Project Success, Implementation Failure

In a recent conversation with a nonprofit development director, she told me, “Salesforce is the most complicated Rolodex our organization uses.” I grimaced a little and asked why.  And it turned out that while the project to roll out Salesforce had gone smoothly at her organization, by the time it was complete, they’d realized that not only did it require much more ongoing capacity than their organization had to administer and operate it, the staff responsible for the project left the organization, and there wasn’t a clear understanding across the organization why it had been done in the first place.  So, everybody now needed to use a tool they didn’t have a say in implementing, and the organization didn’t have a clearly understood pathway for bringing in new people to using it.  The lesson here: that a successful project doesn’t always lead to a successful implementation.

Does this story sound familiar?  It might.  Depending on which source you reference, you’ll find that IT projects overall are very hard to successfully implement, and have a very high failure rate.  And the factors for why implementations fail probably won’t surprise you: lack of executive leadership, lack of user buy-in, poor understanding of metrics and business processes, changing and poorly-understood goals, and staff departures, among others.  I was privileged to be a part of giving a half-day workshop at the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington, DC called “How to Succeed in Technology Failure without Really Leading,” where we explored these reasons in-depth.

My takeaway from that workshop was firsthand knowledge from our participants on how they’ve both experienced and overcome this pain.  There’s a tension working in the nonprofit sector that many of us who have been serving nonprofits see too well: the need to have an immediate solution versus the need to have a strategic solution.  Too often, the constraints under which nonprofits operate can drive them to use the tools they’re adopting as solutions unto themselves, rather than first resolving larger organizational concerns.  Because failure is perceived to be, or in the worst cases literally, not an option.  A new tool, such as Salesforce, is brought in and even successfully launched.  Until something changes in the foundation upon which that launch was predicated.  And then a degradation of the new tool begins – data gets mis-entered, users don’t know how to get reports, data is recorded in outmoded or external systems.  The search for a new tool begins again.

The long-term impact of this process weakens nonprofits: it makes them vulnerable to being sold new solutions without solving old concerns, race to adopt tools and technologies without organizational context, and causes confusion and alienation at all levels of the organization. There’s a bigger picture here: how can we make the adoption of any technology the transformational moment necessary to break this cycle?  A nonprofit’s data and information about its constituents is its legacy, which must outlive the people who are currently responsible for it.  So much of the success and longevity of a Salesforce implementation resides completely outside the literal Salesforce platform, it’s worth considering first what must be aligned to improve the odds of adoption and implementation.

When an organization moves to Salesforce, this decision is sometimes governed by factors as in-depth as connection to a long-standing technology plan, but often can be because of reasons as simple as peer adoption, perceived value, excellent marketing campaigns, and the need to have something new simply “work” for the organization.  Sometimes, organizations will go through the process of collecting information and putting it together into an RFP, which is often a listing of the disparate goals and needs of departments, current pain points, and an aspirational assessment of the features of Salesforce as applied to these pain points.

If you’re bringing Salesforce to your organization and it’s not connected to a plan for its adoption and use, or, if you’re building (and paying for) an RFP based on the exact problems you currently have, please stop. Stop. Stop right now and consider this: you are starting from the wrong place.

Adopting and growing Salesforce will mean that everyone in your organization is connected to everyone else – there are few opportunities to ask the platform to behave differently for different departments.  Everyone who is accustomed to swimming in their own departmental pools will suddenly be swimming in the same organizational pool, together.  And your processes, understanding of your constituents, and desired metrics for your data must now be developed together.  They will need to change and grow, and that change and growth will need to be managed accordingly so that Salesforce doesn’t become a catchall, but rather an ally in your organization’s operations.

Salesforce is an amazing platform, versatile, extensible, and powerful.  I wouldn’t be co-founding a consultancy for which it forms a key component if I believed otherwise.  For nonprofits, with the generosity of the Salesforce Foundation, heady for-profit business performance is within reach.

But the place to begin is not when a solution is being sold, or information for an RFP is being collected.  Begin by simply asking the question that brought many of us to work in the nonprofit sector, “What do you value?”  Encompassed in this question is asking your organization what data and information is most important to every department, asking your leadership how it will support line staff with time and resources for training and adoption, asking your line staff what’s really working for them and why.  It is a question rooted in curiosity, and when the space to answer it safely is given, and answers heard with humility, it will take your organization down a different path.

Because an RFP shouldn’t be a listing of everything that’s broken, it should be a presentation of the values, and the metrics, needs for reporting, data concerns, plans for growth and expansion, and constituent engagement that you want your new tool to encompass.  Adopting Salesforce shouldn’t be perceived as a cure-all, but as an organizational vision connected to your internal community of users and external constituents.  It’s easier to have the “everything is wrong” discussion than it is to have the “how will we make it right” discussion.  The former plays into the dreams of others and what they will sell you to make it right, the latter reflects your organization’s dreams and what you need to understand about yourself to make it last.

Co-Founder, BrightStep Partners • Salesforce MVP

Posted in Best Practice, Implementation Success, Strategy
7 comments on “Project Success, Implementation Failure
  1. […] my most recent blog, I suggested that organizations considering Salesforce that begin their process with an RFP are starting in the wrong ….  But if an RFP isn’t the right place to start, then where […]


  2. Katie McFadden says:

    “It’s easier to have the “everything is wrong” discussion than it is to have the “how will we make it right” discussion”

    Exactly. And figuring out how to “make it right” takes an initial investment of resources to create a collaborative conversation between consultants and stakeholders. It’s a beautiful and fruitful process if it’s not rushed through to get at the short term-solutions!

    Thanks for sharing this perspective.


  3. […] Start Small, Dream Big: The ideal implementation is mindful of where an organization wants to go, and not just what it needs to solve for in the short term for the project – make the implementation successful, rather than just the project. […]


  4. […] are a myriad of ways to shotgun a Salesforce project and execute on the requirements. But we want to look a little deeper at make sure that an […]


  5. […] off, but ultimately come to a conclusion – in the world of Salesforce implementations, this is project success, implementation failure.  Fusion reactions require different, more refined components than their fission counterparts, a […]


  6. […] One of these reasons alone may not be a dealbreaker, but often organizations are caught in a web of monetary expenditure for a tool that isn’t meeting their needs, change and growth, and potential limits to the power of Salesforce for departments outside of fundraising.  Organizations can help themselves by choosing to focus on what metrics are most important to all departments and their mission first, before even starting a Salesforce project, but often don’t engage in this process for the sake of completing the project. […]


  7. […] its outcome as reflected in cycles of Salesforce implementations as a consultant.  A while back I wrote a blog about this and the necessity for a strategic approach, but in fact, even this assumes that an organization has the funding resources to be strategic at […]


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