Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
October 28, 2020

How do you tackle a daunting project?

Ever find yourself stuck on how to approach a big project that you have to do, but you just don’t see how you’re going to get it anytime soon? This podcast unpacks the process of tackling projects and offers a roadmap and tips on how to get started.


Sarah Durham: I’m Sarah Durham. And welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. Recently in early July, I wrote an article on Advomatic’s blog called Facing Drupal 7’s end-of-life like a tech rockstar: a nonprofit’s guide to success. I wrote this piece because I have been talking to a lot of organizations who have websites that are facing some sort of end of life. They’re on an older unused content management system, maybe a proprietary system. They know they need to make a change. Maybe they were thinking of making a change this year, but with the recession that’s going on with the pandemic, this is just not the year to undertake a massive website overhaul. So I wrote this blog specifically with Drupal 7 in mind because Drupal 7 is a content management system that a lot of larger organizations use and getting out of it is going to be a pretty big deal.

Sarah Durham: And that’s something that’s going to have to happen at some point soon because the Drupal community will no longer be supporting certain aspects of Drupal 7. But I think that the lessons in this article are sort of universally applicable. Whenever you are anticipating a really big project that you know, you’ve got to do, but you just don’t see how you’re going to do it anytime soon. So I want to unpack the process of tackling these kinds of projects in the hopes that it will give you kind of a roadmap for how you might undertake big initiatives that you know, you need to do, but you just can’t get started yet.

Sarah Durham: The first step is to go from abstract fear to tangible plans. You know, there’s always that sort of ideal world fantasy. Like, boy, this is really the year we have to rebrand, or this is really the year we gotta change our website or we get a, you know, do this or do that, but it’s not always realistic to do it. And when it’s not realistic to do it, there can sometimes be a tendency to want to put your head in the sand and hide. Like, if, if this is the year, you should do it and you can’t, don’t just ignore it to get started, make sure that you and your team have a clear understanding of the implications of living with it. And one way to tackle that, whatever it is is to facilitate a conversation within your team about the issues that you’re facing. So for instance, right now, if you had a Drupal website, you might be facilitating a conversation within your website team about how unique and mission critical your website security is for instance, and you might want to read some articles about Drupal end of life, and discuss the risk or the exposure to your organization with that as backdrop.

Sarah Durham: But you do the same thing if you were thinking about rebranding, if you were thinking about a big change in leadership, truly discuss with the people who are most effected by it, what the risks are of keeping things sort of, as you know, the status quo and next get on the same page about what’s holding you back. If it’s a website, overhaul is what’s holding you back money, is it the time that it takes to do that? So get candid with your team about what’s getting in your way so that you’re, you’re naming it and you can face it more proactively.

Sarah Durham: And then finally in step one, draft a pragmatic plan for your organization. So by this point, you’ve got a grip on what this project means for your organization. What the implications are, your team has discussed it a little bit. So hopefully you have a sense of what’s getting in your way and why you should do it. And you can start to map out a plan that hopefully takes the folks who need to support this project on a journey of understanding and ideally keep them out of the weeds of this project, if it’s not a part of the job.

Sarah Durham: So to craft that plan, I recommend you use Google slides, PowerPoint, or maybe some other presentation deck with just five simple slides. The first slide outlines the situation. So that’s a sentence or two explaining exactly what’s going on–why you feel you need to overhaul that website or rebrand or launch a new initiative. The second slide is the risk for your organization. And that’s just a sentence or two explaining what the implications are for your organization. In other words, if you do this, what are the benefits or if you don’t do it, what are the risks? Oftentimes when we talk about value propositions, you think about pains and gains. So what’s the pain for your organization or the gain for your organization. That’s slide number two.

Sarah Durham: Slide number three, outlines the options. So those might be the top two or three options for your organization specifically. What could you do to navigate this situation? And don’t go into too much detail here, but just the top viable options. The fourth slide is your recommendation. What do you think is the right way to proceed? Given the pragmatic realities of budget or timing or resource allocation. In other words, which option is the best and why do you want to fight for it? And the last line might be a proposed timeline, map out a high level timeline detailing when decisions have to be made and what actions should be taken in order to fulfill your recommendation. If you can’t say it all in a few slides, maybe use the notes area to add examples or details if necessary, but I want to encourage you to try to resist creating a lot of long text-based slides or a lot of bullets, all it’s or too much detail.

Sarah Durham: I think you’ll be much more successful at getting support from your leadership,if you can simplify the complexity of this issue for them and demonstrate you’ve already thought it through. And that you thought it through so well that they can basically go on the journey in a few simple slides and trust that the recommendation you’re making is the correct one. Okay? So that was all step one, going from abstract fear to tangible plans.

Sarah Durham: Step two is to educate your colleagues and get their buy-in for your plan. So if you’ve completed step one, the odds are good. Your plan was crafted collaboratively. You’ve got the buy-in and support of your colleagues who need to work on this with you and your organization. But if you haven’t done that, maybe now is a good time to go back and review with them and make sure that everybody feels good about what you’re recommending. You’ll want to get everyone aligned and on board so there’s no confusion or mixed signals communicated downstream, and so your recommendations can be integrated into your next budgeting cycle.

Sarah Durham: The next step is to take this plan to your leadership. And in most nonprofits, that’s going to mean presenting it to your executive director or CEO and or maybe your COO, depending on the size of your organization. While you may not always present formally, I recommend you plan to do so here. So take a few minutes before the meeting where you’re going to walk it through to practice it. A lot of people don’t take time to go through a practice run with a slide deck, but in my experience, it really, really pays dividends. Maybe go through your slides with your family or your friends first, so that as you’re presenting it to leadership, you can do so quickly and with confidence, you kind of know what your talking points are. The prep time you invest will not only make the meeting go smoother, but it might very well save you time and energy by knowing what kinds of questions you’re likely to get and being able to address them proactively because you’ve practiced. And if your greatest barrier is the budget, and you’re suggesting that your organization consider reinstating some funds for a new big project, you might also need to present or share your deck with the board.

Sarah Durham: When you present very shortly, it’s time to answer questions and to ask directly for feedback on your recommendations and your proposed timeline. If you can leave the meeting with a clear sense of what’s working for them and what isn’t after you present, you’ll be much better equipped to revise your plan if needed, or to put other balls in motion. And if you’re presenting your plan via Zoom, consider recording it. If you’re able to get through your presentation in 10 minutes or less, sharing the video with colleagues or board members might be a faster and easier way to educate and build buy-in for your plan with other people. So that was step two, educating your colleagues and getting their buy-in for your plan.

Sarah Durham: And step three is keeping it top of mind, experts have studied and written about the importance of repetition in reaching and getting people to remember things. Take a page from their playbook and plan to repeat your concerns, your suggestions, your recommendations, and your timeline proactively. Consider setting reminders to follow up with your colleagues at key decision-making junctures to bring your plan up again. In management meetings, ask for updates from people or whatever feels appropriate to you based on your own organization’s culture and practices.

Sarah Durham: A key moment to keep your recommendations top of mind will be when your organization’s budgeting for next fiscal year. The more you’ve got folks on the bus already, the more likely you will be to get this project supported during the lean years ahead. And I think oftentimes people don’t get key projects supported because even though there was momentum or buy-in or appreciation for the ideas in an upfront meeting, so much time passes between that conversation and the moment where the budget is set or final decisions are made that people lose the thread. So keeping it top of mind is going to be key to making sure you get what you need in terms of the most realistic path forward.

Sarah Durham: The final and best step of all. Step number four is to sleep well at night, regardless of whether things turned out exactly as you hoped, whether you got the budget, whether the recommendations were fully embraced. You’re going to sleep better at night, knowing that you proactively addressed whatever this project is and led your organization through a thoughtful process to manage it, that you didn’t just put your head in the sand and say, “Well, you know, the budget got cut. There was nothing I could do.” You might even have inspired your colleagues to see your leadership and your management skills in a new light too.

Sarah Durham: So just to recap one last time, step one, go from abstract fear to tangible plans. Step two is educate your colleagues and get their buy in for your plan. Step three is keep that plan top of mind and step four sleep well at night.

Sarah Durham: I look forward to hearing what you recommended and how it pans out. Don’t hesitate to email us and give us your feedback on this podcast. Let us know what you’d like us to be talking about, who you’d like us to be talking with at [email protected].