Dream big, act small

Paul Boag

We should all have ambitious dreams about what we can do with digital. But, when it comes to taking action we need to execute small, standalone projects.

What does Obamacare, Birmingham City Council and the Department of Trade and Industry all have in common? Each endeavoured to put in place ambitious online projects that ran over budget.

Parts of the Trade and Industry website cost British tax payers £11.78 per visit. Birmingham City Council spent £2.5 million on their website running £2 million over budget. Healthcare.gov has currently cost $319 million, a figure set to rise to $677 million. Their initial budget was $93 million. It also has the dubious honour of being the first website in the world that a president has had to apologise for.

We see this pattern time and again. An organisation has an ambitious vision for their digital strategy and yet fail in the implementation.

The challenge of big digital projects

It is something I see a lot with Headscape’s Higher Education clients. It has become such an epidemic in higher education that I am writing a companion to my book Digital Adaptation aimed at this sector.

Things start so well. A higher education institution wants to improve their customer experience. They want to personalise the journey from prospective undergraduate to alumni and everything between.

They want prospective students to have timely and relevant updates on courses. They want freshers to be able to navigate around campus using their smartphones. They want existing students to have instant access to lecture videos, resources and advice, 24/7.

These are all admirable goals, but they are also complex, interdependent projects. They need enterprise level customer relationship management systems (CRM), online learning environments, state of the art mobile applications. They also need manpower for inputting content, cleaning the data and recording lectures.

They involve many stakeholders from across the institution. Representatives from student recruitment, IT, comms, Alumni services, international office, accessibility officers, procurement, student services and so on. They must create committees, select external vendors and draw up timelines.

Each piece of the puzzle is reliant on every other piece. The web interface or mobile app requires the CRM to be in place. The CRM requires changes to current workflows. Changes that take months of negotiation with each department, faculty and school.

Timelines slip, budgets expand to accommodate complexity and by the end everything is out of date.

This is not a problem limited to higher education. It applies to any organisation that has reached a certain size. Digital is not an environment that supports large, slow moving projects. It is not friendly to large, institutional processes.

I think part of the problem is organisations confuse a vision with strategy. Having an ambitious vision for a digital future is wonderful, but it is not a strategy.

Vision vs strategy

A vision provides a picture of where an organisation might want to go. But to jump from the current reality to that vision in a single bound is hard. The difference between the two is too great.

A strategy is much more grounded in reality than a vision. A strategy should identify organisational problems that need solving. For example, we are losing contact with students and alumni at various points in our relationship with them. It should also identify a handful of pivotal actions that moves the organisation closer to solving the problem.

Finally, a strategy should form a framework within which the organisation operates. This framework helps the organisation move towards its ultimate vision. These might be design principles or policies and procedures. In short the strategy shapes the organisation to enable it to achieve its long term vision.

Take for example gov.uk. The ultimate vision there was to create a one stop shop for citizens looking for any government service. As a traditional project the cost would have been prohibitive and implementation impossible. It would have involved integrating hundreds of systems and dealing with thousands of stakeholders.

Instead they put in place a strategy for change. They defined the problems, established a framework and begun with a handful of actions. Out of that came the alpha.gov.uk website and their service manual.

In short, they didn’t attempt to tackle this as a single massive project, but instead took it one step at a time.

One step at a time

In the digital world this approach is by far the most sensible. Digital moves too fast to plan a 3–5 year project. It allows huge flexibility for change as you progress and unparalleled ability to track. This means that you can learn and adapt as you move forward, shaping your vision as you go. There is no need to tie down the details.

It also allows you to overcome one obstacle at a time. You only need to bring in stakeholders that allow you to address the current work package. Sometimes the work on one package will impact work further down the line, but you can adjust things at that point. Reworking like this may seems wasteful, but the savings made from simplifying the process cover the cost.

You will make mistakes, but the cost of correcting those is low with digital, especially when prototyping. These small mistakes pale into insignificance when compared to the costs of mistakes on huge IT projects.

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Finally, working in this kind of incremental fashion provides faster results. Senior management, stakeholders and customers get to see improvements within weeks rather than years. Rather than waiting until everything is complete, you can release work as its done and track its impact.

Whether you are at the start of a large digital project or part way through I would encourage you to stop. Get help putting a clear strategy in place. A strategy that includes the framework, team and procedures to enable long term transformation. Then in most cases I would recommend a small prototyping project. This will allow you to see if your vision will work, before committing to it for the long term.

“Head In The Clouds” image courtesy of Bigstock.com