Cultivating sustainability

In an effort contribute to Drupal while also making a living, we've spent the last 7 years refining a model for working with clients that is sustainable for both them and us. Our principal strategy is simple enough:

  • Establish a long-term relationship with our clients ensuring that "set and forget" is not an option.
  • Collaborate with them to leverage their strengths and resources so they are freed up to do what they do best.

As this noble concept has proven to be more of a challenge than we anticipated, I'd like to share a few lessons we've learned along the way. In this post I'll talk about lesson number one: the importance and practice of a goals-based process.

Goal-setting and staying on track

All good decisions come from planning based on identified goals. Goals need to be specific, measurable and (for the most part) non-technical. "Increasing online donations by 30%" is a decent goal; "adding a blog" is not. Keeping goals mission rather than feature focused is our first priority. We start all projects with a kick-off work session with our clients to identify goals and marry them to an initial work plan.

Evaluating existing goals and identifying new ones is an important ongoing process beginning during pre-development, stretching to site launch and continuing on through to the everyday use of the organization's site. Our central tool in this process is strategic communication. From the beginning we schedule regular monthly check-in meetings. Meetings during the development phase help us monitor progress and stay true to agreed upon goals and timelines. After launch -- yes the process does not end with launch -- check-in meetings give us a mechanism to stay focused on goals. We are quickly able to address changing needs and assess direction based on experience (both good and bad) rather than waiting for the site to stagnate or break.

Buy-in and transparency

Early-on we discovered that even with what seems to be a solid goals-based process in place, effectiveness can be scuttled by lack of support and transparency. For example, our entire connection with our clients' organizations was often only through the content-management or technical lead. While they may be the most involved participant in building or maintaining the website, they cannot be expected to reflect completely the thinking and expectations of the full organization. In particular, not involving decision-makers in the process frequently caused project delays and frustrating reversals in direction due to confusion or perceived alienation from the project.

As a result, we modified our process to regularly involve a broader group of stakeholders such as non-web staff, the executive director, board members and volunteers. Their participation widens the spectrum of viewpoints included in setting goals and priorities and establishes a transparent process. More minds at the table helps ensure the buy-in and support necessary to be successful.

Separating big picture and tactics

At first we felt that involving stakeholders was so important that we should include them at each monthly check-in meeting. We quickly found that this level of frequency unnecessarily overtaxed the attention and energy of participants and often proved counterproductive. We've since settled on an approach that initially involves a larger representative group in one or more work sessions to identify, agree to and prioritize overall goals. Subsequent monthly check-in meetings become tactical in nature -- We meet with the designated community manager or tech lead to set tasks, establish milestones and review progress.

Then, on a quarterly basis, we schedule the check-in meeting to again include a broader group. The agenda and attendance of the quarterly meetings are dependent on where things stand but the discussion is often big-picture oriented and non-technical. For example, we may invite the development director and members of the fundraising staff to discuss how we might increase donor participation on the site.

Lesson learned

Combining regular monthly tactical check-in meetings with quarterly broader-thinking sessions has proven to be an effective way to keep us and our clients on-target and focused on goals. We've seen fewer instances of clients pulling the plug on projects due to lack of buy-in from decision makers. We've also had far fewer emergency support requests. Sites continue to evolve and remain sustainable.

In another post, I'll talk about how the viability of this process is enhanced when combined with a community support model that fosters skill-building.

It's the heart of everything we do: a clear process to plan, organize, and measure your goals online.