Can we change anything?

Paul Boag

I was recently interviewed by Sitepoint about my new book and speaking at Future of Web Design on April 9th.

I don’t normally include interviews that I have done on the blog. Personally I find interviews boring. However, Craig from Sitepoint asked some very perceptive questions – not least of which was “Will business leaders listen and what can we do to make our voices heard?

Hey Paul. There are few people yet to encounter you on the web, but tell us a little about yourself and what you do?

That question should be easy to answer, but over the years I have started to find it much more difficult. It used to be simple – I was a web designer. However it is a long time since I have coded anything other than my own website. I keep my hand in, but would be embarrassed to call myself a web designer these days.

I guess I am a business advisor or digital strategist. I help organisations do two things; adapt to the changes that digital have brought to the world and by showing organisations how to use the new digital tools to their full potential.

I achieve this either through working directly with organisations via my digital agency Headscape or by speaking and writing on the topic.

Blogs. Podcasts. Books. Videos. Conference talks. How do you find time to run a successful web agency?!

It’s actually very simple. I don’t! I am hugely involved in working with clients, but I don’t run Headscape. My co-founders Marcus Lillington and Chris Scott do that. I would be lost without them.

My role at Headscape is ensuring our clients are making the most of the new digital economy and that means I have to stay on the cutting edge of web innovation. The blogging, writing, podcast etc, enables me to do that. I learn and then share what I have learnt. It really is that simple. Sometimes I am sharing with an individual client, other times with the whole community.

When it comes to the design and build of the digital assets we create for clients, I am probably the least qualified at Headscape. We have a fantastic team and I know when to keep out of their way.

Your FOWD talk is titled “Digital Adaptation: Time to Untie Your Hands”. Sounds cryptic! Tell us more…

Oh dear, it wasn’t meant to sound cryptic! I need to improve my headline writing skills :)

Have you ever noticed how much we moan as web professionals? We moan about our clients, our bosses, our colleagues. We moan because they don’t ‘get’ digital. It’s because we are living through a period of huge change. Digital has turned the world upside down and while as web professionals we are at the front of that change, the rest of the world is slightly behind us.

The companies we work with and for are often pre-digital businesses. Our colleagues, clients and bosses use digital, but not to the level we do. Both businesses and people are shaped by the industrial age and are struggling to move into the digital age.

In my talk at FOWD and the associated book I am looking at that transition period. I am talking about the businesses and people with whom we work and their need to adapt. But I am arguing we need to be catalysts of change rather than standing on the sidelines moaning that change isn’t happening quickly enough.

I argue that despite not having the authority or permission we need to untie our hands and start pitching in to bring about transformation in the organisations with which we work.

The web is 25 years old. Why do you think companies are still struggling to adapt to digital business?

Absolutely. 25 years sounds like a long time, but in historical terms it is not. Also you have to remember that the web of 25 years ago bears little resemblance to the web of today, at least not in terms of business or cultural impact.

Its important to remember just how ingrain the philosophy of the industrial economy is. Mass market, mass media, mass production have shaped everything from our 9 to 5 workday to the very fact we have managers. Think about how huge the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy must have been. Now realise we are going through the same enormous shift at the moment.

Don’t underestimate how big an impact digital is having. Many people view it as a tool, but its actually a cultural phenomena. Its impacted every area of our lives from our social groups to our workplaces. Heck, even entire governments have collapsed under the power of social media!

Historically these kinds of gargantuan shifts in culture have taken a generation to adapt to. 25 years is not long.

Do web developers have the passion, power and persuasion skills to instigate cultural change in their organisation?

Some do. Some don’t. Most have the passion. Few have the power and many have to learn the persuasion skills. But if not us then who? Few other people grasp the enormity of what is happening around us. They think they can just bolt the web onto the existing business model by calling it a marketing tool. They don’t realise that it is decimating entire sectors. They don’t think for a minute what we have seen in newspapers or the music industry could happen elsewhere.

Not having the power is always a good excuse for not rocking the boat, but it really is just an excuse. We can cause as much disruption as we are willing to cause. As Seth Godin likes to say: Leaders are not picked, they step up.

What is the worse that can happen? Your boss fires you. But in the current economy there are no shortage of other companies willing to hire and listen to a passionate web professional with a plan for change. Your company might not appreciate the need for change, but many others do, even if they don’t know what must be done.

Will business leaders listen and what can we do to make our voices heard?

They will listen if we do two things – be persistent and speak in their language.

We like to rattle on about user needs, scalability, performance or various technical acronyms. These mean nothing to management. They care about two things – business opportunities and business threats. If you can demonstrate how digital is threatening the business or provide a strong case for how digital can give a competitive advantage, then management will start to listen.

Notice I said ‘start to listen’. We give in too easily. We say something once, they ignore us and then we go back to complaining. You have to remember that they see web professionals as implementors. You implement their ideas. Changing that perception will not happen over night. It could take years of persistent education.

The question is whether you are willing to put in the work?

Your new book “Digital Adaptation” will appeal to those in the web industry. But will it attract those who really need to read it – business managers?

Absolutely not. No business manager will purchase it because they don’t recognise a need to. That is where we come in. The book and associated resources, are tools to help you persuade management. There is a two minute trailer to grab their attention, a twenty minute presentation that goes into a bit more depth and a manifesto outlining how change needs to happen. If these tools get them interested then maybe they will read the book.

I have produced a number of resources to help convince management including this short video.

When we launched the book, people asked me to sign their copy. However, few asked me to sign it to them. Almost all had bought the book for their managers or clients. This is not a book for you, its a book you buy for others.

Can the FOWD audience look forward to blatant book plugs and a selection of Marcus’s jokes? ;)

Absolutely! I am chairing FOWD and yes I will absolutely be plugging the book to a painful degree. My aim is to be more annoying than your average sponsor slot!

If all of this sounds too terrible to bear, I can promise you one thing. It won’t be anymore annoying than Marcus’ jokes.

Are you looking forward to seeing any other speakers at FOWD?

I am most excited to hear a talk on the rising star track by Westley Knight He is picking up on some of the themes I cover in my book so I am interested to hear another perspective on this stuff. In particular he will be talking about how we as digital agencies also need to adapt to the new economy and how many of us are still using working practices left over from the industrial age.

“Conference, interview or social media concept with microphone and blank speech bubbles” image courtesy of