Ok, first of all, you may be asking, what is a Tech Discovery?

A tech “discovery” is the initial, independent phase of a technology project where key analysis, design and planning are performed BEFORE a buy or build decision is made. Discoveries are the “sharpening your ax” mode smart nonprofits invest in before taking a swing at technology challenges, and avoiding them can result in a big miss.

Whether you are considering a new fundraising and engagement CRM, advocacy tool, reengineered database, custom integration, CMS or back office system, a separate discovery is the BEST approach to ensuring success.

The reality is that skipping or neglecting the discovery phase is the most common cause of budget and timeline overruns, low adoption and ROI, and misalignment to people and processes.

Why is that? Here are our top 3 reasons:

1. Discoveries Lower Risk & Cost

Nonprofit technology projects should begin with Discoveries to Lower Risk & Cost

Let’s start with the most concrete reason discoveries are vital: Discoveries lower risk, and therefore cost.

When performing a facilitated discovery in advance of a tech change, unknowns are surfaced, assumptions are validated, refined or debunked, and obstacles to adoption and long-term viability are removed.

Discoveries are essentially risk mitigation exercises, and they should be a separate contract from the build phase whenever possible. When done this way, they remove inefficiency from the build which almost ALWAYS lowers the overall investment.

Beyond these obvious benefits, discoveries also remove the risk of implementing the wrong solution. A separate discovery that provides a clear “go/no-go” decision point can also surface a project that should NOT be done. Sometimes the best outcome is determining that “go” would be a bad decision – and the discovery gives you an “out” before it’s too late. Investing a small amount of budget to avoid wasting the larger budget can be a great decision.

In fact, when organizations lump the discovery and build together, they actually can INCREASE cost. With a one lump project, often through an RFP, vendors have to price according to the worst-case scenario, and scope changes and schedule overruns are more likely due to all the “educated guessing” involved.

Two contracts, one discovery and one build: less risk and cost. It’s like that old adage from carpentry, “Measure Twice, Cut Once.”

2. Discoveries Drive Alignment & Adoption

Nonprofit technology projects should begin with Discoveries to align goals

The first thing to accept about any technology project is that it’s not really about technology. It’s about people. After all, these tools exist to help people do their jobs better, right? If it doesn’t work for them, what’s the point?

By focusing on the needs of people, and not the tools themselves, you avoid the biggest mistake organizations often make: Asking your people to adapt to your tech, instead of building your tech around your people. Focusing on the tech first is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. You will see something, but not very clearly and not very far. 

That kind of narrow view misses out on leveraging the collective intelligence, creativity and experience of your most valuable resource – the amazing, heart-centered people you work with every day. Trust them. Ask them what they know, what they think, and what they need. More times than not you will be richly rewarded (see innovation & growth below).

Your people can help answer critical questions:

  1. Are we solving the right problem?
  2. If so, do we fully understand it? 
  3. Is a process or culture change also needed for the solution to work?
  4. Will reconfiguration, data cleanup or training on our current tech be just as impactful?
  5. Have we surfaced all the information we need to make an informed decision? 

Performing stakeholder interviews, alignment workshops, reviews of current workflows and data, explorations of goals, gaps and opportunities brings everyone impacted into the process. With an experienced tech agnostic partner to facilitate, you will increase team buyin, cohesion and adoption through participation.

Your people, who ultimately will make or break the project, need to be heard. They will thank you for it by owning the change and driving a positive outcome.

3. Discoveries Spark Innovation & Growth

Nonprofit technology projects should begin with Discoveries to spark innovation

The third and possibly most exciting reason that discoveries are so valuable is that by taking a step back before making a technology change, you give yourself the opportunity to look at the big picture and beyond.

We don’t know what we don’t know. By deferring buy/build decisions to after the discovery, you can explore beyond the immediate problem. You create space to consider new ideas, creative solutions, and long-term impacts. You can spark a culture of innovation at your organization.

The discovery process itself is designed to challenge your assumptions, help you think outside of the box, access external viewpoints and expertise, and imagine, prototype, and roadmap a better future before you commit.

Discoveries are not just a good idea, they are the secret to success. When you control risk and cost and involve your people to drive alignment and adoption, you give your organization the space and opportunity to move from surviving to thriving.

In the end, it’s not enough to just solve the technology challenges of today. Through a well-designed, human-centered technology discovery, you can make growth and innovation an everyday reality.

About the Author

Brian Greenwald is a Nonprofit Superfan at Generate_Impact – a human-centered technology services company focused solely on celebrating and serving humanitarian, social impact, sustainability and for-profit-for-good organizations and causes.