Technology projects are their own special type of fun.  They can be expensive, there’s usually a percentage of risk involved, there’s bound to be something that you don’t completely understand, and sometimes they can make or break a nonprofit staffer’s career.  We’ll all seen that haunted look in a colleague’s eye – the look that says, “I am in CRM hell and there is no hope of escape.”.

There can be many reasons for a technology project to go off the rails, depending on the actual deliverables involved.  Even something as simple as developing a new donation form can take longer and cost more than you anticipated.  I’ve been right there in the trenches with you, and I’ve brought a few lessons back from the battlefield that can help your organization avoid catastrophe…and perhaps even experience technology project success.

1. The Prime Objective is Unclear

There’s nothing worse than setting off on a trip without a destination. Spend an hour with the project team at the start to define your project goals.  Document your North Star – the one thing that must come out of this project.  Any competing priorities that pop up throughout the project must be aligned with this outcome.  Read it out loud at the start of your project meetings occasionally to keep everyone focused on the same end. If something big comes up that might need to be accommodated, frame your decision-making with the North Star in mind.

2. Lack of Regular Communication

Radio silence is the bane of technology projects.  It’s been four weeks, and no one has heard from Ms. XYZ.  What’s going on?  Are we on track?  I’ve found that no news is generally not good news, so it’s key to decide early on how often you’ll be giving and receiving updates on status.  At bare minimum, you should be meeting every other week with the project team and reviewing progress.  Decide how you’ll communicate between meetings – will you use shared a shared place to store documents, project management software, Slack?   More is always better when it comes to communication.

3. The Team is Over Capacity

Let’s imagine that you have a typical nonprofit full-time job and you wear many hats. Most weeks it’s a struggle to get to most things on your list.  Along comes a sizeable technology project that will take 8-10 hours of your time every week for the next few months. There’s only one solution to this problem, and it’s meeting with your boss.  Make a draft plan for your workweek through the tech project lifecycle (what tasks you think you can still do, and what should get bumped – even if there is no one to give it to).  Collaborate with your supervisor to come up with a way to get through it without burning out.

Bonus Reason:  Unrealistic Timelines

If we could implement technology solutions as quickly and easily as we shop online, life would be great.  Sadly, in 2018, this is only a fantasy.  It takes time to plan, execute and test new software, websites, platforms, and apps.  Technical projects should be planned as though you were on a brisk walk – you don’t want to run as though your life depended on it (and you don’t want to go so slowly that you never gain momentum).  To set your project up for success, avoid the temptation to think optimistically!    Check in with your peers – how long did it take your development director friend to implement her new fundraising software?

Although these are the most common, there are many other reasons why a technology project at a nonprofit organization could go off the rails.  Focusing on these important items will go a long way in making sure you are starting off strong and finishing with a smile rather than a scowl.    What challenges have you overcome in your technology projects?  Add them in the comments below!


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