Forget the Tech, Let’s Talk Mission

Submitted by Brett on Thu, 05/27/2010 - 7:41am

John Merritt, YMCA of San Diego County and Steve Heye, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago

There is often a powerful disconnect between the objectives of technologists and the direction of an organization's leadership team. Perhaps one of the most challenging questions a nonprofit can ask is, "What should our org's commitment to the use and leverage of technology actually be?"

In too many cases, tech becomes the elephant in the room: we see it, but tend to ignore the greater possibilities. Tech speaks it's own confusing language, when the only unifying language we all need to speak is MISSION.

There's no question that information technology and the instantaneous access to data, when properly used, can become a significant tool in meeting your organization's mission --  but acceptance and alignment still seem to be incongruent. There is little doubt that technology aligned and used properly can bring efficiency in extending and meeting goals in support of the mission. But:

  • What does the techie need to do to be heard and become a functional part of the fabric? How can a techie coexist in a world where tech doesn't have a seat the table?
  • What are the effects of culture and how can the techie adapt?
  • How does the techie learn to listen to the needs, build relationships, and develop solutions that meet the organization's goals?
  • What is the "strategic plan" and how does the lone technologist understand where they fit -- providing that orgs are thinking strategically and even have a strategic plan?
  • How does the orgs technologist bring synergy while leaving the techno-babble behind?
  • How do you separate the tactical from the strategic?
  • How do you match tech to mission and what does that mean?
  • How do you do all of this and never put technology in front of the mission?

Matching Tech to Mission ~ Read & Understand the Strategic Plan

Knowledge is power and one of the best places to seek knowledge about your organization is by reading the strategic plan. Techies often feel the strain of being "misunderstood"; I would challenge each and every nonprofit technologist to begin by first understanding their organization.

Hidden in plain sight within every strategic plan lie the goals of the organization. The technologist, seeking to make him or herself invaluable, needs only to find these goals and begin the path to enlightenment and alignment. But identifying the goals is only the beginning. The next step is to understand the goals -- clearly.

Almost inevitably, the first reaction of the technologist is to set about meeting the goals, acting individually with no input from those who envisioned and created the goals. This is the wrong course of action.

Most good relationships being with understanding, a mutual agreement on a course of action or common direction. Here is a great "relationship" moment for the technologist: seek out the person or team that created the strategic plan and ask them questions about the goals, learn from those who created the plan, and ask for clarification to attain a greater understanding of each goal's intent and purpose.

The goals within a strategic plan are mission-focused, created for the specific purpose of meeting or extending the organization's mission. As the technologist learns why each goal exists, through dialog with the goal's creators, they can begin the process of designing solutions that will leverage technology to meet the mission.

It can be a challenge to get an audience with the top leadership. You have to be creative: offer to meet over lunch, coffee, prepare a summary of what you see in the strategic plan that asks probing questions that could lead to mutual ideas and extended discussion; chocolate works, too. Making this meeting happen will take work. Be prepared for roadblocks and brushoffs, but don't give up.

Understanding how you can best support your organization via technology depends on the relationship you will and can forge with the leadership team. Reach out, build bridges and swallow your pride. After all, it's not about technology, it's about the mission.

It's All About the Relationship ~ Getting Connected Even if You're Not Wanted

How do you build a lasting and functional relationship with your organization even when you're rejected by the very people you struggle to support? You keep trying and you change your approach to meet each situation.

A great way to build relationships is to seek "champions". We all have staff that can't get enough technology. They're always willing to try the next new gadget or adopt the latest social media tool. Reach out to and embrace these staff. Assist them in understanding technology and make them an extended part of your team. Staff "champions" can have a very positive affect on bringing technology to better support the organization.

The technologist must recognize and accept that, sometimes, you can't be a prophet in your own land (org). By harnessing and leveraging other people's enthusiasm for technology, you can build a cadre of tech-savvy staff who will assist you in bringing technology to meet the mission.

Another easy and effective plan to build relationships is something I call "3 Simple Things":

  1. Help and ensure that staff understand what technology is available in your organization.
  2. Train staff in the use of the organizations technology.
  3. Actively solicit feedback on tech needs, including changes to existing technologies; when you receive feedback, follow through. Just because we're techies doesn't mean we know best. Some of the best ideas for the use and integration of technology will come from the staff.

Another great trick to use is the "quick win". Find a tech project that meets a specific organizational need and can be quickly implemented with quick payback -- for example, a wiki to support a cross-departmental collaboration. "Quick Wins" can do wonders for building relationships in support of tech for the mission.

Never underestimate the power of relationships. The path to better relationships with your organization's top leaders begins with the frontline staff

What does a Strong Relationship Between Tech & Staff Look Like? ~ Metrics

So, you've done your homework, read the strategic plan and your questions and relationship building have begun to bear fruit. What, then, does the tech/mission aligned organization look like? Have you really attained higher function? Here are a few examples in support of alignment and tech working in partnership with staff.

  • You have a seat at the management table and actively work with leadership to extend the mission via the targeted use of technology.
  • You are part of the strategic planning process and technology goals are included in the strategic plan -- not as individual tech goals, but in support of the organizations strategic goals.
  • You are meeting regularly with key staff and department heads to evaluate needs and implement solutions.
  • You're proactively cultivating 'aha' moments with staff; it's all about the relationships, and the work you do to help staff "get it" will make it easier for the larger tech initiatives you are now working towards.
  • You're thinking "strategically" and functioning "tactically".
  • You're developing "champions" to extend the reach of technology and help others realize their fullest potential for using technology to support the mission.

The Organizational Chart ~ Look for Obstacles

The way in which mission focused technology comes to be is largely based on the organizational chart, that funny diagram made up of boxes and lines that either puts tech on the path to success or the highway to, well...

Just as you review the strategic plan to finds the places where tech can be leveraged, you need to read your organizational chart and look for obstacles placed between I.T. and the mission. Obstacles could be simple things like tech staff residing at such a low level they become "order takers" -- or glaring challenges like a lack of I.T. staff.

Your task here is to minimize the obstacles via the development of relationships and an organizational analysis of I.T. that can awaken and visualize the needs. Don't try to fight the org chart as you will run smack into a "cultural barrier", but look for ways to lower the hurdles.

Conclusion

"Forget the Tech, Let's Talk Mission" is about using the information and resources readily available in each of our orgs to develop questions and talking points to move technology closer to supporting the mission. Using available information and resources -- strategic plans, org charts and staff knowledge -- what questions can you ask that will bring better mission support and extension via technology?

Focus squarely on building relationships, don't jump to conclusions, and avoid being too tactical as the mission is purely strategic. In simple terms, this is I.T. / business alignment.