Five ways internal web teams can get stuff done

Paul Boag

When working as part of an internal web team you face politics, bureaucracy and company culture incompatible with the web. How then can you ever get anything constructive done?

I have immense respect for people who work as part of an internal web team. Although I envy their ability to work long term on a project and really refine the user experience, I am appalled at the challenges they face just to get their job done. Judging by those I have worked alongside of I would say they have one of the hardest jobs in web design.

Over the years I have worked extensively with internal web teams. In that time I have learnt a lot about what does and does not work in terms of circumnavigating politics, culture and bureaucracy.

This is such a big problem in most institutions, that it features heavily in my upcoming book and is the topic for a webinar I am giving.

However, in this post I want to take a completely different take on the subject. I want to share five quick tips that I don’t cover in either the webinar or book. The idea is that you can take these tips away and start applying them today.

Consult with everybody

My first piece of advice is to consult widely. As web designers we tend to think we know best (and lets be honest, when it comes to the web we probably do). However, just because we are knowledgable about the web doesn’t make it wise to plough ahead with new initiatives without consulting. There are two reasons for this.

Make people feel valued

First, if people are not consulted then they are more likely to object when they do eventually find out. People hate to be excluded from the decision making process. Better to hear their thoughts and then explain why they won’t work, than ignore them entirely. I often find that once people have been consulted they are considerably more likely to be supportive.

Avoid problems further down the line

Second, the web impacts all aspects of the business, and so although you might be knowledgeable about the web, you may not pick up on its impact in other areas. By consulting you may avoid insurmountable obstacles that could have derailed the entire project further down the line.

How to consult

There are lots of ways of consulting with people, but the most effective is to meet with people one to one. This makes them feel much more valued and also avoids one or two dominant individuals driving the group in a direction you do not want to go. Finally, meeting people individually puts you in a position of power because you are the only person who has heard all of the feedback.

Education, education, education

These one to one meetings shouldn’t be a one way conversation. As the stakeholder talks about their ideas and concerns, you need to be discussing those with him. This is your chance to educate the person about web design best practice.

You will often hear ridiculous ideas in these meetings. The temptation is to leap all over them for fear that they will end up implemented. However this is rarely the best approach. If you attack somebody’s idea they will take it as a personal insult and become defensive.

Instead try getting people to think through the idea to its conclusion and ask questions about some of the challenges. I often find myself asking things like “so if we implement this idea, how do you think users will respond?” or “how do you think your idea will help us reach our business objectives?” Questions like these help to gently educate the stakeholder about the complexities involved, without making them look an idiot.

At the end of the day, I think one of the most important things an in-house web team should be doing is educating the rest of the company about how best to use the web.

Be transparent and inclusive

The problem with all of this education and consulting is that it feels as if it stirs up trouble. By going asking for input and drawing attention to your work, it leads to people showing an interest. Better to be invisible and work under the radar.

Unfortunately this approach rarely works. Invisible projects eventually get noticed by somebody who gets annoyed they weren’t consulted. Worse still invisible projects are easy to derail because nobody knows about them.

Instead it is much better to be open and inclusive. The primary reason for this is that it avoids surprises. People hate surprises. However, if they are seeing your work naturally evolving they become accustomed to it over time. If they do feel the need to comment those comments can be accommodated early, before changes become too expensive.

With the University of Strathclyde we used video to introduce people to our work and set expectations.

Take for example the work I am currently doing with the University of Strathclyde. We are posting everything we are doing to a beta site that is open for anybody to visit. Yes, it is very much a work in progress, but we were keen that stakeholders within the institution could get used to the directions things were going sooner rather than later.

Keep momentum

Being open and inclusive with your work also helps to build momentum. If everybody is seeing your work rapidly evolving they begin to get excited. They can see your team being productive (which reflects well on you) and they can see movement towards a better website (which is great for all the company).

Yes, some people will look at what you have done and dislike it, but if most people like the direction then it becomes hard for one or two individuals to change that when it is all being developed in a public setting.

Also don’t underestimate the power of getting some excitement behind a project. One of my clients threw a mini internal conference to kick off a web project and that really built a sense of expectation that helped move the project forward. Combined with blogging, regular releases, newsletter updates and more, a project can build momentum that helps to overcome the obstacles that inevitably crop up.

Avoid the bigger picture

Unfortunately there is a downside to building momentum and gaining profile for your web project – other people try to piggy back on this momentum and that can slow you down.

I have seen too many web projects lose momentum because they get sucked into larger IT projects (typically customer relationship management projects) or issues surrounding messaging and branding.

Fortunately the nature of the web can come to our aid in this regards. The web is not a publish once and walk away proposition. This means that projects can continue without all of the other pieces being in place and then adapt once decisions on other projects have been made.

For example, it is perfectly possible to build a website where arguments about content and messaging are still happening. Instead of waiting for these to be resolved, you simply implement ‘temporary’ content and structure which are then replaced once final decisions are made.

The same is often true with technology. It is possible to implement a website with the knowledge that in the future it may need to integrate into another system.

My point here is that it is vital you keep projects focused. As soon as projects start getting sucked into larger issues they become too complex and will stall. Remember, maintain momentum at all costs even if you need to come back and make changes later.

So much more

Of course, these five tips are just the tip of a very large iceberg. There is no quick win when it comes to navigating the challenges surrounding working as part of an internal team. However, I hope they will help.

“Abstract Businessman caught in Red Tape.” image courtesy of