As a visionary leader, you show up every day to achieve real and lasting social change. You know that to realize your organization’s mission, you must implement strategic initiatives that take a lot of effort, coordination, and change. In fact, this new initiative might seem too overwhelming, and you may feel free pressure from your staff to push it off until next quarter. Maybe things will be better then? The problem is next quarter will turn into next year and next year will turn into two years. You will someday look back, not having moved the needle much on the outcomes that are most important to you. Sound familiar?
You are not alone, a big project can always look daunting when you are looking at the place where something big will stand in the future, and currently seeing nothing. (i.e. moving towards a data-driven culture so that you can ensure you are achieving equitable outcomes with your programs and services.). If you think about the entirety of the project all at once, it can feel almost impossible.
The good news is that there are some helpful steps for breaking your strategic initiatives into bite-sized projects that are easier to manage. Believe it or not, the secret to success lies in principles of project management from the Project Management Institute (PMI).
Managing a Project
According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), a project management resource published by PMI, a project is a “temporary endeavor with a beginning and an end and it must be used to create a unique product, service or result”. Unlike operations, which are ongoing processes within your organizations, projects are meant to achieve specific goals within the larger vision of your organization. They are the individual rungs on the ladder you climb as you work towards achieving your organizational mission.
Each project has a defined life cycle that can be broken down into five steps.
Something always triggers the need for a project. It could be the next goal in your strategic plan, or an unexpected opportunity to provide a service for your community. But a project initiation is more than a trigger, it is also a conscious decision to create a project plan to define and achieve your goal.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “If You Fail to Plan, You Are Planning to Fail.” Projects, especially large projects, include a lot of moving parts and individual stakeholders. Creating an organized and detailed plan that outlines the processes and procedures is key for ensuring the success of your project. For example, how will you measure the success of your project? Does each task in your plan get the team closer to achieving your mission?
Once you have a plan, the next step is to carry it out. Every project must have a beginning, otherwise the planning process is a wasted effort. The project execution phase is when you accomplish the steps that build towards your ultimate goal. It is important to divide these steps into more granular actions in order to stay on track. Start by prioritizing tasks by importance. Then, give each task a deadline.
No project, no matter how well planned, will ever go perfectly. Unexpected complications arise, deadlines are missed, stakeholders leave the organization. Ongoing monitoring allows your team to be accountable and solve each small problem before it snowballs and becomes a bigger issue. For strategic initiatives that aim to improve participant outcomes, it’s important to determine how frequently you want to measure their outcomes. Is it enough to measure their status at program entry and exit? Or do you want to measure their outcomes on a more frequent basis? Do you have a tool for measuring individual and aggregate outcomes?
By definition, every project has an ending. This includes a process of reflection and review to determine if the project goals were completed as intended, what went well, and what could be improved upon in the future. The closing process of one project often spins into the initiation of the next project, the next rung on the ladder. Which is why the PMI calls this process a cycle.
Project Management Principles
In addition to the lifecycle, there are overarching principles that help make a project successful. These include having a designated leader. Though there could be dozens or even hundreds of people involved in any given project, there should always be one specific person who is responsible for the management. This project manager (PM) takes ownership of success, monitors progress, and communicates needs to the rest of the project team. Another essential ingredient for a smooth project is to have support from higher leadership. PMs need organizational leaders, funders, and community stakeholders who have their back. Successful projects also require defined goals, schedules, and budgets. Otherwise, they descend into chaos and never achieve their aims.
The project management principles found in the PMBOK can help you make any project successful, but they are general guidelines. Specialized projects often require additional resources that help you break down the needs of your specific goals. A contractor who has been tasked with rebuilding a freeway overpass must understand the order of operations to design and build a safe and effective structure. Likewise, a social-good organization who aims to create equitable outcomes for their community must understand the specific steps required to achieve data equity in their measurement projects.
Developing Data Equity
Data equity is a set of practices that will help you ensure that your strategic initiatives are rooted in inclusivity and equity. Without intentional effort, data collection and analysis can unintentionally provide you with results that reinforce your existing views rather than give you a clear view of the true situation. Thankfully, there are resources to help you learn to incorporate data equity into your projects.
The Data Equity Framework was created by the We All Count Project for Equity in Data Science with the specific goal of helping social-good organizations break down their measurement process into steps that ensure that they aren’t using data to perpetuate existing perspectives and biases. Like the PMBOK, these steps are meant to be general principles that can be applied to your specific needs and projects.
The framework recommends that you start at the beginning and outlines steps to analyze your funding, motivation, project design, data collection & sourcing, analysis, interpretation, and communication & distribution. Let’s just look at a few examples of how analyzing these steps can help you avoid inequity in your data results.
Data collection and sourcing can be one of the biggest challenges in any data project. Factors such as your sample sizes, how you collect data, and the questions you ask can all create unintentional biases in your results. As an example, if you were trying to determine what percentage of the adult population reads books regularly, you would not want to conduct your survey inside a popular bookstore. If you did, you would create what is known as a selection bias. Meaning that your methods skewed your results by not having a truly randomized data set. The framework supports the careful consideration of your data collection and sourcing strategies so that you can encourage data equity.
The last step in any data project is communication and distribution. It is possible to have a well-designed project with responsible data collection and quality data analysis, and then communicate the wrong message. Careful decisions must be made about what information to communicate from your study, and how to display that information in a way that promotes both equity and inclusion. The Data Equity Framework provides tools and checklists to help you ensure that your reporting and presentations reflect a level of equity that is in harmony with your organization's values.
SureImpact provides the data collection and impact reporting infrastructure to deliver equitable outcomes across multiple programs. View an interactive video tour of SureImpact Analytics to learn more.