When it comes to digital projects of all shapes and sizes, why is it that so many go so spectacularly, horribly wrong?
The sector is littered with disgruntled clients and the aftermath of projects that were badly conceived and badly planned; essentially doomed to fail from the very outset. Sadly it seems that this isn’t a rarity. A lot of clients that I speak to – most, in fact – have a horror story or two of their own to tell and many are left wondering which way to turn, in order to find a reliable supplier. Meanwhile, we have a thriving digital sector full of passionate, determined and in some cases, talented individuals all hell bent on doing the best possible job. Something just isn’t adding up.
So what’s going wrong?
Well, a lot of it has to do with the level of experience of the actual teams delivering these projects. The prevailing pattern over the last 10+ years has been for small, relatively inexperienced ‘digital agencies’ or ‘web development’ companies to attempt to run these projects in-house.
Invariably these businesses lack serious, experienced project managers and business analysts. Oftentimes the business will undertake work using technologies or in sectors in which it has little to no prior experience. Couple this with young, inexperienced account managers and development teams constantly in flux, resulting in poor continuity of communication and this indeed looks like a recipe for almost certain failure. This just wouldn’t happen in other sectors – at least not to this extent – but in digital it’s pretty much the modus operandi.
How can I possibly say this? Well, I’ve certainly been there myself too many times in the past. The typical new client-agency relationship runs something along these lines: senior team does a fantastic job up front in terms of nailing the strategy and winning the business (because those are the guys who really ‘get it’) but when it comes to handing over to the (usually far less experienced) delivery and account management teams, things start to come undone; often rapidly.
A customer centric approach to delivering technology projects
After watching all of this go down I do feel that something very important has been lost along the way. Often times organizations seem to lose sight of the fact that that the most important people in any technology project are the end users – your customers.
Before starting to talk about technology, we should focus 100% of our time, effort and energy into understanding and defining precisely what constitutes an outstanding online experience for your target audience.
Only through developing a deep understanding of the business, the sector and your customer can we begin to design appropriate user interfaces and experiences. How does mobile fit into the picture? What about Social? Tablets? How do the customers research products and solutions before making a purchase decision?
Avoiding premature obsolescence
Once we have answers to these fundamental questions we can begin to specify the most appropriate suite of technologies to meet the needs of your audience in a seamless, fully integrated manner. What works and what doesn’t. What’s easy to integrate with and what isn’t and in fact is going to cause us nightmares for years to come.
The fact is that technology in this space moves at a frightening pace. Yesterday’s ‘enterprise solution’ is tomorrow’s junk. Anyone fancy a shiny new Flash based website? How about we build you something in ColdFusion?
Excellence in execution
Irrespective of the rigorous and insightful work done up front to define the proposition, it’s most often at the delivery stage where things start to come unstuck. Project slippage, missed deadlines, missing functionality, endless bugs, endless headaches and enormous, unnecessary pressure for all concerned. Not to mention the potential for significant financial losses on both sides.
A commitment to best in class
It’s therefore absolutely essential to select the most appropriate delivery partners to fulfill the needs of the project.
Here’s a simple set of criteria for partner selection that, even if you take nothing else away from this, I would suggest you adopt to qualify any potential supplier in this space.
- Extensive experience with this specific technology platform – including multiple live examples backed by testimonials from happy clients
- Size and experience of the team that will be implementing our project.
- Availability and flexibility of resource
- Evidence of a repeatable, solid project planning process
- Ability to support the project post launch.
Seems pretty simple, yet in my experience you would be amazed at how little due diligence actually seems to take place around these issues in actual fact. Don’t fall into that trap! Do your homework and check references carefully!
How to get it all wrong:
There are of course an almost infinite number of ways to get it badly, horribly wrong when it comes to technology projects. In order to save everyone some time, I’ve compiled the following list of fundamental ways in which you can almost certainly guarantee a complete and utter fiasco – irrespective of the technology platform or delivery partner involved!
Choose the technology platform too early. This one alone will sink most projects before they even get started. Classically, this often occurs when the boys from IT get involved too early in a project and start getting excited about technology platforms. Often times, once you have completed the planning and requirements gathering stage you will inevitably discover that something just doesn’t fit, but by then we are several months and usually several tens-of-thousands-of-pounds down the road. It’s a nasty and unpleasant route back from here, with the likely potential of a fundamental re-think of the entire piece (re-scope, re-budget, re-timeline) required in order to get things back on track. Lovely!
Greatly underestimates the scale of the project and the amount of internal (client side) work required to bring it to fruition, resulting in significant re-scoping and re-planning and re-budgeting multiple times throughout the delivery phase.
Attempt to deliver the ‘build’ phase with limited, relatively inexperienced resource. This may seem reasonable in the early stages of planning the project, but as the scale and complexity grows you will almost certainly struggled to scale the resource to meet the demands of the project. Once the project is live (assuming it ever does go live) what about the issue of dependable support?
So, what’s the answer?
I believe that the ‘digital’ sector still has some way to go in terms of developing the requisite body of experience required to reliably deliver anything above the smallest projects effectively. There are some great people out there, no doubt, but few really great teams and therefore, businesses in this space.
To further compound matters, the labor market is youthful, extremely volatile and salary inflation is rife. People move around frequently. IP and experience is limited at best – and then we have to factor in the aforementioned fact that the underlying technology base is in constant flux, meaning that skills and experience can become obsolete almost as quickly as they are obtained. It’s hard to lock-in the ‘know how’.
In the meantime, agencies should focusing on what they can do – be that up front insight, research, strategy and creative – and perhaps look to work collaboratively with clients in choosing suitably experienced, professional development partners to deliver the build elements of the project where the skills and resources do not credibly exist in-house.
Software development is a very different business to marketing, after all.
From a client’s perspective its all about expectations and due diligence. One thing that I can definitely guarantee for certain is that ‘getting it right’ is not a foregone conclusion, even with a great team in place. Expect to put in significant effort alongside your chosen partners to get to the end result. Plan for contingency. Be realistic about budgets and timescales and try to foster a working relationship based upon honest and open communication as opposed to one based upon threats, bullying and old fashioned ‘beat ‘em up’ techniques as employed by outmoded purchasing departments the world over. In my experience most folks in this sector are a pretty straight bunch and genuinely do want to do the right thing by their clients – who they hope to retain for many years to come!
Irrespective of your choice of platform and partners I of course wish you all the best with your project and I hope that some of what I have said here helps in some small way.