Building Strategically: A Manifesto for Successful Implementation

During the planning and execution phases of a digital product, service or system, there’s a non-trivial amount of decisions to be made that have long-bearing consequences for the ultimate success of the project, as well as for the ease of its future iterations and additions. Many of these decisions have to do with choosing how and where you’ll ultimately invest a good amount of your budget; the money ear-marked for technical execution.

If you’re on the marketing or planning side, and are wondering how this at all applies to you, you should read the first part of this two-part series on how digital strategy translates into digital execution. In the short term, this is about building things, something marketing traditionally isn’t concerned with. But in the long term, this is really about money and making smart business decisions. Building strategically means that you’re building competitive advantage by creating better digital experiences that last longer and are more adaptive to changing consumer needs and market conditions.

Because of my vantage point as digital strategy consultant, I get to see a lot of companies right at this crossroads – facing seemingly small decisions whose full context and consequences are not entirely defined, and at a risk of cornering themselves down the road because of it. My hope is that that this list will help to shed some light on a few of these treacherous decision points.

It is by no means an exhaustive or definite list – attempting to pen a comprehensive collection of generally applicable, yet sufficiently directional, guidelines for applying strategy to the implementation of digital systems would be a Sisyphean task (in fact, I welcome any and all suggestions for edits and additions).

A manifesto for successful implementation

1. Design for future needs and technology
Principle: Build for current and future web standards.

  • It’ll keep your solution sustainable. Platforms and technologies that don’t fall under common web guidelines and standards (like the HTML5 predecessor Adobe Flash) are at a risk of being phased out and abandoned by the design and development communities as their popularity wanes. They are met with less support and maintenance and incur higher costs as developers and agencies charge more for longer and more complex production cycles. We’re not absolutist here; there are times when older and less buzzed-about technologies are the appropriate tool for the job. Their application however relies on attributing little dependence to them, in accordance with sound system design principles.
  • It’ll make your solution recombinant and adaptive. Building with standards in mind will leave you with something that plays nicely with other Internet things, such as API:s, the communication interfaces of other Internet platforms and services). More importantly, products designed for web standards can also be used by the most number of people in the long run as consumers upgrade to modern, standard compliant, digital devices and web browsers.

Principle: Build for tomorrow.

  • Your business might have changed by the time you’re done. Implementation can easily take up to six months or a year – you’ll be better off planning ahead (just make sure you’re being reasonable) and designing for the needs you anticipate at that point in time. Does it seem like mobile will account for a significant share in traffic by the end of the year? Strongly consider designing your digital execution to be accessible via mobile devices – even though no one else is doing this (yet).

Principle: Design for scalability.

  • It’ll enable you to minimize growing pains. Make sure you’re not constraining future growth by anticipating what is required to scale your product and its associated operations. Prepare a parallel path of production to ease a future switch between platforms or technologies. If you’re a small brand who is only getting started with eCommerce, you’ll do just fine investing in a light and externally hosted turnkey storefront. If your new initiative proves successful, you can start planning for an upgrade to an enterprise solution and know that the transition will be relatively easy. Cloud computing services and cloud-based products are great for this, because they generally charge only for what you need and consume.

2. Don’t be afraid to start anew.

Principle: Don’t compromise your future because of previous investments.

  • Avoid sunk cost fallacy. This is one of the most treacherous aspects of investing in digital tools and services, because it is so difficult to realize and acknowledge. Defending previous investments is a natural instinct; when we remember the effort and emotion we put into creating something, we’re hesitant to throw it to the side, even though it might have outlived its usefulness. In fact, as psychologists Kahneman and Tversky proved, the more of ourselves we invest into something, the harder it becomes to abandon; loss has a more powerful effect on our minds than potential gain. But poor, previous, investments can hamper progress, leaving the field open for competitors to speed ahead.
  • …But beware of incurring Technical Debt. This is a fairly advanced concept which we won’t explore further in this piece. In short, technical debt describes the impeding consequences of rushing into new investments before completing necessary preceding work. It’s an idea that is crucial for any organization maintaining its own codebase to be familiar with.

Principle: Adapt solutions for your needs; don’t adapt your needs around available solutions.

  • What works for others may not work for you. Every business is unique. Your starting point should be your very own set of needs and capabilities. Evaluate prospective solutions against that.
  • Avoid swiss army knives. They’re the most dazzling alternative – all of those cool features! – but do you really need all of that stuff? Do you have the knowledge and resources to maintain a more complex solution than what your actual needs call for? 360-degree solutions are the equivalent of doorman buildings; they come with common areas, lobbies and a lobby attendants, gyms, live-in supers, and the doorman, of course. A non-trivial amount of your rent is going towards covering all of these fancy things – but how often will you really use them? Figure out what you need your investment to accomplish, then find someone to help you either build or give you advice on what to buy that is exactly that and nothing more.

Principle: Open Source FTW.

  • The sky is the limit. With the explosion of open source technologies, platforms and services, there’s no longer any excuse to default to buying licensed out-of-the-box solutions anymore. WordPress for instance is an incredibly versatile web platform that is free. By compromising to handle custom development and dedicated support yourself (or hiring a partner to help you), you’re getting all of that versatility for free, without crowding your platform with features you don’t need. WordPress, and open solutions like it, are like Mr. Potato heads: they provide a well-defined, functional core solution that can be enhanced by innumerable add-ons, provided by a huge and vibrant online community of designers and developers.

Principle: Don’t outsource control.

  • Think twice about licensing solutions. Licensing a product or service might sound like a good idea, but you could find yourself in a situation down the road where the vendor’s maintenance isn’t on track with your business needs or with your category standard. You’ll be effectively tied to the grace and capability of your vendor for the remainder of your contract. You might also become blindsided to problems that your vendor is having, because you’re in a relationship with them and have already invested a significant amount of money (see “1. Don’t compromise your future because of previous investments”).

3. Partners, not vendors.

Principle: Digital production is collaborative.

  • Avoid “Shiny Object Fallacy”. My last piece of advice is perhaps the most important: Do your best to find a trustworthy, capable partner to help you realize your vision. Undercurrent Production Director Matthew Carlin addresses this topic expertly on the Undercurrent blog.


This post originally appeared on the Undercurrent blog.

5 deck-making tips for newbies

Inspired by CPJ’s post and John‘s question: “What would your 5 rules of deckmaking be for a newbie?”

  1. Write an outline of your deck on paper before you go to Keynote (or Power Point, if you swing that way). Paper is for planning, Keynote is for production. Use your headlines to tell your narrative (you should be able to tell your complete story just using your headlines), use the rest of the slide to present evidence in support of the point you’re making.
  2. Share one point or idea per slide.
  3. Your slides are intended to support your presentation. Keep text to a minimum. Be as clear and concise as you can. Then cut some more.
  4. Re-create others’ slides to understand their process and to build comfort 1) using Keynote’s tools 2) designing.
  5. Test your slides in front of an audience before your final presentation. Do your slide transitions make sense? Are people reading your slides the way you intended them to? Are you lingering on/not spending enough time with any of your ideas?

Where Digital Strategy “Planning” and “Practice” Overlap

Digital initiatives can easily rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard costs, claiming months of research, planning, and effort. Smart organizations understand the importance of articulating a waterproof foundational strategy for any such venture, backed by a rationale that is anchored in some higher grand business strategy. Yet any actual strategic thinking that gets done in the context of these investments is generally constricted to the planning stage, leaving a significant chunk of the process – the implementation phase – untouched. However, strategy shouldn’t end when the planning docs are signed and delivered; it should be deeply embedded in technical implementation and tactical execution.

Before I joined Undercurrent as a strategist, I worked on the production side at an eCommerce solution startup. We were a team of seven when I started and had grown to 12 by the time I left – being such a small business, everyone had to pitch in on everything. By the time of my departure, we all had at least some experience doing front-end and back-end development, sales, support, training, design and project management. This gave us a holistic frame of reference for thinking about how to design, build and maintain web properties, and it helped our team develop an internal toolkit of processes and tricks, ranging from code hacks to standardized design templates to automated scripts that enabled us to make custom configurations in one click. We found ways to operate smarter on the execution side that ultimately made our clients smarter and better on the business and consumer side. Even though we were detached from our clients’ long-term business decisions (we were only looped in once our involved had been justified by those decisions), we did apply real strategy to our end of the process.

Now working on the other end of the process with planning and strategy, I’ve realized that there’s a commonly held misconception among marketers – the people who control the lion’s share of the world’s digital brand budgets – that strategy ends where implementation begins, or rather: that the key to a successful digital execution lies in the preceding research and planning, and not so much in the execution itself.

“Digital” needs a holistic world view

Marketers tend to either gloss over the implementation phase, or obsess over magic pill partners. The former find it not to be as sexy or as exciting as the hunt for The Big Insight – or as much fun as planning for how the experience will be grown into a huge success with the help of the right media buys, brand fans and social media efforts. The latter assume implementation is mysterious, and fear change once things have begun. Marketers don’t make things; that’s a responsibility that falls on the IT department or on a partner agency. But digital strategy cannot be confined to one department, just as it cannot be confined to a single stage of the process that moves a product from conception to something real in the hands of people. That’s why strategists and marketers need to be at the very least conversant in the basics of digital technologies, so that when the time come to choose a production parter, a meaningful discussion can be had about the best executional solution (my colleague Matthew Carlin has written cogently about this).

Theory and practice are linked

In a perfect scenario, every tactical execution ladders up to the grand strategic vision. The best strategists know that there’s a very real risk of becoming handcuffed by seemingly insignificant decisions made early on. They know that digital strategy starts with theory: our collective knowledge and experiences help us formulate a set of assumptions and hypotheses about how the world works and how the thing we’re creating fits into it. More importantly, the best strategists also know that strategy is integral to successfully translating a hypothesis into practice. How well you manage that transition is what determines the ultimate effectiveness of your strategy.

The idea of linking theory and practice is by no means a new one – indeed, it has its own philosophical practice, Pragmatism, focussed on the process of separating intelligent practice from uninformed practice. The intelligent part comes by extrapolating theory from practice, and reapplying it back again – simply speaking, using past experiences to derive a set of guiding principles for future action (and this, in turn, resonates with the increasingly iterative nature of software development and the need for businesses to be nimble and adaptive in a world that is quickly growing more connected and complex).

Thus, successful digital initiatives rely less on our skills as thinkers and analysts alone, and come as much from our skills as tinkerers, orchestrators and evaluators. A first-hand experience with any of these things – be it a previous career as a web developer or technical project lead, maintaining a blog as a hobby or building iPhone apps at your kitchen table after getting home from your “real” job – will make you a better digital strategist. Seeing the process through from start to finish from research to strategy to implementation to maintenance and evaluation will make you better yet.

These things may seem trivial (anybody can write a blog right?) or irrelevant but they provide us with a profound intuition for what works and what doesn’t. That’s why we welcome and encourage people at Undercurrent to make things for and with the Internet (be sure to check out Numblrour most recent project). Practical experience instills in us a wider arrange of perspectives and techniques to apply to complex, digitally centric, problems (Ben Malbon captures this nicely in the concept of the T-Shaped person), and enables us to make smarter decisions at all stages of our work as strategy consultants.

Continuing on this theme, I will be sharing learnings I’ve found valuable in my most recent work that I’ve embedded from previous experiences working in software and web development. I hope you’ll come back for part 2.

This post originally appeared on the Undercurrent blog.