Executive Roles in Technology Projects: Change Management Challenges and Strengths

 In Change Management

Are you mindful of change management in technology projects as an executive? Are you a dreamer? A planner? Maybe an over-extender? A combination of these traits?

Technology projects are far more likely to live up to their promise when led by executives who follow change management best practices.

In fact, executives with little direct IT background can very successfully implement large tech projects if they are experienced and dedicated to thoughtful change management techniques. IT leaders who pay no attention to managing change can often supervise needed tech projects that fail dramatically when an element of change stymies the entire project. Executive roles in tech projects are an under-emphasized aspect of successful technology implementations.

But it is ill advised to purchase or subscribe to new software without preparing your team for the transition. New software itself will not streamline operations or provide better information unless your team is prepared and guided through the transition and all the bumps along the way.

When there’s a lack of appreciation for what business change entails and a lack of understanding of the team and management changes that need to happen to implement the new tool, a technology investment usually results in wasted resources. And no nonprofit can afford that.

Change Management Challenges in Technology Projects

If you want to improve your nonprofit’s ability to understand the outcomes of your work and have a comprehensive view of the many ways in which you engage with each of your clients, you may need to share information in ways you never have before.

If your chief executive believes that purchasing new technology, including a CRM (constituent relationship management) system, will be sufficient on its own to accomplish this change, he or she may approve the budget. But without creating or sharing a vision for how teams will need to work differently once the new CRM is in place, you will have no plan or preparation for the impacts of change.

If the rest of your C-level leaders also ignore the cultural change aspect of this new tool  or view this comprehensive technology project as a task only for their subordinates, your staff will pick up on those cues, and also see the new CRM as something non-essential to their roles.

In failing to prioritize the effort sufficiently for your staff, implementing the CRM will become just one more thing (among many) for them to do. Another item on their list of priorities. An imposition rather than an opportunity to explore new ways of working that the new CRM requires and that should benefit the organization.

Needless to say, such efforts without change management are never successful in accomplishing the intended goals. Without executive leadership and support, necessary changes in how the organization shares information never happen on their own. 

Technology tools are not magic. They cannot change behaviors in a vacuum.

When technology changes but behaviors stay the same, it becomes an expense rather than an investment. It is what we mean at Build when we say OO+NT=EOO (Old Organization + New Technology = Expensive Old Organization).

An example of Leadership Failure

You probably have heard a similar story to this one. At one organization, the executive director supported the acquisition of a CRM, because some newer staff in a couple of departments promoted it. He liked the idea of the organization using a CRM and becoming a “more modern” workplace.

However, after approving the project, he barely interacted with the CRM or the team. He didn’t oversee the selection or implementation, and he never participated in any training or learned how to use it. He did not lead by example, and a majority of his staff followed his lead. He viewed the CRM as a tool for them, not for him. His interaction with the CRM rarely amounted to more than having his administrative assistant enter data from business cards he received.

As a result of his lack of interest and sponsorship of the CRM initiative, only a couple of teams ever used it. It remained an expensive and un-utilized asset at an organization-wide level. Because only a few departments stored their data in the CRM or used it for reporting, it never became valuable to staff outside those teams. And when the executive director left the organization, he took decades of relationships and knowledge about those relationships with him, as that information had never made its way into the CRM. The executive misunderstood his role in the tech projects at his nonprofit – he needed to not just define a desired outcome, but instead needed to be an advocate, a manager, a communicator, and even a frequent user of the CRM.

Change Management Strengths to Leverage in Technology Projects

If you recognize the central role of change management in IT project implementations, then a world of opportunity will open up for your organization, not just in tech projects, but also in the ability to manage other cultural changes that require leadership, guidance, and teamwork.

If your chief executives take the lead on communications on complex projects, using our free Change Management Template or other available tools to manage the teams involved and the expectations, deliverables, and dates for large roll-outs, you will find fewer balls get dropped and fewer departments are left out of the process.

Make sure adequate temporary supplemental staffing is in place so permanent staff can focus more of their time on the change process. Extra credit when the temporary staff has expertise in the new tool or platform. Time management is a major derailer of complex IT projects, and can really decrease impact by burning out existing staff or souring them on the new system, or both. Time management is one of the elements of a tech project that is most under the control of the executive team but is remarkably under-utilized as a management tool.

Lead by example. Executives should go through all of the training on the new CRM alongside staff to both fully engage in design decisions and set an example for the entire team by your use of the new system. Spending this time with staff in a less formal setting like training is also an opportunity to interact with the system’s users and fine-tune deliverables and expectations. Encouraging and rewarding “superuser” or “peer trainer” staff is also a step to build utilization of a new tool.

A fully engaged executive should do what effective leaders do: make choices (sometimes tough ones) about what staff are going to prioritize, ensure necessary resources are in place to support an organization-wide effort and keep it prioritized through regular discussion with staff. Executive roles in tech projects involve all these facets of management.

Successful project leaders recognize and build into the process the business changes that must be made by the organization to support the technology change. Technology change can be a catalyst, but cannot itself ensure the necessary business changes without thoughtful leadership.

An Example of Leadership Success

At another organization, leadership decided to make the move from a custom, in-house database to a modern, cloud CRM for fundraising, communications, a constituent portal, and program management.

Technology limitations initially provided motivation for the project to move away from their existing tools. But as the organization went through the software assessment, selection, and implementation process, they began to understand the much broader, organizational impact this change could have.

Seeing this, the chief operations officer (COO) was engaged from project beginning to end. She participated in weekly check-ins, led the development of the communication plan, spoke to staff regularly about the CRM project, helped make decisions about processes, and went through training alongside her colleagues.

Although she was not the chief executive officer, the COO had sufficient authority to make decisions for the entire organization and ensure that they were carried out. She made it clear CRM was a priority for the organization through her own continuing engagement, the allocation of the necessary resources, her communications to staff, and her efforts to learn and use the system.

This organization successfully made it through some dramatic changes in how they operate and how they engage with their constituents, and the COO’s engagement was perhaps the single biggest factor in that success.

Our Change Management Impact Catalog helps leaders navigate the changes ahead

Make sure you have an understanding of the change landscape ahead with our free template to capture stakeholders, impacts, and how to support them through the changes ahead.

Leadership: Tech Project Challenges and Strengths 

Leaders face challenges, not just with executive roles in tech projects. There are countless decisions and relationships that demand attention daily. They don’t always get it right. Sometimes they do too much at the expense of doing fewer things really well.

However, one of the most important roles of a leader is defining for the team or organization which efforts are important and which are not.

If a particular change is of strategic importance, and the organization is going to invest in technology in the hopes that it can support that change, the leader must first and foremost make the change effort a priority. The change effort can’t just be one more task or project for the team in addition to everything else.

A major change has to be one of the top three, if not the top priority, for the team or organization, for the duration of the project. If that level of prioritization is not possible, the risk of project failure is probably great enough to question the technology change or postpone it until it can receive priority. The executive roles in tech projects in setting these priorities can’t be over-emphasized.