Monday, September 06, 2010

Fight The System: Battling Bureaucracy

If you work as part of an in-house Web team, you have my sympathy. If that in-house team is within a large organization, then doubly so. Being part of an in-house Web team sucks. Trust me, I know. I worked at IBM for three years and now spend most of my days working alongside battle-weary internal teams.

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Web designer trying to hang himself.

It's hardly surprising that most in-house teams are worn down and depressed. They face almost insurmountable challenges:

  • Departmental feuds
    Too often, a website becomes a battleground for pre-existing departmental conflicts. Political power plays can manifest themselves in fights over home page real estate or conflicts over website ownership. After all, is the website an IT function or a marketing tool?
  • Uninformed decision-makers
    Rarely does an internal Web team have the authority to make final decisions on a website. Instead decision-making happens higher up in the organization. Unfortunately, although these individuals have more authority, they do not have greater knowledge of the Web. Decision-making is often based more on personal opinion than the needs of users or business objectives.
  • Committees
    Committees are the curse of larger organizations. The bigger the organization, the more the number of people who want their say, and that leads to committees. Unfortunately, committees inevitably lead to compromise and design-on-the-fly. Both are the kiss of death to any Web project.
  • An inward perspective
    Becoming institutionalized is very easy in a large organization. Eventually you speak an internal language and think in terms of organizational structure. This proves problematic when communicating to end users. Not only do most large organizations have their own internal perspective of the world, some individuals even think departmentally, further aggravating departmental conflict.
  • Endless scope creep
    When an in-house Web team is constantly available, calling on their help is easy. This is both a benefit and a curse. The truth is that many Web teams are taken for granted, and websites that should never exist are built and launched because there are no constraints. Worse still, good projects can be drowned as "internal clients" keep demanding additional functionality that the Web team cannot block.
  • Problem people
    The bigger the organization, the higher the chance they will hire a jerk. If you work for a large organization, I can pretty much guarantee you have someone in mind as you read this. These people can really hinder the work of the Web team and prevent a website from reaching its full potential.
  • Glacially slow progress
    With endless red tape and painful committees, getting stuff done in a large institution can be nearly impossible. It is not unusual for projects to grind to a halt entirely because they become dependant on other systems or projects yet to be implemented. I have even seen something as simple as the roll-out of a content management system take years to implement.

With the odds stacked so high against them, I am surprised in-house Web teams get anything done at all. Their success depends as much on their ability to navigate politics and bureaucracy as it does on their skills as designers and developers.

But do not despair. I can tell you from the over-subscription to workshops I have run on the subject that you are not alone. This is a universal problem and one that can be overcome, as I will outline in this post.

Our Web design agency specializes in complex projects. During my time there, I have developed certain techniques that will hopefully help others keep their Web projects moving.

Let's look at four areas in particular:

  • Improving how your team is perceived within your organization,
  • Overcoming politics and problem people,
  • Ensuring that a project gets approval from the powers that be,
  • Delivering work within scope and on time.

Let's begin by addressing how Web teams are perceived.

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Improving How Your Team Is Perceived

In too many organizations, the Web team is considered the lowest of the low. It looks like something straight out of The IT Crowd.

This is all the more bizarre considering that websites themselves are perceived as being important. Somehow there is a disconnect between those who produce websites and the websites themselves.

This poor attitude toward Web teams boils down to two beliefs:

  • The Web team is a road block that needs to be detoured.
    Many large organizations find themselves frustrated by their internal Web teams, seeing them as people who constantly block their more "imaginative" ideas and set restrictions on what they can and cannot do online.
  • Web team members are implementers, not experts.
    Management perceives Web team members as "techies," there to implement the ideas of others. They are in no way perceived as experts who are capable of advising on strategy.

Fortunately, much can be done to overcome these beliefs. For a start, improve your communication skills.

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A disturbingly cheerful Web designer.

Communicate Better

Most internal Web teams are terrible at selling themselves. If they were a Web agency, they would be out of business in a few weeks. Perhaps that is their reason for working in-house. But despite what you may think, most internal Web teams could desperately do with communicating and selling better.

To overcome the negative impressions people have of your team, you need to actively promote yourself and the work you do.

Here are just a few ideas to try:

  • Hold launch events.
    When was the last time you celebrated the launch of a new feature or the redesign of your website? Holding a launch party is a great way to shout about your successes, and it's fun, too. Email colleagues, telling them how excited you are about the completion of your latest project, and invite them to celebrate with you. Everyone loves free food, and it's a great chance to show off your work.
  • Publish a monthly newsletter.
    How will anybody know about the great work you do if you don't tell them? One way to do this is through a monthly newsletter that features work you have been doing and cool stuff happening online. This is a great way to both increase your profile and educate people on the power of the Web.
  • Report successes to management.
    Management needs to be regularly informed on traffic levels, dwell time and conversion rates. If you don't have any calls to action to track conversion, get some. If you have no way to measure success, then the team is simply a drain on resources. Demonstrate that you generate income, rather than just spend it.
  • Offer training courses and workshops.
    Part of your role as in-house Web team should be to educate those in the organization about the Web. I'm talking not just about technical training on using the CMS, but rather more general training about the Web and how it can benefit your business. Sessions like this not only educate internal stakeholders, but also increase your credibility and establish you as the expert.
  • Hold regular meetings with website stakeholders.
    Set up regular meetings with those who most often use the website. Talk to people such as the head of marketing, sales and IT. Meet with front-line staff who answer customer support queries or those who work with suppliers. These meetings build relationships across the organization and demonstrate that the Web team is always looking for ways to help the business.

By improving communication within your organization, you significantly improve the perceived value of your team.

Create Value

There can be little doubt that internal Web teams are undervalued. As an external consultant, if I say exactly the same thing to management as the Web team, management will listen to me and ignore its own people. This is largely because as an external consultant, the cost of my advice is more evident. They listen to me because they are paying me in a very visible way.

Of course, they are paying as much (if not more) for their internal Web team. But that cost is not as evident and so is not valued as highly. The way to increase the value of your team is to make that cost more visible.

People are less likely to ignore your advice or waste your time if they are obviously paying for your advice or time. The way to establish this kind of value is to cross-charge for your work between departments. Have an internal charge-out rate based on salary, infrastructure, training, etc., and then price any new work coming into the department based on that rate.

This not only makes your value obvious, it also makes "internal clients" think twice before asking you to build some ill-conceived project just because you're "free." Nothing will change perception more than making them pay for your time.

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Man holding a briefcase of money saying nothing is free, not even your internal Web team.

Of course, you might not be in a position to cross-charge. But that doesn't mean you can't go through the process of setting rates and costing projects. When you receive a request for work, respond with a breakdown of tasks, how long it will take and how much it will cost the company based on your charge-out rate.

While not as compelling as charging for work, it still drives home the point that your time is valuable. It might also make them think twice before suggesting a project, especially if they know that pricing will be included in your report to management.

Finally, keep track of the time you actually spend on projects. This will help with scope creep (see below) and show management how efficient you are.

Of course, cross-charging can be perceived as another blocking tactic, reinforcing people's negative opinion of your team. Therefore, balance this with a positive and helpful approach…

Be Positive

No offence, but most of the in-house Web professionals I meet are a miserable lot. Okay, that was probably offensive. Still, it shouldn't come as a surprise. With so much negativity aimed at Web teams, some of it is bound to rub off on them. It is up to you to keep the website on course, and that involves telling people "No" or putting constraints on what they can do. The problem is that this damages relationships and eventually forces people to bypass you, often by outsourcing to agencies such as mine!

However, you don't need to say no to people or even constrain them with rules. Take my situation, for example. When clients pay me, I don't have the luxury of saying no. I have to be Mr. Positive, or they'll just find someone else.

The next time someone asks you to implement a stupid idea on the website, try to be positive. Praise positive aspects of the idea (if there are any), and encourage the "client" to explain their thinking behind the rest. Often you will find something workable in the idea.

Even when the idea has no redeeming feature, there is still no need for you to say no. Instead, explain the probable consequences of the idea to the client, and guide them to the point that they reject it themselves. The problem with "No" is that it is a dead end. It leads only to confrontation. By focusing on the positive and educating the client on the consequences of their suggestion, you create an open and honest conversation.

The process of educating the client on the potential pitfalls of their suggestion also demonstrates your expertise…

Become the Expert

The ultimate aim of improving your reputation is to establish yourself as an expert. If people see you in that way, then they will listen to your opinions and follow your advice. But if your reputation is already damaged, coming to be seen as the expert is hard.

One way to be perceived as an expert is by association. This comes in two forms: referring to another expert or having an expert refer to you.

Referring to an expert is easy. If you have no credibility in the eyes of internal stakeholders, borrow the credibility of others. For example, the next time a client asks you to put all content above the fold, don't just tut and say that it's a stupid idea. Instead, refer to a study on the subject, such as one of the several by Jacob Nielsen. This lends weight to your argument and demonstrates that you are well read on the subject.

The second approach is to get an expert to back you up. Essentially, this is the very reason why I am hired by many Web teams. I am brought in to reinforce the arguments they have been making all along. Because I am perceived as an expert and support what the Web team says, I add creditability to the team and increase their expertise in the eyes of management. It's ridiculous, but it works.

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Web designer suggesting a better way of working.

Finally, don't try too hard. A true expert demonstrates their knowledge but is not afraid to admit their limitations. They are confident enough to challenge wrong thinking, but not arrogant or aggressive. I speak with too many in-house Web developers who come across as sneering and condescending because they believe they are above everyone else.

While improving your reputation will go a long way to pushing your projects forward, it is not the only hurdle to overcome. No matter how respected you are, there will always be those with agendas that interfere with the smooth running of your website…

Overcoming Politics And Problem People

Politics are unavoidable in large organizations, and yet most of us consider ourselves above them. We claim not to play politics, and we moan about those who we perceive do. But in reality, we all do it. We all have an agenda and want our point of view to be taken seriously. To believe otherwise is naive.

Ultimately, having a holier-than-thou attitude to internal politics is damaging. If you refuse to deal with those who play politics and avoid pushing your own agenda, you will only damage the website.

To get things done in a large organization, don't shy away from playing the political game. As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

While we're citing aphorisms, another one is, keep your friends close…

… But Your Enemies Closer

One of the biggest mistakes people make with problem people is avoiding them. A far better strategy is to keep them close. The problem with avoiding your "enemies" is that you are entrenching their position. If they know you are hostile towards them (and trust me, they'll know), then they'll become even more hostile towards you. Eventually, the arms race of hostility will get out of control.

A better approach is to keep talking. Meet with them regularly. Ask them what they want from the website? Look for ways to build bridges. Listen to what they say.

Some individuals only want their voice to be heard. As long as you listen and make them feel important, they'll go away happy. Also, let them win whenever possible. It may dent your pride, but that is a small price to pay for winning the war.

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A client refuses to sign off a design.

On the topic of war…

Avoid Confrontation

When I suggest that you meet with problem people regularly, I'm not setting the scene for a monthly showdown. In fact, avoid confrontation whenever possible, especially when other people are around. No one wants to lose face in front of their peers, which is why people become entrenched in their views in group settings.

Instead, use the tactics I spoke of in relation to being positive. Use the question "Why" as a way to encourage people to think through their position. Encourage positive contributions with praise, and explain their consequences in the gentlest language possible.

Finally, when you are criticized in a group setting (such as a committee meeting or group email), take a long deep breath before deciding whether to respond.

In my experience, there is little point in becoming defensive or, worse, retaliating. Most of the time I don't say anything at all. It's amazing how often someone else will leap to your defence if given the chance. Better that they say how great you are than saying so yourself!

Of course, it should never come to that, especially if you learn to empathize with problem people…

Learn to Empathize

As Web professionals, we pride ourselves on our ability to empathize. We go to great lengths to get into the heads of our users and understand what they want to achieve and how to motivate them. We have become experts at nudging users towards the goals we want them to complete.

Interesting, then, that we totally fail to demonstrate this ability with our colleagues. Instead, we often dismiss them as stupid or "not getting it." This kind of narrow-minded attitude causes many of the problems we encounter. Take the time to really understand your colleagues. What makes them tick? What problems do they face in their jobs that the Web could solve? What pet subjects could we use to nudge them in the right direction?

If we tried to empathize with our colleagues and understand their psychology, we would find internal politics much less painful.

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A Web designer talking to a client about his problems.

Stay tuned for the second part

The second part of this article will be published soon here, at Smashing Magazine. Please stay tuned for our updates: subscribe to our RSS-feed and follow us on Twitter.

You can also check Paul's workshop that he ran on the topic of this article.

© Paul Boag for Smashing Magazine, 2010. | Permalink | Post a comment | Add to | Digg this | Stumble on StumbleUpon! | Tweet it! | Submit to Reddit | Forum Smashing Magazine
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