A Small Nonprofit’s Journey from Startup to Sustainable
Part 4: Management Systems
By Esther Mendlowitz
Productivity experts are sounding the alarm on some serious management issues brought on by the digital revolution. Consider these stats:
- Due to data overload, the average knowledge worker spends about 2.5 hours a day in unproductive work searching for information.
- Time spent in collaborative activities has ballooned by over 50%, leading to collaborative overload and leaving little time for deep work.
- A knowledge worker gets interrupted or switches tasks every 3-5 minutes, leading to unhealthy cognitive overload.
Dubbed the “triple overload challenge,” these issues have business leaders across all sectors seeking solutions to get a grip on data and keep their people and numbers on a healthy growth trajectory.
To tackle these challenges at Jerusalem U, we’re following the experts’ advice and adopting new management systems that involve both psychology and technology: project management, deep work time, goal-setting, and data visualization.
Project Management: Our Starting Point
When I became COO of Jerusalem U two years ago, the average number of simultaneous projects we ran per month across our production and administrative departments (film, education, web, marketing, sales, fundraising, operations and HR) exceeded 200, with thousands of tasks involved in each. To keep all these balls in the air, we relied mostly on gmail, a communication system that was never intended to track and coordinate countless tasks across multiple projects and teams.
With hundreds of projects in various stages of execution at once, and no system to keep them all organized and efficient, it was obvious that we had to institute formal project management across the organization. To start, I redefined the role of one of our most senior project managers as Director of Project Management, whose first responsibility was to work with our systems administrator to find a project management system that met the whole organization’s needs. After some research and testing, we chose a system called Wrike, a large cloud-based system that enables us to build and scale multi-departmental projects, manage workflows with dashboards and reports, request work from various teams, and automate repetitive tasks, to name a few uses.
Having learned from a previous unsuccessful stint with instituting project management that rolling out a new software system is highly challenging, we knew that creating staff buy-in was critical to the staff adopting Wrike. At an all-hands meeting, we explained the why of changing the way we work, where the company sat on the business life-cycle continuum and the practices and behaviors required to get us through our next phase. We reviewed the practical and emotional benefits of becoming more organized, namely reduced frustration, greater trust between coworkers, and reduced cognitive overload and burnout.
As obvious as the benefits were, getting 60 people to change their daily work habits was going to require reinforcement, so we invested in Wrike’s consulting services, which taught us how to set up the system optimally on both the org level and for each department, and how to train the staff to use it. Two years later, we have a weekly active usage rate of 80 percent – which, I’m pleased to report, far exceeds Wrike’s 45-50 percent goal of usage over time and puts us in their “Excellent” customer segment.
Deploying org-wide project management has been a game-changer. On the company side, it has increased our productivity and efficiency, reduced our operating costs, and enables us to scale our work and deepen our digital transformation. On the people side, it has reduced frustration over wasted time spent searching for information buried in emails. It has also fostered a more collaborative culture, and provided professional skill-building for even our most organizationally challenged.
Peak Performance through Deep Work
One of the most valuable side effects of adopting project management is that it has freed up some time for deep work.
In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, author Cal Newport defines deep work as focused, undisturbed time spent on cognitively challenging tasks. He asserts that “to produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”
Last year, we instituted “Deep Work Wednesday,” a no-meeting, no-g-chatting, no texting, quiet day dedicated to work that requires periods of undisturbed concentration. As much as the majority of our team appreciates the gift of time to think, most have found it difficult to commit to doing actual deep work, and this remains an area of growth for our organization.
Newport hypothesizes that “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate [the skill of deep work], and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Thriving individuals equate to a thriving organization, which is the reason we’ve not given up and will continue to explore strategies to help our team adopt this essential habit.
Gaining Alignment with OKRs
Obviously, deep work and project management won’t keep people and companies thriving without determining what success looks like. Until this year, we measured our success annually against a long list of key performance indicators (KPIs) that only a few departments determined and often did not share org wide, preventing full team alignment.
In response to this challenge, we adopted a goal-setting framework called “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs). Created by former CEO of Intel Andy Grove, and adapted and made famous by Google, OKRs is a system of shared objectives, whereby a company sets ambitious and measurable goals starting at the company level and cascading down to departments and individuals.
OKRs consist of two parts:
- Objectives: Statements of a broad, ambitious goal, which answer the question, “Where do I want to go?”
- Key results: Measurable statements that describe how we’ll know whether we’ve achieved the objective, answering, “How will I get there?”
This framework is repeated quarterly from the top of the organization down to each individual, resulting in alignment and focus across all levels of the organization. At the end of each quarter, teams and individuals grade their OKRs to assess and share their progress.
Google and other companies using the OKR framework testify that benefits include more than alignment and focus. For one, they increase transparency, which not only supports alignment, it also strengthens teamwork by creating shared understanding around each team’s work and giving teams the opportunity to celebrate each other’s successes. And because OKRs are meant to be stretch goals, teams report that they produce more exceptional results than they anticipate.
Like instituting project management, adopting OKRs is a cultural shift that has required a buy-in and roll-out process. We’ve taken a phased approach, beginning in January 2018, with senior management drafting the company-level OKRs and getting familiar with the system. In quarter 2, we trained the staff, who in quarters 3 and 4 will be crafting their department- and individual-level OKRs.
OKR coach Ben Lamorte boasts that “Clients tell me that the OKRs process is one of the most important, creative, and rewarding projects in their business career.” Studies show that employees who can see how their contributions directly help the company have higher engagement than those who don’t realize the full value of their work. And ultimately, higher engagement means better performance.
Data Reporting and Visualization
Rounding out our management system efforts is the data reporting work of our new data analyst, introduced in Part 3 of this series. Through his mastery of Google Data Studio, we now have beautifully designed reports and dashboards for viewing and analyzing the performance of our various products and platforms.
Google Data Studio provides insights into our work never before possible with complicated excel spreadsheets. We can now pull data from Salesforce, Google Analytics, YouTube and our social media platforms, and in real-time turn them into charts and graphs that help us form clear narratives around our data. This leads to better decision making around which activities to pursue, continue or pause, and what human and financial resources to invest. This quarter, all of our staff will have visibility into our full set of KPIs and our ongoing progress toward reaching them.
Continuing the Quest
Finding management systems for efficiency, productivity, and alignment has enabled us not only to get a grip on data, but to celebrate it. With the exception of our data analyst, we’re technically still beginners in leveraging the power of the systems we’ve instituted. But the hardest parts – the decisions and the roll-outs – are behind us. Now it’s time to deepen and ultimately master their usage.
Clearly, our quest toward organizational health is in mid-stride. We’ve built foundations for a high-performance culture, we’ve pivoted strategically to adapt to a changing world market, and we’ve put management systems in place to scale our work. We have hurdles still to jump in terms of optimizing our org structure, our processes and our communication systems. But we’re not deterred. It has taken tremendous commitment and perseverance to get us to this point in our journey, and it will take more of the same to propel us forward. As a mission-driven nonprofit striving for large-scale impact, we’re holding firm to our course until we reach our goal of becoming a healthy, sustainable, high-performance organization.
Esther Mendlowitz is COO of Jerusalem U, a digital media company that connects young Jews to Israel and Judaism through media and film. Before joining Jerusalem U, Esther spent 12 years in the magazine publishing industry, serving as Editor-in-Chief of several national industry magazines and peer-reviewed journals, as well as editor of a dozen books on Jewish subjects. She led business development, strategic partnerships and editorial direction of her various publications, representing each title in national and international spheres. After moving to Israel, she served as a teacher of Jewish Studies and school administrator. Esther holds a BA in English and Education from the University of Florida.