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Guest blog: Creating digitally confident leaders in the social sector

21st December 2016

Ellie Hale is an associate at CAST, the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology. Here, she writes about CAST's work with CEOs and Directors of social organisations through the Digital Fellowship, and reflects on what they have learned over the past six months. 

Find out more about CAST at www.wearecast.org.uk.

Over the last six months, CAST’s Digital Fellowship has transformed nine CEOs and Directors of small to medium-sized charities into digitally confident leaders. We’ve guided our energetic group of Fellows through a programme of eight half-day workshops, led by different experts on aspects of digital development such as ‘lean’ and ‘agile’ processes, user-centred design, sustainable business models, lean analytics, impact measurement and organisational change, to name but a few. Some of these concepts are better known in the world of tech startups, but they can be equally applicable to the social sector, when given the right twist.

Each session brought new tools and processes, from the double diamond of service design to the superhero canvas. These each act as a handy framework to organise your thinking at different stages. Everyone has great ideas in them, after all, but it’s not always clear where to hone your energy at each point, or how to ensure your idea is backed up with evidence of need or demand. By shamelessly borrowing the methodologies of the biggest, most successful tech and design companies in the world, it’s easier to navigate new concepts and remain focused on creating something relevant, iterative and that people will actively choose to use.   

Loved the post-it notes - it really made us think and hone our idea from the all-singing, all-dancing.”

The programme culminated in a design sprint with Founders & Coders, whose enthusiastic graduate developers came to each charity’s offices around the UK for a requirements-finding ‘hack day’. This was an opportunity for our Fellows to disseminate their learnings to their teams, and to engage other people in their organisation - be it fundraisers, project managers, marketing and PR officers or trustees - in the planning of a new digital product.

It was primarily a training exercise, since most hacks and development projects would need a far greater level of planning and user engagement than this (we spend a full two months on this stage in our Fuse accelerator!), but enough to get everyone excited about potential tangible applications of their knowledge. It was also a chance to share a few tips about how to work effectively with developers, and as part of this we trained the Fellows on using GitHub, the code repository used by nearly all programmers as their ‘single source of truth’.

“GitHub was great for submitting issues. We could see where the issues had been completed and could keep track of the progress.”

The final part of the hack day was the allocation of the important role of product owner - the person who is the interface between their organisation (and, ultimately, its end users) on the one hand and the development team on the other. Someone who can communicate with both sides, understanding the needs and restrictions of each. They are vital for the success of any new service, because without them, there is nobody who can accurately manage expectations from the outset, steer either side back on track if it has drifted off course, or direct the small elements while keeping in mind the big vision.

Communication breakdown is the commonest cause of failure for tech projects, and even the best coders in the world can inadvertently create something their clients don’t really want. While the shortage of coding talent in the UK is well documented, what is less talked about, but equally problematic for the creation of effective digital products, is the massive shortage of capable client-side product owners. It affects every sector - startups, nonprofits and corporates alike - but in the case of smaller charities, the stakes are arguably higher because resource is so tight that to have a digital project fail could be a catastrophic cost.

“Without effective knowledge in the sector, the cost of consultants is prohibitive and digital fear a real barrier (we don’t even know the questions to ask let alone understand the answers), so we tend to shy away from exploring digital options. CAST has given me the framework, ability to understand and confidence to know what can be done and just as importantly what cannot be done.”

After a few weeks’ interim, during which time the Fellows and their product owners (which was one and the same in a few organisations) conducted additional user research to ensure their ideas were on track, the Founders & Coders teams ran two design sprints for each charity. Based on the model from Google Ventures, these short, intense bursts of activity enable the team to cover a lot of ground in a small amount of time, and are followed by a thorough review of the progress made. As our Fellows discovered, this works best of all when the product owner is on hand throughout, and there are daily ‘stand-up’ check-ins to ensure everyone is aligned on the priorities for the day ahead.

“I had to clear time every day to keep on top of what was happening. If you don't do this, don't bother. You have to be committed to it. All they [the programmers] can do is interpret what you want functionally but they can't interpret the issue for you so you have to build a picture of what's needed.”

As the year draws to a close, most of our Fellows have finished their build sprints. In just three weeks of development time, many have created some pretty neat prototypes. Not bad for the products of a training exercise! These will need a lot more testing before they’re ready to go live, but have at the very least successfully demonstrated the potential of an engaged team and a tried and tested process. We look forward to sharing some of the MVPs (minimum viable products) as they are finessed over the next few months, as well as some first-hand experiences from the Fellows themselves.

Most importantly, they are leaving the programme with the confidence to put digital at the heart of their work. Many of the methodologies they’ve learned are easily transferable to non-digital projects (see this article for a great overview of how design thinking is creeping into strategy and change management across all types of organisation). We hope we’ve shown that by using the right tools to simplify and humanise problems, nonprofits actually don’t need to know anything very technical to be able to plan, manage and evaluate new digital services.

“It has been a really challenging year for the sector and this project has been a ray of sunshine.”

We are hoping to run another Digital Fellowship in 2017, and in the meantime will support our Fellows in spreading their learning throughout the sector. For a glimpse of this, check out the video below from our recent regroup party, where we gathered the Fellows together one last time to share their feedback and highlights from the programme.

 

This blog was originally posted on CAST's Medium channel. The DSI4EU project was not involved in the Digital Fellowship programme.

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