5 acts of digital self-harm, and what to do instead

In my 17 years working in and leading “digital” teams, in-house, agency-side and now as a consultant, I have observed a lot of good and bad practice.

Without wanting to put too much of a downer on your day, in this post I’ve decided to focus on some organisational behaviours that I believe are particularly detrimental to digital success.

For each act of “digital self-harm”, I’ve offered a brief diagnosis and remedy. In other words: what to do instead.

So here goes...


Act 1: Your project briefs and business cases are too complex, biased and bordering on fictional

Every month the new ideas keep dropping into the Digital Director’s inbox from senior management and teams across the business.

To bolster their case for jumping the queue, they have helpfully created a (very) extensive “business case” or “project brief” for the idea, stuffed full of wonderful detail on how the new product/service/feature/campaign/app/thingamy should look and work.

They have also, very helpfully, calculated - with startling precision - the enormous benefits that this shiny new thing will undoubtedly bring to the business.

It’s a watertight case. Make this idea a reality and the good times will surely roll.

Just reading all these specifications and proposals is a full-time job. And if you question the business value, you’ll be told that those discussions have already happened. Decisions have been made. Weren’t you at the meeting?

What to do instead:

Take a strategic approach to your digital roadmap.

Of course we welcome new ideas, but there must be a strategic forum for evaluating proposals. This forum can’t run every week - maybe monthly or quarterly is more realistic.

Let colleagues know that all ideas will be evaluated against a simple and specific set of criteria, directly tied to the company’s strategic business objectives. The template for new ideas should be simple, with the emphasis on the problem to be solved and the value of solving it, rather than a specific solution.

An independent (unbiased) person with the necessary expertise should score the idea against a small, consistent set of measures of expected strategic value. Those evaluating the various ideas brought to the table should keep in mind that a proposal is only ever a hypothesis to be tested. Outcomes can’t be predicted with certainty.

To effectively prioritise, you will need some idea of the scale of work likely to be involved. For larger projects, a pilot, MVP (minimum viable product) or POC (proof of concept) will probably be the best starting point.

A good digital roadmap is not a disjointed wishlist of each department’s pet projects. It isn’t an exercise in trying to keep everyone happy, while actually spreading resources too thinly to make a success of anything. No - a digital roadmap should be a ruthlessly prioritised, focused series of “smart bets”, experiments and iterative developments, designed to generate maximum value for customers and accelerate the business on a defined strategic path.


Act 2: You aren’t making time for quick wins because you’re too busy doing big stuff

Everyone is "at capacity", frantically delivering those big projects on your beautifully focused strategic roadmap. But you are so focused on delivering new products and services that the majority of your existing digital customer experience is being neglected.

Ten minutes talking to a customer will remind you of a whole heap of glitches, frustrations and illogicalities that you had been trying not to think too much about. Or perhaps the issues have been around for so long that you’ve become blind to them.

Most of these fixes and improvements could be made with relatively little work, and cumulatively they would make a major difference to customer satisfaction, conversion and retention rates. But how can you make time to tackle the small stuff when there are big sexy projects to be delivered?

What to do instead:

Capture every issue or improvement on a centralised "backlog" as a “user story”, and score each one with a high/medium/low priority of customer value.

Then make sure every week there is a ring-fenced percentage of time for knocking off the highest priority stories in the backlog. You could even give this time a name, like “Bug Bash Fridays” or “Customer Glory Morning” (or perhaps not).

If you give this the attention and kudos it deserves then everyone involved will start to take real pride in powering through the quick wins. Make sure you communicate all these little wins internally (and externally, if appropriate) because lots of small improvements tend to add up to quite a large amount of customer value.


Act 3: You treat user research as an occasional special project

That user testing project last year was so valuable. So many forehead-slap moments - watching customers stumbling over fundamental issues. You’ve fixed most of those issues now, or at least you think you probably have.

Now you just need to find some budget for more user testing and see whether the results have improved…

What to do instead:

Make user testing and conversations with customers a regular habit, not a special event.

Find ways to run user observation and interviews on an ongoing basis. Every week people in the digital team should be seeking direct feedback and watching/analysing customers interacting with your products and services.

It doesn’t need to be expensive. Create a simple user testing set-up in your office. Talk to users at every opportunity. Invite loyal customers to give feedback and make suggestions. Capture learnings, discuss, rationalise and act.

Use remote user testing services. Use website survey tools. Listen and engage in social media to identify pain points and gaps. Do whatever it takes to truly understand how people are experiencing interacting with your products (or why they are choosing not to).

Everyone involved in delivering products, services and marketing must make it their business to get closer to the customer. A rich understanding of the customer’s needs and the context for their interactions with your brand is vital for developers, designers, marketers, planners, product managers, producers, analysts and everyone else.

Get out of the building. Run “guerilla” user testing with customers and prospective customers out in the wild. Remind yourself who you really work for and why your business exists at all.


Act 4: Your performance objectives (and those of your team) are kept private

You and your boss have set your annual performance objectives together, although your boss hasn’t shared hers with you.

And you haven’t shared your objectives with your colleagues or your team. In fact, they’re kind of a private thing. Sharing them might create some issues.

Thinking about it, people’s objectives in this organisation are a bit mysterious. They tend to relate to the specific challenges of the individual’s role, and deal in measures that aren’t widely understood outside of that team or role.

And thinking about it some more, it does feel a bit like everyone is working towards their own esoteric objectives, and not really pulling together to achieve common goals.

What to do instead:

Use cascaded objectives and make these transparent within departments and across teams.

The “OKR” methodology, invented at Intel, and used by companies like Google, Twitter and Uber, is a simple and effective approach to ensuring people are working together to achieve measurable results.

OKR stands for “objective and key results”, and how it works is that everyone sets a small number (say 4-6) of very clear objectives each quarter, which directly contribute to the achievement of higher-level objectives - which are the objectives of their manager or team leader.

The “KR” (key results) are quantifiable indicators that the objective has been achieved. There can be multiple key results for each objective.

An example might be:

Objective: Increase web sign-ups

Key results:

  • Web sign-ups average 10,000/month in Jan-Mar
  • Form completion rate >70%
  • Implement retargeting of registration drop-outs

Note that the first key result directly quantifies the objective itself. The second and third ones reflect two tactics to achieve the objective. Your OKRs might not be structured quite like this, but the important points are:

  • everyone’s OKRs are aligned
  • they support one another
  • they are challenging (people shouldn’t be hitting their OKRs 100%)
  • they are reviewed every quarter and new ones are set - this motivates people to be more agile and results-focused

Here’s a good explanation of OKRs with examples. Or, if you prefer a talk.


Act 5: You are creating an “us and them” culture

The IT department don’t “get” the digital department, the digital department don’t “get” the marketing department, the marketing department don’t “get” the IT department, and so on…

People are whining about the agency, and the agency thinks the client relationship is beyond hope. And everyone is sceptical about the consultant hanging around in the corner. What exactly does he do?

Terms like “agile”, “risk”, “compliance”, “strategy”, “brand guidelines”, “business critical” and “integrated marketing” are being used like weapons in a multi-way battle for the moral high ground.

What to do instead:

Form a small, close-knit, cross-departmental team focused on fixing this corrosive organisational culture.

This team should recognise the scale of the challenge ahead. It will need to provide strong leadership and not shirk its responsibility to call out issues of conflict and culture-clash.

For your business to succeed in the digital world, each department or team must play their part. Cooperation and teamwork are fundamental. Many different organisational models can be applied, but models and processes are always secondary to the cultural challenges of collaboration, respect and understanding.

Criticising colleagues and other teams can easily become normalised behaviour, but it is deeply damaging to performance and well-being. Teams should actively seek feedback on how they work and what they could do to improve, and they should be open and respectful in giving feedback to others.

Clamp down on issues being discussed behind people’s backs. Articulate, define and discuss problems in a non-confrontational forum, where participants are committed to finding solutions, avoiding point-scoring, and are empowered to take action. Then agree to trial a way forward. Treat changes in ways of working as tests, where success can be measured and failure is a permitted possibility.

In essence, departments are only groups of individuals who happen to work together and share some common knowledge and experience. So to break down organisational "silos" the two key areas to focus on are:

  1. Getting multi-departmental teams to really work together. Cross-departmental projects can be a catalyst, if people work alongside each other, socialise together, trust each other, understand each other, and share in successes and failures (without monopolising credit or dishing out blame).
  2. Learn more about each other’s roles and skills. It isn’t that digital producers must become experts in systems architecture, or that front-end developers must master marketing automation, or that brand managers must become data security gurus, but the more that people are encouraged to gain a basic understanding of their colleagues’ jobs, their objectives (see above), and the challenges they face, the more mutual respect will be created.


Which of these acts of “digital self-harm” do you recognise? Which other examples would you add to the list? And what solutions do you recommend? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Adam Cranfield is a digital consultant and director at DigitalFWD.