How the “People Problem” Complicates Nonprofit Software Implementation

Over the last 16 years, I’ve kicked off most projects with my clients saying this: “80% of this software project is not technical”. Why? Because, when it comes to implementing new software or cleaning up and streamlining what you’ve already got, most of the “gotchas” are not with the technology. That’s not because software is perfect. It isn’t. But, it is consistent. It does what it does, and doesn’t do what it doesn’t do. It’s pretty cut-and-dried. People, however…

In a conversation recently, a manager at a nonprofit said to me,

“We’ve got the technology figured out.  If we could just eliminate the people, we could get the project done.”

It’s true. We people are problematic. We have dreams and expectations, and reality is just an annoying barrier to be ignored until — we hope — it gives up and goes away. Yet, it never does. Oh, Technology Project, how do we people complicate thee?  Let me count the ways.

5 ways people complicate a software implementation project:

  1. Piling all of your hopes onto the new software. It is our silver bullet, our knight in shining armor. Our faith in it is so deep that we just know — to our core, in our heart of hearts — that it will do absolutely everything we have or will ever need it to. And, if it does anything less than that, we are justified in hating it with a vengeance.
  2. By agreeing to change software, but not business practices. Let our protective mantra be, “But that’s how we’ve always done it”.
  3. By agreeing to do our part and to meet our deadlines, and never doing either.
  4. By returning back to old software as soon as there is a snag instead of getting help.
  5. By saying we agree to change but not really meaning it


Ok, now we’ve fessed up. Doesn’t that feel good? So where do we go from here?

5 ways to address the “people problem” and make a software implementation project easier:

1. Clarify your goals – big picture and more detailed – for your new software at the outset. Involve a broad cross-section of people in this process. The more we understand each other the more we, well, understand each other. And that goes a long way!

2. Establish a clear, achievable implementation plan. Your plan has to balance meeting your goals in a reasonable timeframe while respecting the schedules of others while ensuring an appropriate level of participation from them.

3. Communicate. A lot. Let people know what you’re doing and why, where things are today and what’s coming next, what it means to them and what’s expected of them, how they’ll benefit in the future and – most importantly – how your organization and its beneficiaries will be better off as a result.

4. Listen. A lot. Even more than you communicate. Software implementation projects inspire ideas and excitement, apprehension and fear. A “listening approach” allows all of this to come out in a way that it can be positively absorbed and addressed.

5. Celebrate, not just at the end, but all along the way. Champagne at “go live”, beers at major milestones, high fives at minor ones. Cake and chocolate are great mid-day substitutes.

Want more great perspectives?  Check out these articles:

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The Connected Cause is a place for experts in the nonprofit online space to share perspective, offer guidance and promote best practices for using today’s technology effectively. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive source of collaborative thought leadership for the nonprofit industry.

One comment

  1. An analogy I often use with customers is: While computer technology has evolved from zero over the last 70-80 years, human evolution (at least for those that walk on two feet and use tools) has taken place over the last 2-3 million years. It’s no wonder why it’s taking us a while to catch up!

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