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Working with the system – A master class with Paul Boag

 

I was lucky enough to be invited by our colleagues from the European Commission at a Master Class given by Paul Boag. Mr Boag is an expert in many things, including web design. The topic of the class was how to work with the system when you have a web-something job in a big organization.
 

Not only did Mr. Boag prove to be an interesting and dynamic speaker, but he clearly had a lot of experiences working with said big organizations – although it's not quite sure if he ever  worked with any EU institutions. God forbid. The audience was composed of web-something colleagues, mainly from the Commission. From my experience of a Digital-whatever person at the European Parliament, our two environments share as much as they differ, especially when it comes to Web-anything or Communication-stuff. The size is not the same, nor the levels of hierarchy. The Commission is, and that's a paradox, much more decentralized AND centralized at the same time than the Parliament is. But "bureaucracy", "they don't get it", "make the logo bigger" belong to a possible common lexical field.
 
Mr. Paul Boag's starting point depicts Web Teams in large organizations as being depressed and miserable.
 
Nevertheless, most of the identified problems and proposed solutions might apply to every large organization.
 
 

So true

 
Mr. Paul Boag's starting point depicts Web Teams in large organizations as being depressed and miserable. This, he understands, is because their job is tough in an unfriendly environment. There are constant barriers and problems because the field of work is radically different from the large organizations' rhythm and culture. This is "slow" versus "fast". "Routines" versus "constant changes".
 
As far as I know, our Web team doesn't feel either depressed or miserable. Hence our reputation of a dancing team. True, we have bad days too. But I believe most, if not all, our colleagues know how lucky they are to work in a team which is recognized (and sometimes even acknowledged) as "different" from the typical Unit of an institution. Every member of our team who left came back to tell us so.
 
Yet, the sky isn't blue every day over our web-heads. Yes, we'd like things to go faster most of the time. Yes, we hate some routine or old fashioned way to do things. 
 
Let's look at the sources of those bad feelings.
 
Here are the common biggest issues Mr. Boag has identified after years of working with big organizations.
 
Problem #01 – Marketing and technology's fight.
 
Where does the Web Team actually sit? Is it IT or marketing (or communication, editorial). Are web-people considered as  marketing people or as technological solutions providers?
 
Our Unit was the first digital editorial team set up in an environment dominated by IT people (as far as Internet was concerned). It didn't happen without some clashes and territorial issues but, as a brand, we are fully known as editorial. We have a technical sister Unit with which we work very closely without big conflicts in shares of responsibilities. And there is an IT General Directorate we are very happy to work with, again with usually clear definition of who does what. Of course, as all members of the same web-family, we sometimes disagree. But I don't think this identity crisis affects us. 
 
Problem #02 – The Management
 
What the management wants and what the Web Team wants are often two different things. This must not be read as a criticism of management. Internet is just not their area of expertise.
 
Although this issue is far from being unknown to us, we are lucky not to encounter it with our direct management.
 
Problem #03 – Website Steering Committee
 
A great source of trouble. Committee mentality will kill a website dead. Why? Because committees try to reach consensus which often results in low common denominator.
 
I hate committees. It's in my genes. This being said, the Steering Committee we couldn't help but set-up for our new digital strategy works surprisingly well. 
 
Problem #04 – Large organizations become institutionalized
 
When they do so, they look to the inside only. As they used to say at IBM: "If you cut me, I’ll bleed blue".
This takes the form of acronyms, jargon, perspectives that nobody else understand in the real world outside. Wait, there is an outside world?
 
Our organization was BORN an institution – that should tell enough. Our self-made antidote is my Latvian grand-mother.
 
Problem #05 – The scope.
 
The more websites, the better – we all know that. #irony
 
Big organizations tend to add more and more websites all the time, more sections in a website, more pages in a section.
There is a constant snowball effect: you start with a revamp, add the conception of a new CMS, which by the way, could benefit from up to date CRM for which something as to be developed and still we are at it, why don't we rebrand the whole damn thing?
 
Problem #06 – Problem people.
 
Those are the people who never get it. Mr. Boag claimed we all have someone in mind, we all laughed, I wrote a few names down but for some reasons, I can't decipher my typing now.
 
Problem #07 – Content: Always added, never removed
 
Removing content is like killing some-one's child. 
 
This was quite a list of problems. Let's have a break looking at a cute photo of an animal.
 
 

So cuuuuute.

 
 
In the second part of his class, Mr. Boag offered his solutions. You'll notice most of them can address issues unrelated to the web, as they stand on the field of inter-personal relationships. Why don't you send a link to this post to your banker friends, accountant sister in law or publisher nephew?
 
Solution #01 – Improving perception
 
To be perceived as experts, we have to act as experts.
 
People want a team of superheroes as a Web team. What you have to become is to be perceived and respected as being the experts.
As recognized by Mr Boag, being an outsider and being expensive get him listened to by the management – even though he'll probably say everything you, as a web-someone, have been saying for years.
Hence your goal: become perceived as an expert. 
 
How:
 
  1. Nothing is free, not even your internal Web Team
    So far you are probably perceived as a cost. Establish values in the use of individuals by applying internal charging.
    Associate a price to your work – even if the price is not charged. That way the client (who, in Mr Boag's view, is the internal user) is held responsible for the work undertaken.
    If something you do is going to cost amount X then the clients should think about their return of investment. Use metrics, such as cost by visitor, to demonstrate the quality or the flaws of a requested project. 
     
  2. Be enthusiastic and never say no
    Web-people are often grumpy. I know, I am one of them. The reason Mr. Boag gets work (and is a good speaker all the same) is because he sounds over-excited. There is always something exciting in every projects, even in the most boring ones.
    This is also why you should never say "No" to a client (again, clients are your internal users, people asking you to do something for them within your big organizations). Clients have to work with you. "No" doesn't allow a conversation. There is nothing left after a No.
    Say: Yes! No matter how ridiculous the proposal is.And then, take your clients to a journey where they reject their own idea and adopt your solution.
    And when attacked, always take a moment before defending yourself. Don’t respond immediately when you are bursting to do so. If you wait, most of the time someone will step and defend you.
 
To be perceived as experts, we have to act as experts. Start treating your relationship as a peer to peer relationship rather than a master and servant relationship. Your opinion is as valid as theirs. Come and challenge their perspective. Discuss the brief. Propose. Don’t say no but challenge! Be pro-active! Web teams are not manufacturers. There are a service engaging in the long term.
 
As he pointed out, expertise via association is a good way forward. Try to become associated with big names in the industry and  refer to other experts – have I mentioned I had a master class with Paul Boag? See, it's easy.
 
3°- Communicate on your last projects
You should make a huge event of noise about everything you do, every success you achieve. Have you read Steve's story on our new design? It's a very good one, just saying.
Launch events, newsletter, feed back your management, offer trainings and workshops. This will demonstrate your values in real concrete terms – and by concrete terms, he means tangible action achieved by your users.
 
Solution #02 – Overcoming politics
 
Politics is depressing but we must accept it. There are egos at work in every social interaction. No matter how much you hate it, keep the conversation going. Clashes are counter-productive and it’s a childish attitude.
 
You need to keep talking to them – even if it’s always in conflict mode. Find any excuse to meet and spend some time with people with whom you are in conflict. Invite them for lunch. When talking with them, make it all about them: their problems, their vision of life.
Build a bond with them.
 
Don’t knock an idea because it’s not yours (especially if it’s a good one). Experts recognize good ideas if there are not theirs!
Empathize with people’s problems. Everybody has their pet subject. Find what it is and use it.
Not everybody can picture things in their head. Show rather than tell.
Make sure you’re talking to the right person. Sometimes the most influential person is the wife of the client.
 
 

I don't have the slightest idea how this photo happens to be here.

 
Solution #03 – How to get sign-offs
 
Getting approval is a pain in the neck.
If the decision level is a committee, then there is an extra level of hell to run through.
 
One trick is to find the alpha male who dominates the committee and sell him the good end of the project. 
 
When it comes to committees, Mr. Boag identifies two ways for dealing with them:
  • The radical attitude. Explode the committee and consult everybody in the Universe, gather stats to support the decision. It can work but it’s a lot of work.
  • The conqueror's approach
    Find and meet each member of the Committee for one hour. Have a real and good discussion with all of them. Then collate everything and you become the only one who knows it all. When you come back with your set of recommendations in the committee's meeting, you can select and target who you're talking to for each point so everyone feels he’s been consulted, listened and considered.
It is vital to resist the impulse to exclude the client from the process. As a consequence, they won’t feel any sense of ownership. It is better to involve them at every stage of the project, reducing the level of surprises.
 
One of the great impulse of human nature is the desire to be consistent. If you involve them, they’ll stick to the decisions they’ve been associated with. If they’ve been engaged in the process, they’ll defend it.
 
Solution #04 – Ending the never-ending-scope
 
What Paul Boag recommends is to set up a structure for every engagement with a client. Whatever is asked from you should be done so by written with a clear set of  requirement (even for a small minor change on a page). You respond with your statement of work and the cost. This is how you establish a contract, even if symbolically, with your clients. It must be written.
 
With your statement, make sure you include milestones and timeline. It must be clear that other projects are queuing and that even one day of delay, the project might well slip for a week or more. You have other clients and you have the same level of responsibilities to them. Don't forget to include a final sign-off day.
 
This is how you provide structure and boundaries.
 
Solution #05 – Content management
 
Although Mr. Boag really dislikes policies and hates the fact that big organizations have a policy for everything, he finds them very helpful when it comes to content. Policy aren’t personal. It brings a level of structure and objectivity in the painful decision of refusing or deleting some content.
 
There are two kind of policies you may need. 
  1. Policy for necessary content. A content template is a good help. It provides a set of questions like « Who is this page aimed at? », « What’s the main message people should get from this page if they only stay on it for five seconds?» « What should the user do after having seen the page? »
    This will structure the client thinking.
  2. Legacy of content (how to remove it)
    Convincing your clients that some of their beloved content should be removed from a website is an almost impossible task. It rips out their soul or something. The recommended measure is to establish a clear policy stating conditions under which a content cease to be accessible on your website. Said policy might involve some regular action from your clients, such as checking (and ticking a box in your CMS to prove they did so) their content every six months to grant their interest.
Policies are good, in this specific case, because they are neutral.
 
***
This was a lot of food for thought. It's not exactly a survival kit for big organizational environment, yet I found it provides good perspectives on how to improve your web-whatever situation.
 
In conclusion, I will emphasize how the live class is better than any summary one could write. If you have the opportunity to bring Mr. Boag to speak to your team, your bosses, your clients, you should really go for it.

 

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  1. Wow, havig been there too I can say this is a really comprehensive and concise summary of the event! And it's interesting that it is published on the Parliament blog and not the Commission's http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/waltzing_matilda :)
    There are just three things that I'd like to add and that I found interesting:
    1. Don't be something that you are not: EU policies are not fun, so don't try to be funny. People expect content that is serious and can be trusted.
    2. How to deal with design proposals: don't send a final design per email (because you don't know where it ends up and who will review it). Rather send a video that explain why the design is like it is. This will also help with the make-the-logo-bigger problem.
    3. Dealing with legacy content: the most interesting option in my view was "how many people still viewed the content last month?"

    Posted by Stefan Happer | January 26, 2012, 21:09

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