by Molly Penn
Have you ever thought about what systems can do for you? We specialize in thinking about this question. As consultants who work with nonprofits and foundations to help them change the world (a lofty goal), we recognize the importance of starting with the smallest step – building systems to support people in doing the work.
What’s a System?
“System” is one of those overused words that starts to feel very fuzzy in its definition. Basically, a system is a set of procedures, that taken together, help you accomplish a common goal. A system is how you break down an aspect of your work into small, bite sized pieces that really anyone can do. When we talk about building systems, we mean not only the procedure steps (the “what”), but also the “how” instructions. Imagine if you could develop procedures for everything your organization does? Those are the systems that help you accomplish your mission.
What’s Important About Systems?
Systems are important for a variety of reasons:
- They create ways for anyone to do the work of your organization with only light touch supervision (instead of lots of training and mentoring)
- They allow other employees to fill in for colleagues on important tasks in the event the staff person responsible is not available
- They reduce the number of errors, by detailing the directions and providing templates or forms
- They ensure consistency in your processes, which allows you to evaluate them
- They help you iteratively develop and strengthen your work processes and procedures over time
- They make delegation much easier because your expectations have already been communicated
- They help users spot ways to improve your processes and procedures (and be more equitable and inclusive)
Why Systems Should Never Stand Alone
Systems don’t exist in a vacuum – they exist for a reason – to accomplish something. In the context of nonprofits, that something is the work (programs, fundraising, hiring, etc.), which helps organizations accomplish their missions. We work in nonprofits because we are committed to these missions – systems give you an opportunity to show your staff (and build into the system) how their work connects to your mission. This helps keep employees in touch with the reason that what they do (and how they do it) matters to what you are trying to accomplish in the world. It makes them mission accomplices. This, in turn, increases their motivation not only to do a great job executing the system, but also to look for ways to do it more effectively or efficiently.
Why Systems are the Key to Growth
Organizations often grow because the staff is stretched too thin, and the first thing leaders think is “we need more staff!” We always tell our clients to wait – before hiring staff. First, build the systems that will enable the staff you hire to get up to speed right away and do a great job for you. How much time gets lost in training new employees and having to mentor them every step of the way until they know what they are doing? That’s not a good setup for the employee (who constantly fears what they don’t know and worries they might make mistakes) or for you (who has to spend too many hours of your time shepherding their development). Systems allow you to accomplish all of that while stepping back and keeping your eye on the horizon of where you are going. They also allow you to work on the softer skills your employees need to excel at their jobs. This is how you scale your work (and therefore your impact) more quickly and with consistency.
Project Management is System’s Pretty Twin
Once you have developed some good systems, it’s time to put them into practice. This is where project management systems come in. There are software systems out there that do project management, and most have a free version that allow you to try them on for size. One we particularly like is Asana but any similar software will do the trick. Once you learn what it can do, you can configure the software to support your systems by automating some of the steps, holding templates to make the work easier, clarifying the work sequence, and keeping the work on track.
When you’re ready to get more efficient and effective contact us and we’ll talk to you about what it takes to start building systems for your organization!