Three Simple Steps to System Success: Design, Align, Refine

Tobin Conley | 06.02.16
Topics: Software Requirements & Selection

Before you go too far down the path of system selection, allow me to redirect your attention to my technology rule of three: Design, Align, and Refine.

Applying these three principles will help you ask better questions, have more fruitful discussions, and make wiser decisions during the system selection process. They also come in handy when assessing the effectiveness of your organization’s overall technology use or when evaluating just one particular system.

Let’s take a closer look at this technology mantra, shall we?


Before investing resources (both time and money) in a new system, first think about Design—specifically, the design of the system in question, but also the larger design of your technology ecosystem. Here are three questions you should ask:

  1. Is this new system truly designed to help you meet specific business goals? Be very clear about its intended purpose—what you expect it to do, how it will help you meet existing goals, and how it might prepare you to meet future goals. Make sure your expectations for the system are realistic and aligned with the business objectives of your organization. Don’t invest resources in the latest cool tool if it doesn’t support your organization’s goals and mission.
  2. Have you looked into your organization’s existing technologies to see if any of them could help you meet the goals/objectives in question? Although it’s tempting to try out the new platform everyone’s talking about, talk to your IT department first. They may be able to provide what you need with resources that you already have or integrations that you have access to.
  3. And, most importantly, will the new technology solve the real problem? More specifically, must other difficult work be done before or in conjunction with the implementation of new technology? Too often, the prospect of a new system distracts staff from the real elephant in the room. It’s important to ask yourself tough questions, i.e., do underlying issues of process or culture need to be fixed first? For example, data warehouse and visualization tools won’t make the expected impact if your data is old and incomplete, if the wrong data is collected, if departments hoard data, or if your staff doesn’t use data to inform decisions. You need to work on these policy and culture basics before investing in data management tools.

The bottom line is this: any time you bring a new system into the mix is a good time to step back and look at the bigger technology picture.

  • Does the design of your existing technology environment/tools meet the current business needs of your organization? If not, how can it be ade to do so?
  • Is the new system flexible enough to potentially
  • Do process and culture issues stand in the way?
  • Do you have a technology plan? Are technology decisions coordinated and priorities agreed upon by all relevant parties in your organization?

Furthermore, don’t look at each system in isolation. Design your technology with a more holistic perspective, like the one we recommend in our IT Maturity Model, where technology, processes, and people all work together in alignment.



Seek to Align existing systems and tools so they work well together, each performing the tasks for which it was designed. Start thinking about alignment during the system selection stage. How will the new system align and/or integrate with existing systems?

Often the most significant hurdle to alignment is culture. To overcome this obstacle, you need the support of your C-suite and department heads, otherwise you waste resources and squander a valuable opportunity.

A common example of culture standing in the way of progress is one you may have seen at your own organization: departments using systems in silos. For example, staff selling exhibit space uses one customer relationship management (CRM) system, staff selling advertising and sponsorships uses a later version of the same CRM, and most of the other staff uses the association management system (AMS) to record and track member engagement.

Unfortunately, the C-suite may allow the revenue-generating teams to use whatever tools they want instead of encouraging them to align (integrate) their systems with the AMS or database of record. As a result, the association will never have a full 360-view of their members. Staff won’t be able to leverage data to understand the depth of member involvement or take a coordinated approach to marketing and sales. This lack of knowledge affects program and product development, retention efforts, and content (value) delivery.

It’s important to align processes too. If you’re willing to change processes so they align with your technology, you will make better use of your systems and budget—after all, customization can be expensive, in both the short term and the long run.


And, finally, we come to Refine. Refinement is a constant process of assessing and tweaking your technology. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do we take full advantage of our tools’ potential?
  • Do we consistently apply recommended updates to our technology?
  • Do we regularly identify any third-party integrations or tools that will enhance the use of our technology?

Refine your human resources as well: dedicate funds in your budget for regular user training and/or attendance at user conferences so you continue to take full advantage of your systems’ functionality and get the best return on your technology investment.

As the world of our members changes, their expectations and needs change. Continue to refine how your technology works together to meet their evolving needs and changing circumstances in your marketplace.

A good example of Refine in action is website usability testing. Usability testing allows you to improve and enhance the online user experience. Member feedback collected by survey and poll plug-ins, or other interactive online tools, can also be used to refine the online experience.

How to embrace the Design, Align, Refine mantra

Technology leadership in your organization must take ownership of the Design, Align, and Refine principles and introduce them to colleagues in other departments. Check in regularly with other departments. Review the performance of their existing technology and processes. Identify future needs. Determine whether process, culture, or training issues prevent them from taking full advantage of their systems.

An IT Maturity Model assessment is a good way to establish how well your organization is abiding by the Design, Align, and Refine principles, and how well your technology, processes, and people work together to support your organization’s goals and mission.


IT Maturity Model for Associations and Nonprofits  Learn how to effectively connect technology, people, and processes to your  mission Download IT Maturity Model 




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