Outsourced technology projects often fail due to a clash of cultures between the entrepreneur and their digital partner. But speaking in each other’s language can help alleviate such problems, says Dan Kirby
I’ve been making websites since 1997. My first was for FRijj milkshake – you know, the curvy bottle with the cow pattern. And like many people tackling a tech project for the first time, I found the whole experience really, really stressful.
Yet learning how to effectively manage a tech project is important. Why? Because the world is only getting more digital and your business will need to evolve accordingly. It’s not just websites any more, but mobile apps, content management systems, responsive design and the internet of things.
I love making complex digital stuff, but I hate the stress that can come with it. It’s easy to feel a complete loss of control: a black hole of tech into which goes your valuable time and hard- earned cash.
We’ve captured the lessons we’ve learnt since the 1990s and turned them into a systematised workflow at my company Techdept. We apply it every day for companies like American Express, British Gas and Topshop. If we mess up, we not only get grey hairs and a gobful, we undermine our brand – so it’s something we take deadly seriously.
So, when it comes to your own digital projects – namely those that you hand to an external party – here’s how to maximise the returns on your investment.
Your digital activity needs to be crafted: the way that people engage with it, the look and feel, the content – all elements need to be designed. A car isn’t all about the engine and your digital isn’t just about the code.
Remember that the people you partner with should be seen as partners – you should trust that they can work with you not just today, but years into the future. Are they enthusiastic yet inexperienced? Or are they so large that you’ll end up with the junior team after the pitch win? Find out who will work on your account. Do they fill you with confidence?
The process is as important as the people – how will they ensure the work will be delivered? Have you established and agreed upon any milestones for the project? These should ensure that you get what you want when you want it. You need strong leadership to navigate a complex tech project.
Write down what you want
Before you talk to your tech partner, write down what you want from the project. Is it more enquiries? Or email addresses? Or a sexy looking thing that supports an offline campaign? Does it need to work on mobile phones? Does it need to be online for Friday?
Once all these considerations are written down they can be better understood both by yourself and your digital partner. Technical output doesn’t lend itself well to briefings by phone or discussions in a coffee shop.
These business objectives don’t need to be technical – they need to be clear. A good digital agency will welcome this direction for their ideas.
Agree the detail upfront
The single biggest mistake in any digital project is not precisely defining what’s going to be done before you start to do it. Imagine getting a builder to build you a house without having architects’ plans agreed. They may build you a wall but where you wanted Italian stone, you end up with breeze blocks.
Many times people feel the urge to ‘do stuff’ and jump into building things. But it’s important that your partners communicate how they will achieve your objectives in what is known as a specification document, functionality spec or statement of work. This should be in plain English – jargon is no good for you – so ask them to explain if it doesn’t immediately make sense.
Importantly, ask for the benefits to any of their proposals. So if they say “we will build it in XYZ” ask them to answer the statement “which means that…”
One of the biggest sources of stress for anyone involved in a tech project is ‘churn’ – when you think something is done but then you have to test it, document it and test it again. A clear process by which to give written feedback, with literally each line given consideration, may seem like a frustration when you have other things to do, but it will actually save you time in the end.
Understand your differences
There are real differences between how entrepreneurial types view the world and how web development types view it: call it Mars and Venus. Good communications are critical with a tech job, but silly misunderstandings still often creep in.
Web development people like specifics and clear objectives – which is why you should write them down. They are happy to be innovative, but need clear parameters simply because there are so many ramifications to what they do.
Language is really important – if you say ‘database’ when you mean ‘spreadsheet’, it can create days of extra work.
Tech types often assume that the answer to any problem is more tech. I have seen heated debates about website functionality that can be solved by changing one line of text. When communicating with your developer, you need to understand that ‘chucking in ideas’ at the last minute may well distract everyone from getting your job done right.
Think like a scientist
When scientists approach their work, they do so by running tests and seeing what works. Digital is the same: you can never be 100% certain that a design or a piece of technology will work optimally on day one. You should allocate your budget to be spent on creating a great first experiment, but make sure that tools are in place to monitor its performance, and money is available to evolve it when you get the data back. By running tests you can better ensure your site is linking up with your business plan.
Like anything, experience is gained over time. But with a few simple pointers you can avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls found in the brave new digital world.