In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey codified a set of behaviors that can be applied to both personal conduct and organizational behavior.
The seventh habit he identified, Sharpen the Saw, seems to be one of the most obvious and least practiced. Sharpen the Saw comes out of a story of a frustrated lumberjack who is working tirelessly to cut down a tree, and says he doesn’t have time to stop and sharpen his saw, when it would actually help him to cut the tree far more efficiently and save him time in the long run. Sharpen the Saw is about thinking beyond short-term needs and determining ways to build capacity.
This concept can be applied to a variety of things on a personal basis from making sure you exercise, rest and eat properly to spiritual renewal. On an organizational basis, it can mean investing in infrastructure to ensure mission productivity and focus.
In many nonprofits, this missive goes either unrecognized or casually dismissed. Sometimes this is a short-term budgetary imperative. Often, it’s a narrow mindset that looks at human capital as essentially free, because they’re “in the budget”. Rather than spending a modest amount on technology infrastructure, for example, many nonprofits will have their employees engage in all manner of inefficient work flow. The net result from both causes, sadly, is burned out employees, flawed processes and loss of focus on mission success.
How can your nonprofit make sure it’s Sharpening the Saw in terms of IT infrastructure? A good place to start might be a simple gap analysis. Take a look at how data flows through the organization:
- What departments track what data?
- What methodology is used?
- How is the data reported?
- What are the goals in tracking this data?
Then ask staff to determine their level of satisfaction (or frustration) with each process, while suggesting process improvements. Also ask how important they view the data.
Usually a gap between what management thinks is happening and what’s actually happening becomes readily identified. Then, based on the data’s strategic importance to the organization, a priority can be set for improvements.
While this often times leads to engaging a consultant, there are often opportunities for internal, self-serve improvements that offer immediate results. If a consultant is engaged, it’s important to recognize that the opportunities presented by Cloud Computing and Platform as a Service (PaaS) have dramatically driven down costs, so that even very small nonprofits currently have the ability to dramatically improve their data management by Sharpening the Saw.