Skin in the game: Measure your success by results, not by activities

If the objectives and tactics in our plan are tied to strategy, we have made it partway. Now we need to track progress. Despite our best efforts, this is where drafting a plan for Operations can fall down. In the past, I have counted each completed project as a success, and the tally of projects completed as our metric – and this was a mistake.

If Operations completes all of its planned tasks and Advancement doesn’t improve, are we successful? – No.

Our initiatives may be grounded in strategy, but that does not mean that delivering the initiatives is the same as delivering results. When we focus on activities and deliverables, we forget that these initiatives are supposed to show benefits and impact. We forget the “why”.

The activities – the things we want to do – are outputs. Success isn’t about outputs; it’s about outcomes.

Instead, for each of our objectives we can try asking two questions, and base our metrics on the answers:

  1. Who is the user/consumer of our work?
  2. What behavioural changes would we expect to see?

Let’s say one of our priority projects is to improve pipeline management processes in the CRM, under an overall objective of improving frontline user adoption. The measure of success should not be a checkmark, “done!”. We need to identify who we’re targeting (fundraisers and other frontline staff), and what we want them to do (use CRM more often and more effectively). Then we must quantitatively measure that behaviour to the extent that we can (logins, records created or touched, movement of prospects and proposals, user satisfaction), against a baseline.

This sounds sensible, but it runs against a strong impulse to set only goals we can control. We know we can deliver an improvement to the process, but we shy away from defining success as improved fundraiser adoption. Why? Because we control our own activities, but we don’t control fundraiser behaviour.

Similarly, we can improve the online giving experience, but we resist defining success as increased giving. Because we don’t control donor behaviour.

And yet, these are exactly the outcomes we need to track. After all, the front line measures success by results, not activity – so why should it be any different for Operations?

Goals should be aligned not only from top to bottom, but across the organization. That means your planning process should not only emphasize clear ties to overall strategy, it should reflect interdependencies among teams. Each unit in Advancement has different activities but works towards shared results. In order to achieve alignment, our goals must be part of an ongoing conversation with other units. And we must check in and share stories of progress.

It seems clear to me that measurement must continue long after the project is complete. Delivering on a project isn’t necessarily going to show up in our measurable outcomes right away. An initiative that aims to improve user adoption of the CRM can take months to bring about an effect. This is OK – the reason we continue to measure even when the project is complete is in order to learn. If the key result hasn’t improved, then we have to ask WHY. What we learn will carry us into the next iteration of planning.

This approach to success metrics has been suggested to me by the concept of OKRs, which stands for Objectives and Key Results. In this scheme, which has its origins at Google and other tech companies, an Objective is a qualitative description of what we want to achieve and Key Results are quantitative metrics we will use to measure our progress toward the Objective. There are two to five Key Results per Objective; having more than one Key Result allows us to counterbalance the influence of any single metric holding too much sway. For example, we may have an objective to delight our donors – but not at any cost.

The distinction between “OKR” and the more familiar “KPI” seems so subtle that I’m not sure we need a new acronym. What we need is to ask the right questions of our objectives – which will lead us to the right metrics.

(If you’d like to learn more about OKRs, however, I encourage you to search for the work of Felipe Castro, and this article from Harvard Business Review: “Use OKRs to Set Goals for Teams, Not Individuals,” by Jeff Gothelf, 17 Dec 2020.)

Is it time to foment a language revolution?

Years ago when I managed our Phonathon program, our calling software presented student callers with “prospect” records. We used scripts, but I encouraged our more experienced callers to regard them as guides only. For the rest I said, “Please, if you go off-script, do not ever say the word ‘prospect’ during a conversation!”

Whatever the giving level, there’s an external and an internal language, and it’s about time we brought them together. Because the internal language is making us feel like liars when we communicate about what matters.

Acquisition, prospect, moves management … There will always be shop talk and lingo which of course we keep separate from how we communicate with supporters. There’s an economy of language at play: “Prospect” can be shorthand for “prospective donor,” which is inoffensive.

But I worry that the terms we use create a divide in the mind of a frontline staff member who is most effective when bringing their genuine self to the conversation but carries in the back of their mind an entirely different understanding of what the objective is – based on the language of the profession, reinforced by operational processes. The cognitive dissonance is a hindrance.

How can we expect frontline staff to believe in what they talk about with donors if in the back of their mind they are under the influence of some alien calculus?

As an Operations leader I feel our processes and systems – including the calling software I trained callers on a decade ago – are perpetuating an unhelpful mental divide. What if we used the same language internally as we do with our supporters?

Tell your team’s journey story, and plot it in advance

Managers and leaders spend their days in a state of mild to medium dissatisfaction. The status quo is rarely acceptable, there’s always a hill to climb, there’s always a distant horizon and a finger pointing “there.” Societal trends, shifts in priorities, leadership and staff changes, the imperative to evolve and grow the team – all rule out the option to stand still.

Some restlessness is healthy and necessary. But radiating dissatisfaction can wear your team down over the long term, if they feel their best is never good enough.

Sometimes you have to pause and appreciate what has been achieved. Recognizing and naming progress provides that sense of forward momentum that fuels the energy to keep going. Setbacks and reversals are like downturns in the stock market: Zoom out far enough, and they appear as minor blips in a larger story of growth.

I sometimes get to appreciate this larger story when I give a conference presentation. Sharing the story of our team’s journey with others is a source of energy-giving gratitude for me.

But journey stories don’t take their shape only in retrospect: They can be built into planning. Operations projects that are carefully scoped and defined as discrete packages of work with end dates are set up to be celebrated, simply because it’s possible to recognize when they’re done. (Even if a Phase Two waits in the wings.) Projects that are not scoped, or poorly scoped, will pursue various directions and never reach any kind of satisfying end that you can plant a flag on.

Looking back cantilevers your ambitious looking-forward. Celebrate it, and plan for it.

The front line doesn’t understand Operations … Does it matter?

The Operations team deals with technical issues, difficult vendors, software downtime, data complexity, tight timelines, and high work volumes. These challenges affect the work of our colleagues on the front line, in development and engagement. Whether our colleagues really understand these challenges is another matter.

Should they?

If you work in Operations and find yourself feeling that your front-line colleagues don’t appreciate the issues you face, then ask yourself this question: Do you appreciate the challenges faced by your front-line colleagues?

We want our colleagues to recognize that operational realities exist. Lack of understanding can lead to unnecessary risk and unreasonable expectations. But I’m not sure it’s deep understanding we should aim for. We should try to build credibility and trust in ourselves instead.

Bad things happen when an organization ignores operational realities, it’s true. The way to prevent bad things is not to educate the whole organization on the fine points of risk, but to speak to risk from a strong base of credibility and trustworthiness. This applies not only to Advancement Operations but other offices – legal, audit, procurement – that advise on risk.

Trust is built when Advancement’s support function demonstrates that it really gets what the organization is trying to accomplish and knows how the world looks through the eyes of fundraisers and alumni officers.

It’s important that Ops staff internalize departmental strategy – that they be able to connect their daily work to the goals of advancement. And there’s a more personal element: Each of us should feel a little of what it’s like to be a fundraiser.

Sometimes I wonder if we should be sending Ops team members to conferences for development and alumni relations instead of advancement services. Would a change in perspective lead to stronger partnerships?

We can start by listening to understand the business end of advancement – not just react to what we might think of as its whims. Being responsive instead of reactive will help build a relationship that will remain friendly when the next disruptive technical issue comes along, or when a project is forecast to not be completed for another six months, or when a serious risk is flagged.

This responsibility for lens-shifting is not reciprocal.

It is more important than the Ops employee shift to accommodate her perspective to that of the fundraiser, than it is for the fundraiser to return the favour. The Ops employee looks through the fundraiser lens in order to provide more effective support and to build credibility and trust. There is no clear benefit in asking a fundraiser to see things through an operations lens.

A driver needs to learn how to drive the car; she doesn’t need to know what’s going under the hood. (Fine if she does, of course.) But no driver would trust a mechanic who has no knowledge of what it’s like behind the wheel.

Strategic Ops

The Operations team supports and facilitates the work of staff in Advancement. The team also executes on projects led by other units. But that’s not all. A mature Operations team pursues its own strategic goals that are aligned with the mission.

What might these goals be?

Operations can lead through informing Development performance. Data, reporting, and analysis contribute to the success of fundraising programs. Consistent data and clear reporting help our organization understand where we are in relation to our goals and guide decision-making. At a more fundamental level, Ops can work with Development to redefine fundraising programs for more effective goal-setting and performance measurement.

Operations can lead through enriching supporter relationships. Advancement seeks to align the interests and passions of people in our external constituency with opportunities to support and participate in the mission of the university. This alignment occurs at all levels – from early-stage engagement of alumni to custom cultivation strategies for prospective principal gift donors.

At the early end of this alignment spectrum, Operations delivers solid data on individual constituents, clear performance metrics, and effective outward-facing digital engagement platforms. In this way, Ops work can drive performance of the Engagement (alumni relations) team.

At the latter end of the alignment spectrum, Operations can lead the enablement of effective relationship management, which relies on shared information and coordination of effort across multiple units and multiple offices across the institution.

Operations develops tools and processes — a natural area for leadership. We can maximize the return to the institution on the investment made in Advancement by pursuing efficiencies that reduce cost, implementing process changes and new tools that increase effectiveness, and providing staff supports that enable them to make best use of the tools and technologies we have.

Return on Investment is expressed in dollars, but many of the most important factors relating to ROI are non-financial. Because the majority of the Advancement budget is salary and the cost of turnover to any organization is high, improvement in this area is measurable as ROI. Operations not only participates in promoting staff development and growth, it can lead here, too. Pursuing the growth and development of people, ensuring equity, diversity, and inclusiveness, enhancing employee satisfaction and retention – these and other “people” factors fuel overall success.

Finding meaning and purpose in the all-team Ops meeting

Meetings. Nothing revolutionary or innovative there! Yet, our shop has little or no history of gathering as a whole team. Maybe it’s because such meetings are expensive. Everyone leaves their station and work grinds to a halt. Bodies fill the boardroom and the round of “updates” begins. Not everything shared is of interest, and no decisions are made. Conscientious staff members may find this stressful.

We’re all familiar with the regular meeting that happens for its own sake. And yet: Not meeting has always felt like a lack. The regular meeting of any team should reinforce a sense of the team’s cohesion and unity of purpose. This is especially true of Operations, which risks being perceived (within and without) as a miscellany of services and functions.

When virtual work introduced a new convenience to the large-team meeting, the time seemed right to make a start. We’ve been moved to figure out what we want out of it.

Our team’s unified purpose is to facilitate opportunities for people to meaningfully engage with the institution’s teaching, research, and community mission. The front line builds and advances relationships – our team provides the tools to allow them to do that. That could be data, could be a CRM, a report, or a mobile phone. No matter one’s role, the work in some way enables or facilitates carrying out the Advancement mission.

Each team member knows what enabling and facilitating looks like from their own perspective. They may be less aware of how others enable and facilitate. That’s my goal for these meetings: To help everyone get a sense of the range of ways Operations drives the mission.

First, each team manager speaks very briefly about a few current highlights. Not the full range of what everyone’s working on. Just what’s looming large now, with an emphasis on work that directly supports front-line success.

Second, one team member gives a short presentation on any aspect of their work, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes. The topic can be anything. It doesn’t have to relate to everyone (or anyone) else’s work. Given the diversity of the team this isn’t possible anyway. The only requirement is that it provides a concrete example of how Operations supports fundraising, alumni and constituent engagement, marketing, donor relations, or communications.

The aim is not cross-pollination or collaboration, which already happens. Rather, I hope it provides a little inspiration.

If your team meets for the sake of meeting, if you’re stuck in the rut of “that’s what we’ve always done,” then consider going on hiatus for July and August, reformulate your purpose for meeting, and reconvene fresh in the fall.

Advancement birds of a feather must flock together

Cardinals are frequent visitors to my neighbourhood. Male cardinals are bright red, but I know them mainly by their distinctive calls. They are hard to spot because they stay so high up in the trees.

That may be changing. A few days ago, I was in the middle of an email when a cardinal landed right outside my window, less than two feet from the ground. As human activity on my street has lessened, birds are coming down to ground level more often.

Or maybe it’s because I’m at home that I notice birds. Maybe I’m just better at noticing, period.

I notice other things. It seems the birds of the Advancement flock are also exploring their changed neighbourhoods. But the experience has not been the same for everyone.

When this crisis hit, frontline staff suddenly found themselves with calendars cleared of travel and events. Never ones to sit on their hands, they turned to tackling neglected to-do lists, or reading the huge volume of quality content on philanthropy and engagement in times of crisis, or becoming thoughtful and far-thinking.

This reflective hiatus for frontline staff will be brief, and in fact it may already be over. Conversations with alumni and donors must resume – different venue, different topics – and priorities for annual appeals are shifting toward direct aid for students in distress.

For support and operations staff, the experience has been quite different.

The rush to get everyone set up for working from home is over. We’ve discovered that the tools and technology were already there, like a safety net, waiting for us to arrive. (Our friends in the private sector could have told us that.) A few venerable business processes have been swept aside, temporarily, to suit the new reality. As a result, the physical move wasn’t as painful as we might have predicted.

What now? Operations staff never had empty calendars. The meeting load has in fact gone up: Leaders and managers are communicating with their teams remotely while the need for collaborative project work goes on. The opportunity for reflection never happened. We are busy just keeping up.

Temporarily, then, half the flock is on the ground exploring new territory, and half is still up in the trees.

The volume of meetings should abate, and a kind of normalcy will return. It will be a different normal, however: Advancement shops are gearing up for engaging with committed supporters during what will be a protracted health and economic crisis. What does a “face-to-face” visit mean now? How do we shift to rich digital experiences in place of events? How do we measure meaningful engagement? What processes need to be retooled, not just temporarily, but for all time?

The descriptive phrase I hear from colleagues is “business as unusual.” In such times our most important task is keeping the flock together.

Careful which rules you bend in the new work-from-home world

Suddenly every office worker in the world is doing their jobs from spare bedrooms and kitchen counters. Universities are having to rework processes on the fly, and some venerable rules are falling away in order for critical business to continue. As your institution figures things out along with the rest of us, the urgency can lead to needed change – but be careful your pruning isn’t sending the wrong signal.

Early to go will be hand-signed approvals for everything from expense claims to purchase requisitions to gift agreements. Universities that have been slow to embrace digital and cloud solutions are having to accept scanned and emailed copies in place of originals. They’d be in a less risky place today had they accepted secure digital electronic signing earlier. Presumably universities will not revert to paper processes when this is over. Probably a good thing.

Pressure to streamline has its downsides, though.

Mass dislocation of workers means a lot of personal and sensitive data will end up stored on personal computers, laptops, and mobile devices. Consumer-grade personal devices have long been present in the business enterprise, leading to heightened risk of data breaches. The work-from-home tsunami has accelerated the risk, as hardware gaps are addressed with even more personal devices.

Now is the time to insist on adherence to policies for protecting personal and confidential information, not cut corners.

Everyone is trying to adapt and do their work. I get it. We moved a staff of 73 with little or no history of remote work (aside from fundraisers) into their homes over the course of three days. Logging into a VPN and a central file store can seem like a nuisance. So much easier to drop the file in C: drive.

But the more data sitting outside your institution’s system of record – whether on people’s hard drives or as email attachments – the greater the chance that a lost device or a successful phish will lead to a data breach. Breaches can have negative consequences for alumni, supporters and others. They also damage the university’s reputation.

A few days ago there was a story in Slate headlined “America Is a Sham.” The subhead asserted, “Policy changes in reaction to the coronavirus reveal how absurd so many of our rules are to begin with.” The fact the US Transportation Security Administration has waived the 3.4-ounce limit for liquids and gels for hand sanitizer only is proof that the rules are arbitrary, nothing but security theatre. (1)

True or not, I don’t know. Either way, you send a signal to users when you let things slide for the sake of convenience. Choose wisely.

Note

  1. America Is a Sham,” Slate.com, 14 March 2020

Collaboration rules

Operations groups like to make rules. It’s our superpower. I guess this comes from our awareness of how laws, regulations, and university policy apply to the business. We have to develop internal guidelines to clarify grey areas and ensure compliance, so rules are a tool we’re familiar with. And maybe we reach for that tool too often.

Rules are necessary to prevent serious risk: to the security of personal information, to institutional reputation, to charitable status. (Other useful “rules” are actually standards; think of counting guidelines, which don’t target behaviour but ensure consistency, transparency, and credibility for fundraising reporting.)

Rules are less useful when the risks are operational – those times when doing something out of the ordinary puts us at risk of being inefficient. This new thing creates manual work, or it means some data that could be useful to the business is not created or used, or causes some disorder or uncertainty by straying outside of established process.

Efficiency is a worthwhile goal only when you’re doing the right things. If a new thing is the right thing to do, there should be allowance for short-term inefficiency and uncertainty. The size of the opportunity determines how much disruption is okay.

When an opportunity arises and a decision must be made, the best approach is to collaborate and consider the unique circumstances. (Barring legal, reputational or other serious risk.) Operations should advise on internal risk and be given due consideration. If there are short-term risks that don’t cancel out the benefits, and there’s a path to return to equilibrium, then it makes sense to mitigate the risk and press on.

This works when Operations is integrated with the front line, is fully aware of organizational goals, and is considered a credible partner. If Operations is just a back-office service desk disconnected from strategy, then you can create all the rules you like. Good luck with that.

To mess with a quote borrowed from Émile Durkheim: When there is a culture of collaboration, rules are unnecessary; when the culture is lacking, rules are unenforceable.

Operations maturity and innovation

What says “Operations” to you? For many, it’s all about planning, process, documentation, compliance, standardization, optimization, and efficiency. Good, solid stuff, and not in any way sexy.

What about “innovation”? Innovation seems to be about chaotic change, fluidity, rule-breaking, risk-taking, creativity, and disruption. Rebels on motorcycles!

This sets the stage for tension, because innovation typically touches on technology, digital platforms, data, and applications – projects that demand IT and technical expertise. Led by the wrong team, such projects are subject to high risk and failure. Yet led by traditional Ops, they might also not be very innovative.

I think Operations maturity must be characterized by seeking a middle way in partnership (and fruitful tension) with the more innovative elements of the Advancement organization.

  • Traditional Operations plans, then executes. Innovation executes, then iterates. A mature partnership pilots, learns, then executes.
  • Traditional Ops avoids risks. Innovation takes risks. The mature partnership identifies risks and mitigates them.
  • Traditional Ops insists on process and procedure. Innovation doesn’t have time. The mature partnership finds ways to continuously improve.
  • Traditional Ops seeks to optimize. Innovation prioritizes impact. The mature partnership figures out the right thing to do, and then figures out how to do it right.

Traditional Ops is reactive. Innovation is proactive. That contrast disappears in the mature partnership that has both sides working from a common strategy.