projects, relative to the mission and key performance objectives. If all projects and tasks are viewed as relatively equal in priority, it is hard to put your finger on what should be the first thing to come off the board when a new initiative of higher priority emerges. For large tech projects, this might result in leaders prioritizing a tech project without making clear its place within the organization’s hierarchy of other priorities.
What you can do to help your technology project
Even if your organization isn’t great at time management, here are things you can do to help your project succeed.
- Get someone to lead your project that has previously (and successfully!) led one or more similar projects and has a weight of authority born of their experience. Experienced project leadership is one of the key contributors to nonprofit technology project success, in part because that experience leads to proper identification of stakeholders.
- Clearly identify the project’s stakeholders, their key activities, what success looks like for each one’s role, and each one’s expected time commitments. Defining stakeholder roles and performance expectations is part of creating a good charter at the start of a project. This makes apparent to everyone the actions and outcomes that will not be achieved if a person isn’t available to participate.
- Make sure every stakeholder reads, understands, and agrees with the charter.
- Make sure that their performance incentives match your requirements for their commitment.
- Reward them appropriately for their participation in the project.
- Enable them to manage their time commitments through leadership, training, and a visible commitment to priorities.
- Have a risk management plan that emphasizes potential lack of stakeholder availability as a key risk—and do your best to qualify the potential negative impact and how it should be addressed if the team members are not meeting their time commitments and deadlines. If you can, get a clear commitment from an executive to take responsibility for enforcing stakeholder availability or negotiating with other executives for the availability of their team members.
- Emphasize the importance of project executive sponsorship. Active executive sponsor participation in technology projects, particularly projects that are large, complex, and/or of high strategic importance, is a key factor in project success and extraordinarily helpful in early detection and correction of time management challenges, implementation risks, and many other factors that contribute to project success or failure.
Your nonprofit is not unique in this struggle
After spending thousands of hours working in and with nonprofit organizations over the past 20 years, I have seen most nonprofit organizations suffer from poor time management. Some organizations are chronically poor at time management, others struggle with it intermittently or in particular departments and programs, and still others struggle with it only for large and complex initiatives (of a sort that might only take place once every 2-3 years). This observation is not just unique to my experience—it is shared by every one of my colleagues.
Even organizations that are great at time management for funder and beneficiary-facing programs, projects, and services often lack good time management for internal-facing operations, including tech projects.
The bottom line for technology projects and time management
Like so many things pertaining to project success, organizational factors like leadership and operational maturity are essential to establishing and maintaining good time management during technology projects.
- Your technology project should begin with a commitment to good staff time management. Taking this step plays a critical role in getting the business requirement inputs, review/selection participation, and implementation engagement necessary for success.
- Time management will only succeed with explicit support and accountability from executive leadership.
- Recognizing project risks from poor time management is among the first steps to ensuring realistic approaches and commitments to good time management.