leadership


imagesDaniel Henninger, the author of the Wonder Land column in the WSJ, wrote today (10-29-2009) about “Obama and the Old Hat People.”  Today’s column is about the current health care reform proposals making their way through the US Congress, and the current emphasis on dramatically expanding Medicaid alongside the much-debated “public option.”  Henninger places the thinking behind these proposals squarely in the “old hat” category, calling them “pre-iphone” proposals.

Leaving aside the politics or the persuasiveness of his argument, his use of “old hat” thinking and “pre-iphone” proposals got me thinking about old hat, pre-iphone proposals in human services.  In this field we are all too familiar with the Medicaid model and its myriad rules, regulations, complexities, compliance pitfalls, and frustrations.  15 minute billing increments, arcane rounding rules, encounter forms, eligibility change management, concurrent auditing, and much much more are part of the daily lives of human services delivery systems and the people we support.  They are also a part of the infrastructure –human and technological–that human services organizations must have to survive.  We all have software designed to manage the minutia of the rules.

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It just doesn’t get much more old hat than that.  

Most human services organizations are moving to service models based fundamentally on the individual being served.  We call it person-centered-planning, self-determination, or any number of other names, but we are often stymied by old hat bureaucratic thinking.  In this time of technological innovation and social movements based on an increasing ability for individuals to belong to disparate de-centralized groups (social media being a very important example) AND an industry movement toward personal choice, we still haven’t been able to be very new hat, have we?

New hat would be a service delivery and funding model based on individually developed service plans.  New hat would be an iphone app that removes the bloat and just delivers the information relevant to that person in that moment.  I’m circling back, I think, to an earlier post about the need for innovation in human services.

 I want us to be post-iphone.  

We need to be new hat.

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As most readers already know, Yahoo recently apologized via Twitter for employing scantily clad woman as dancers, including lap dancers, at Hack Day in Taiwan.  If you missed this dust-up, both sides of the issue are covered (can there really be two sides to this conversation?) in the Reuters blog post “let there be lap dances” and Simon Willison’s blog post “this shouldn’t be the image of hack day.”  There are many others—just google Yahoo and lap dancing, and you’ll find them.  In my view, Yahoo’s behavior here was nothing short of shameful, and its apology was both late and banal.

What does this have to do with human services and technology?  A lot, actually.   Much of what we do in human services is predicated on the belief that all people have the right to participate fully in the community.  I spend a significant amount of time reminding people that “community” includes the online world, and I spend an equal amount of time reminding technology companies that the people we support deserve good online tools, have something to offer the technology community, and are an important customer base as well as source for future employees.

When technology companies as ubiquitous as Yahoo demonstrate that they don’t value women as customers or as employees, they are presenting a stultifying  view of who cares about technology and who is welcome in the technology community.  Yahoo’s apology said that this incident was not reflective of their values, and that it won’t happen again, but this is not the first time it has been part of their corporate “entertainment.”   Women are an important customer base for Yahoo, yet Yahoo marginalizes them.  How much harder is for us then, to get their attention regarding the needs of people on the wrong side of the digital divide?

Those of us working in the intersection of technology and human services need to have a stronger voice in reminding technology companies to be inclusive in all their activities.  Please take the time to hold companies accountable to a higher standard, and tell Yahoo what you think about the importance of sensitivity and diversity in technology.

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My nonprofit has now been actively engaging with social networking for several months, and it has been very interesting.  While we were examining our strategy and our premise, silicon.com presented a much-tweeted about article titled “Twitter: The CIO’s best friend or chocolate teapot?”  After taking a moment just to enjoy the figure of speech, I learned that most of my CIO colleagues don’t have a Twitter strategy, nor do they think it’s part of their job TO have one.

It’s different for nonprofit CIOs, and it’s different still for nonprofit Human Services CIOs.  We need to be where our constituents and stakeholders are, and they are well represented on Twitter.  At KHS, we have an explicit strategy of disintermediation—of connecting as directly as possible with people who care about our mission and with people who could or are benefiting from our services, and Twitter is an important part of  that.

Twitter has helped us speak directly with adults with autism about our innovative (there’s that word again!) new Adult Community Autism Program, and has connected us more tightly with local media outlets.  It has also helped spark new conversations around our services in Moldova—especially during the days of the “Twitter Revolution” there.

On line communities and conversations come and go, but for me Twitter has become a part of my routine.  That feels like the beginning of a success story to me.

By now you’ve heard about the White House’s new Social Innovation Fund.  It should be just what I was wishing for, since, after all, I’ve been using much of this space to lament the lack of innovation in human services.  

It all reminds me of the time I spoke at a large gathering about the progress of a particular nonprofit.  They were very proud of their progress and accomplishments of the preceding year, and asked me to speak about their plan to increase creativity and cooperation across the enterprise.  At first I was very skeptical.  The very idea of “planned creativity” caused a little chill to run up my spine.  But I was too quick to judge. 

What the organization had done was to thoughtfully plan to get out of people’s way so they could be creative on their own.  The organization brought no canned expectations or creativity outcome requirements to the exercise.  They simply got out of the way and let people create hundreds of small creative innovations that each changed lives.  

It was wonderful.

Perhaps I am too quick to judge here, too.  I would be more encouraged though, if it seemed that the federal government was going to get out of the way so nonprofits could innovate.  While the language the White House is using seems to be proposing a top-down approach, complete with all the innovation-strangling bureaucracy that only the government can impose, let us hope that there is still time to provide input and guidance.  Let us hope and encourage the White House not to prejudge the innovation, but to unleash the pent-up creativity of a vibrant nonprofit community.  We have so much to offer.

Allison Fine, whose blog I’m adding to my daily reading, seems to agree.  Let’s hope we can all make this work.

So far our efforts with social networking have produced mixed  results, which is not unaligned with our expectations.   All in all, though,  I’d say it’s been a success.

I’ll start not with the strategy, but with the functional areas of the organization we’re trying to impact.  Our first serious efforts were on behalf of Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD), which is a program within Keystone Children & Family Services.  SSD holds PawsAbilities, its major fundraiser ,in March in Harrisburg PA.  It is a 2-day event and its success relies heavily on a large turnout.

This year we heavily promoted the event through Facebook groups and local event websites.  We recruited influential bloggers with service-dog credibility, to urge people to attend and/or to donate.  We tweeted before, during, and after the event.  We did live video streaming from some of the most fun events–like the dock dogs.  It was a lot of work!

The end result was more press coverage, happier vendors (they got much more exposure), a more connected support community, and about the same turnout as the prior year.  Given that the prior year was a year of very high attendance, and given that the US economy is very different this year (especially in mid-March) we’re calling this an enormous success.  The blogs are continuing and are generating real followers and creating distinct communities, which is wonderful.  The Facebook group has grown from about 25 members to over 700  (a squad!) and even our flagship website, www.keystonehumanservices.org is receiving new traffic.

Lessons learned  so far:

  • This is a lot of work, and it doesn’t seem to fall naturally into any one area of corporate responsibility.  In our case, IT is the champion, but that seems to be relatively rare.  Whoever takes the lead needs to be prepared to add a fair amount of workload.
  • The online toolset is still in a state of flux, so be prepared to try several before you land on the one(s) that are best suited to your organization.
  • Be prepared for internal skepticism.  There are still people in my organization who firmly believe that computers are time wasters, and that most people don’t need access to the Internet.  As much as I would sometimes like to dismiss that thinking as irrelevant in this decade, I need to take seriously the underlying concerns.  We have serious work to do, and we mustn’t let ourselves get distracted by fads. I need to be able to justify this effort with clear strategy statements and with clear results.

that’s all for today . . . .

 

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 9 RULES FOR PREVENTING PROJECT MELTDOWN 

 

1.  Know what the project is supposed to accomplish.  This may seem obvious, but, trust me, people often have very different ideas about the goals, and then have very different yardsticks for measuring success.  Get everyone on the same page.

2.  Get the team together.  When I say in #1 that everyone needs to be on the same page, make sure you know who “everyone” is.  Name names.  Set aside a specific space for the team to meet regularly, and make sure they have the resources to complete their assignments.

3.  Name a steering committee.  Every project has more than one stakeholder, and each primary stakeholder needs a presence on a project steering committee.  The steering committee is there as a backstop to keep the project from veering off-course—don’t let it get bogged down in decisions that the project team should be making.  Keep it focused on strategic issues and on smoothing the path for the team.  The steering committee is the place for decisions and questions that the project team can’t answer or solve on their own.

4.  Keep the steering committee as small and as senior as possible.   Whenever possible, the CEO should lead the steering committee.  That way, in the unlikely event that the steering committee can’t reach a decision by consensus, the CEO is there to make the call.  Needless to say, once the decision has been made and communicated to the team, all steering committee members should support it.

5.  Set realistic deadlines.  Projects that have unrealistically tight deadlines often lead to burnout and staff turnover.  Conversely, deadlines that are too loose or too far in the future lead to a lack of project focus.  These are the projects most at risk of never reaching completion.

6.  Celebrate success along the way.  IT projects are hard, and in human services organizations we usually don’t relieve the team members of their other full-time responsibilities.  Remember to thank them and to celebrate the victories.

7.  Work through the challenges.  There will inevitable be surprises and challenges along the way.  Keep a level head, be flexible, and don’t panic.  There is always a strategy to success.

8.  Be attuned to the natural rhythm of projects.  They start with enthusiasm, quickly move to steady state, and then, critically, move to a period of anxiety as the deadline or “go-live” date approaches.  Be sensitive to where your team is on the time-line and support them appropriately.  Be cautious when they are exuberant; be a cheering section during the steady-state period; be attentive and encouraging during the anxious times; and, celebrate with them when the project succeeds.

9.  Align the project with the strategic and operational goals of the company.  Your team needs to know that all of their hard work moves the organization forward in an important way.  Remind them that even if they are working on implementing a work-flow project in the human resources department, it has an impact on the lives of the people served in your agency.

I found myself discussing software implementation strategies with colleagues  today, and a question was posed to me about a stalled project at an organization we’re familiar with.  The project has been stalled for quite a while, and even the predictable flared tempers are starting to die down.  The project appears to be on a long slow death march, according to some insightful observers.

I don’t necessarily agree.  I’ve seen more moribund projects than this one be revived and become successful generators of organizational ROI.  For me, the key is the perspective of the person at the top.  If that person still believes in the strategic and operational value of the project, and if the technology tool is viable, then the project can be saved.  If the person at the top has lost interest, or never had it in the first place, then everyone should pack up and go home. 

It really comes down to leadership and whether the CEO is willing or capable of exercising it.  It’s that simple.  A strategic software implementation in a human services nonprofit is an exercise in and a committment to an overhaul of tired business processes, to a reorganization of duties, and to a new way of measuring success.  CEOs need to be prepared for the inevitable grumbling they will hear along the way.

This isn’t unique to human services organizations—every enterprise implementation faces those challenges.  What’s a little different for those of us in the human services’ world is that our organizations in general haven’t developed much sophistication around technology.  I often see the extremes of a culture that shuns technology and whose employees don’t know how to use a computer and a culture of thinking that  clicking the “install” button on shiny new software will solve all organizational ills, living side by side in the same agency.  The CEO has got to step up.

So, to all my CEO readers, take a deep breath and own the technology plan for your agency.  It’s a great way to get to know your company all over again.

tomorrow’s post will be on preventing project near-death experiences.

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