Looking back to leap forward: Five years of the Digital Impact Alliance

In January, I announced our new five-year strategy, Digital Beacons. Today, I’m pleased to publish an independent evaluation of DIAL’s work up to that point—what we call “DIAL 1.0”—which is a follow-up to our 2018 baseline ecosystem study. To be honest, as the CEO of DIAL, not all of it is cheery reading. The team, our board, and I have reflected at length on its lessons, which you can get a taste of in the executive summary. But as a new organization deeply focused on learning, it’s critical that we understand what went wrong and what went right so we can continuously improve and renew. In so doing, we can ensure maximal impact on what we care about most: catalyzing digital transformation worldwide.

DIAL CEO Kate Wilson (far right) leading a panel discussion on “How To Advance An Inclusive Digital Society and Scale ICTs for the SDGs” in 2018.

Using the findings of the 1.0 “endline” evaluation and our own organizational learnings as a starting point, I share below my own leadership lessons of the past five years and the solutions my team and I have put in place to improve our practice. These insights fall into three main buckets: laying a strong strategic foundation, value proposition clarity, and people. With the support of our board and with gratitude for the tireless efforts of my amazing colleagues, I offer these insights for others who might be grappling with the growing pains of starting a new, ambitious, and exciting organization from scratch.

Lesson 1: Stay ambitious but do not underestimate the time required to build and take ownership of the strategic foundation of your work.

At the start of any new initiative, there’s always a tension between the pressure to show results as quickly as possible and the need to lay a sound foundation on which the organization can grow.

By February 2016, DIAL had two years of buzz attached to what we were going to do and the scale of the funding earmarked to do it, but we hadn’t really gotten started yet. We felt an urgent need to move fast and deliver some “quick wins.” We started hiring, reaching out to partners, shaping our programs, and recruiting a board, while simultaneously organizing early research and other activities.

But the strategy had not been fully road-tested. DIAL’s founding donors and partners had defined their shared priorities, developed a strategic plan, committed funds, consulted the community extensively, and created a governance structure, but it was all on paper. They were aligned on strategic areas, governance, and financing, but not on priorities within those parameters. As we started to make trade-offs in an ambitious strategic plan that was five times larger in scale than our financing, we encountered disagreement between donors and within the team.  

Under pressure, we changed the initial strategic plan minimally and tried to make progress on multiple fronts. To manage differing visions, our team focused on getting some quick wins out the door within individual siloed areas. DIAL’s workstreams did not really come together around a central, unifying strategy that the full team could internalize and rally behind until 2018. This clouded our messaging, identity, and strategy at a critical time in our early days and sent us off in too many different directions at precisely the time we needed to come together.

Five years in, I believe that the founding donors’ commitment represents a model for digital development that can be done well, and that DIAL has fulfilled the promise of that early vision. Yet, by not taking the time to focus on building the foundation first and moving a little too fast, we actually lost time, as we had to revisit, revise, and unwind some of those early activities and organizational choices.

DIAL convened a group of donor and implementing government and non-governmental organizations to discuss shared challenges and opportunities to work more closely together in 2019.

Looking back, I should have rewritten the strategic plan from the outset and narrowed its scope before moving so quickly to execute across multiple dimensions. My advice is to take the time to frankly engage your stakeholders—your team and your board together—to reassess your actual capacity, financing, and timelines, and potentially reset your initial plans so that they allow you to truly focus on building the organization first while achieving a few modest wins. Get the basics right first, bring your board along, set your ambitions, hire gradually, and then start to move.

For example, I should have proposed to DIAL’s Board, which included our founding donors, that we use an incremental strategy to test different focus areas (e.g., data for development, platforms, and services) before finalizing our strategic ambitions and build a results framework that reflected such an approach. This would have allowed us the time to build up the organization while also developing credibility in the sector. A sharper focus drawn together across key themes combined with a more incremental approach would have also created a stronger foundation for the evaluation of DIAL’s progress over time and our broader identity in the ecosystem early on.

DIAL’s 2021-2026 strategy, Digital Beacons, took a radically different approach in setting up what we call “DIAL 2.0.” This time around, our team—not consultants—conducted our own analysis and held wide-ranging discussions with our Board and other partners, examining alternative paths and outcomes and making clear trade-offs based on available financing. I believe that this iterative process paid off. We’re now aligned with our donors on shared objectives, with financing linked to those priorities. As a team, we’re clear on what we want to do together and understand how we can learn from what we’re doing, pivot where needed, and reach even higher.

Lesson 2: Even with a strong strategic plan, make sure your value proposition is clear.

As I alluded to in the previous section, with hindsight it’s easy to see that we were trying to do too many things under DIAL 1.0. The strategic plan that guided our first five years was broad and ambitious, and, as a result, we struggled to articulate a strong, focused, and specific value proposition. The evaluation I’m sharing today found that the stakeholders we work with every day appreciated DIAL’s staff and work immensely, but those at a remove from our day-to-day activities were not as familiar with us. Even our advocates noted that our broad mandate made it difficult to fully grasp all that the organization was driving and our role in the ecosystem. Key informants identified our lack of focus as a challenge to our ambition to partner and influence the digital ecosystem.

Our new strategy for DIAL 2.0—Digital Beacons—strongly corrects for this issue. Our value proposition is clear: We help development actors navigate the complexities of digital transformation in three distinct ways:

DIAL’s Digital Beacons Strategic Plan aims to accelerate, build, and connect to reach everyone, everywhere.
  • Accelerate transformations in individual countries through direct technical support and synthesize and share the lessons-learned from others.
  • Build a global movement around best practices in digital transformation through the provision of policy briefs, hosting communities of practice on key topics in digital transformation, and acting as the stewards and trainers on the Principles of Digital Development.
  • Connect development actors to the products and services they need, whether through our Product Catalog, our reference implementations using digital building blocks, or our Open Source Center.

These three distinct lines of effort ensure that we cover the entire digital ecosystem, but in very tactical ways. We may be broad in touching each angle of the ecosystem, but we’re also very clear in what we actually do and don’t do within each angle. Digital Beacons reflects these choices explicitly. This helps ensure DIAL is adding value to the broader set of players in the space, avoiding duplication of effort, and working effectively towards its goal of catalyzing digital transformation in specific and measurable ways that together work as a system. Our communications strategy has been completely overhauled to reflect this clearer value proposition, and we expect DIAL’s profile and place in the ecosystem will strengthen further in the coming years as it rolls out.

Lesson 3: As always, focus on your people before anything else.

Perhaps the most important lesson I have internalized deeply over the past five years is the need to invest time, effort, and resources to develop and nurture a shared, supportive organizational culture that can face hard issues with grace and humility. DIAL has at its heart a very diverse staffing principle, designed to represent the diverse ecosystem we serve. Our philosophy is that if we bring together people from a mix of backgrounds and professional experiences, we can make strides uniting our fragmented ecosystem. This remains a core value for DIAL, but requires a lot of time, energy, and focus to bring everyone together around shared norms, values, and other key aspects of internal culture.

The DIAL team at a 2019 staff retreat.

For example, DIAL’s early leadership team came from the technology, academia, consulting, and NGO worlds. We each had different ideas of work practices and did not take the time to align on working norms in those early days—a simple but important thing to do. For example, we didn’t address questions such as: What does a “good product” look like? How, and how quickly, do you make decisions? This even impacted the strategic issues I mention above. While people may use the same terms, their meaning may be quite different to each individual, particularly in the absence of shared experience. As a result, we had challenges with frustration, burnout, and, worst of all, staff turnover. All of this impacted team morale, trust, and, ultimately, our delivery. I could have prioritized defining and modelling core values earlier and balanced leadership with a more collaborative approach to problem-solving. I should have spent more time earlier on understanding the interplay of our diverse styles, boundaries, and preferences for interacting, and listening to changes that were sought by the team.

Over the last few years, I’ve doubled down on working with my leadership team and the organization as a whole to address these challenges head on. We’ve prioritized open, honest communication and feedback; clearer load-balancing and expectations management; and diversity, equity and inclusion practices, both internally and in the practice of our work.

In addition, COVID-19 and the complete pivot to remote work has made us invest more deeply in DIAL’s organizational health. I encourage leaders to engage with their teams to identify and leverage the myriad tools and technologies that can bolster collaboration and communication in this new world we find ourselves in. These have worked wonders in ways I would not have expected—from building trust to facilitating project management to finding a virtual alternative to the watercooler we all used to gather around.

Even with the start-up challenges, we still had impact.

Since those early days in 2016, DIAL has evolved from a 40-page set of plans to a vibrant organization. Even with all of the start-up challenges from DIAL 1.0, we have a lot to be proud of. Our digital development research practice has published 60 publications and nearly 150 blogs; conducted experiments with partners in mobile messaging, data aggregation, and responsible data use in 12 countries, which are now being replicated without our help; trained more than 600 people across six continents on the best practices in digital development; and connected five digital and data communities that were once siloed by sector and geography. When COVID-19 struck, in less than three months we reallocated 55% of our funding by pivoting some existing work to use cases that could address COVID-19 and committing an additional $1.03 million to partners in the field.

And we’re only getting started. As we look towards DIAL 2.0 under Digital Beacons, we will have even deeper impact. We’re working directly with several countries to support their efforts to become “Digital Exemplars”—models from which other countries can learn when embarking on their own digital transformations. We’re undertaking groundbreaking research on financing and governance for digital transformation. We’re kick-starting an entirely new approach to finding and leveraging digital public goods. This includes a completely overhauled online Product Catalog and, perhaps most exciting, a global movement around digital “building blocks”—a far more cost-effective and efficient way for countries to build their digital architecture. And finally, we’re building a renewed and thriving DIAL culture, one focused on inclusivity, innovation, and pushing for equity and country-level ownership of digital transformation.

I hope that by sharing some of my lessons and solutions from DIAL 1.0, I’ve provided some insights for fellow leaders operating in a similar space. Take the time up front to set a solid foundation for your organization and take ownership of your own strategy, even if it means resetting expectations with your stakeholders. Be crystal clear on your value proposition. And always focus first on your people. These lessons may sound obvious, but it’s so easy to lose sight of them when you’re in the early rush of a start-up. In DIAL’s case, we certainly could have done better on all three fronts, and our endline evaluation of DIAL 1.0 makes that clear.

Identifying and confronting these challenges head on provides a learning opportunity from which to create an even stronger future for your organization. That’s why I end the past five years and look towards the next five still motivated by DIAL’s founding mission but clear-eyed about the need to continue to learn from my and my team’s experience.

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The endline evaluation for DIAL 1.0 and its executive summary are available to read here.