Leadership in a digital age

Ellie Hale, digital fellowship and communities lead at CAST, talks about digital leadership.

For the last two years, CAST has run a Digital Fellowship to help charity leaders get to grips with technology, and help them understand what it means for their organisation. Digital can help reduce costs and scale services to meet ever-rising demand. But that’s not the whole picture. It has also fundamentally changed people’s habits and expectations. Charity leaders urgently need to equip their organisations to respond to this changing context, and realign services with the evolving needs of communities.

Here are four of the biggest learnings our Fellows have taken into their day to day work.

1.   Process and culture matter as much as tech

“Break things down, test it, find out if it works, then build it. This process helped us secure our new ten-year local authority commission.” – Graham England, managing director, Addiction Recovery Agency

One of the biggest ‘aha!’ moments for leaders on the Fellowship was that a lot of what we were teaching them wasn’t explicitly about technology at all. Rather, it’s about making the most efficient use of resources in a context of uncertainty and constant change. Charities can learn from technology startups and the design community, who have devised methodologies like ‘lean’, ‘agile’, and ‘user-centred design’ to manage this.

It’s easy to get bogged down in jargon, but the main point to remember is that we can minimise the risk of building the wrong thing by starting small and continually testing our assumptions, ideas and services with the people we’re trying to help. Because if our services fail to respond to how people actually behave, then a lot of the value, effort and resource we’ve put into them will be lost. Rapid cycles of research, building and testing ensure any product/service is focused on solving a well-evidenced problem or need, and can be tweaked as it goes along. This keeps projects on track, and on budget.

This approach is quite at odds with how many charities traditionally operate, so will require a culture shift. The leader’s role is therefore to help manage this shift towards a more responsive, user-led and test-driven organisation.

2.   Don’t jump straight to the solution

“One of the strongest and most helpful messages has been about slowing down to speed up. Know your user, don’t assume you know what they want.” – Suzanne Jacob, chief executive, SafeLives

As human beings we like to solve problems. For charities, that’s the reason they exist. But more often than not, we jump straight to the solution before we fully understand the problem. In fact, a lot of funders incentivise this by asking for fully-developed solutions outlined at application stage, before we’ve even spoken to single end user.

This is problematic in all areas of charities’ work, but particularly in digital, where building the wrong solution can be a costly mistake. When you properly unpack a problem, you often discover many layers beneath it, which might be the more pressing or more fundamental issues you’ll need to address first. It could also help you to know which categories of existing tool to look for that will save you having to build something from scratch. Nesta’s problem definition template or IDEO’s Five Whys exercise are useful.

3.   Engaging people early on helps secure their support

“My fear was people not buying into this, but after the design sprint I’ve seen them thinking in a different mindset, so my fear has turned into hope.” – Lara Norris, chief executive, Home-Start Hertfordshire

Part of being a leader is about bringing people along with you. This can be especially tricky with anything tech-related. People can be scared of the unknown, resistant to change, cynical because they’ve seen previous projects fail (sometimes at great time and expense).

Whether it’s staff, trustees or funders you have to convince, listen to their concerns. A simple exercise like mapping hopes and fears can help. Also engage them early on in research and creative digital development processes, such as a design sprint. If they’ve come up with ideas that help shape the direction of a project, they are far more likely to support it.

Different approaches will work with different audiences. For boards and funders, it could be clear timelines and measures of success (and communicating these regularly). For others it could mean engaging them in interviewing service users. Everyone in a charity, from front-line staff to funders, wants to do the best thing for those service users. Hearing unexpected comments ‘from the horse’s mouth’ will help challenge their assumptions and demonstrate the process is focused on meeting those user needs.

4.   Give yourself time and space to innovate

“My advice would be to block out time to get out of the office.” – Robbie Semple, chief executive, Worthwhile

Cultivate a culture of continual learning in your organisation. As a leader, you need to consider how to do this practically, given limited time and resource. How is your organisation going to identify new insights, ideas and opportunities, and what is your process for understanding/testing/responding to these?

Often the best way to learn is to get out of the building and speak to your service users. Dedicate team resource to doing this on a regular basis (and here are some tips for how to structure those conversations). Small charity seAp ran a series of fun, engaging exercises with their clients to design their award-winning digital tool, which helps people applying for disability benefits. It has increased their client reach by 1,000 times for just 10 times the level of investment in their face-to-face service.

Also think about running a creative workshop internally to bring your team together and prioritise your activity – time spent away from the day-to-day is rarely wasted as it gives you a fresh perspective and fresh energy.

For more information on any of these topics see castfellowship.com, or book a call with the CAST team to chat through your digital needs and ambitions.

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