Tuesday, February 26, 2008


In my last post, I talked about uncovering the yardsticks that senior managers use to make decisions. So what were the factors I used for making decisions at Save the Children? I felt this was an important thing to communicate to my team, especially if I was not going to be around to help making decisions. In the letter I wrote to my IT managers, I mentioned the five principles that I use for my yardsticks. There are some things specific to Save, but I think you'll get the point. Here they are:

1) Take risks. We may need to protect our base of infrastructure like it was our hard-earned savings account. But we also need to have experiments, some risky ventures, that are out on the edge, at the top of the pyramid--even some things that fail. We have found that those experiments, like our PDA venture, can soon become mainline. When taking risks, look to the future. Challenge the present with the future. Ask how a project or purchase or training will help us be where we need to be in three or more years, not just for today.

2) Hedge your bets. When you make plans, think about and include a "b-plan" with your "a-plan." If the a-plan starts to go south, push forward the b-plan. This is diversifying the portfolio. Remember, we most often don’t know how things are going to turn out! What will you do if things change?

3) Don't build up in-house what is better done by others. If it's a standard function, a “commodity,” use the off-the-shelf, standard solution, don't build it. If it's a basic process, partner with someone to do it, don't do it ourselves. We have more to learn here, but ultimately we will realize that the best protection for our jobs and our team by focusing on the truly value-added things, like integrating services and applications, not on the basic, commodity things that others can do better than we can ever hope to do. Ask what this means for email for example.

4) Start small and keep it simple. Again and again, we have found that small is beautiful. What you will learn from the pilot will be so important to planning the big project, revealing what will work and what won't--and how to keep it simple, pragmatic. We are a nonprofit; we don't take the gold-plated route to anything. We are the kings and queens of the pragmatic solution.

5) Get the return. Ask how this will benefit children before asking how it will benefit the agency or IS. Ask about where the connection to children is. If we can't draw the line from the project to the benefit for children, question the project! Remember that if you are not working for a child, you are working for someone who is.

I then said that if we follow these five principles, I know we will move the department and the agency forward in the way I would if I were here. These five may compete with each other, but remember than truth comes from the dialog. Talk about it, debate it, but make a decision and go forward with confidence!

God may be in the details, but I'm trusting my team to be Solomon.


Paul C said...

Ed - this is a clear and straightforward guide to investment, which I think is the right approach to take to the sort of decisions that you had to make at Save. However I wondered how you would resolve clashes between the different yardsticks at different levels within the organisation? Obviously the budget holder makes the decisions in the end, but I could see a situation where a country office and headquarters might have different ideas about how the investment might work. This always struck me as one of the trickier problems in our sector, especially in organisations which have substantial autonomy - duplication, gaps, missed opportunities, etc.

Edward G. Happ said...

Paul: Thanks for your comments. I beleive having a shared mission and values is the foundational “glue” that holds an organization together. A divergence in decision-making ultimately needs to be challenged against this base. I’ve found that a key issue among the groups in an organization is that the next level of decision-making rules (what I’ve called yardsticks) is implicit rather than explicit--that first we need to clarify the rules we are each following. Every manager has a set of these, whether they can state them or not. It is often revelatory to departments and remote offices when a senior management team makes these known. (That in itself sometimes takes a bit of doing!) Then a discussion can begin whether decision-makers throughout an organization are aligned.

David Isaak said...

Ed/Paul, I dialogue weekly with my consultancy manager in your organization principally on PDA deployments, but also on what I hear on those differences between well-perceived country office (CO) needs by HQ and actual in-the-field CO needs in IT. I think it is one of the reasons that you have me out on the road so much. Admittedly, I probably know more about what happens in the Save the Children country offices than what I am aware of Westport due to my frequent visits to the former. It is no wonder that I observe substantial alignment in both IT strategy and tactics between HQ and the CO's, but I do see differences, much of it restrained by budget and IT infrastructure environment.

Also, the independent and invisible local CO development of non-MS Office applications is something that I am always on the lookout for. It is a frequent point that emerges during my visits of the "I need it now" need, but trying to avoid unleashing a plethora of identical applications spread across the agency, most all of which are dependent on a single individual (great risk!).

I love those COTS applications that fit the CO requirements and push future development costs and sustaining support to those vendors. Yet, I have also seen emergence of a few, but important, localized application developments that works well in the CO due to the well understood processes of the intervention programs which then are codified into the application. Close proximity to the need always improves the quality. How to balance overall HQ support and strategy along with the distant and immediate needs within our far flung organization which is deployed in challenging environments certainly distinguishes us from the for-profit world. I hope that during your time at Dartmouth that you can convey to the students the worth, satisfaction and need for IT persons in the NGO world of business.