In Stephen Covey's bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he highlights the difference between leadership and management using the following illustration:
Envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They're the producers, the problem solvers. They're cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.
The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.
The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, "Wrong jungle!"
Too often we start drawing up sitemaps and wireframes and pushing pixels into gallery-worthy designs without considering the end goal. As trusted consultants, it’s part of our job to step back and pose the question, “Are we even in the right jungle?”
Covey uses this story to convey the need for visionary organizational leadership—someone that defines goals, sets priorities, and establishes purpose. This same principle can—and should—be applied to managing a Web design project. Too often we start drawing up sitemaps and wireframes and pushing pixels into gallery-worthy designs without considering the end goal. As trusted consultants, it’s part of our job to step back and pose the question, “Are we even in the right jungle?”
We often field inquiries for Web design projects where it's clear that the driving force for the project springs from a producer/manager mentality. This becomes evident when we begin asking why an organization is looking to design or redesign their site:
While all of the above may be legitimate factors for considering a Web redesign, attempting to execute on a project with these as primary motivators is wrongheaded. It’s like allowing producers and managers to continue their jungle-clearing enterprise without consulting leadership as to where it is they're headed—or if they're even in the right jungle, country, or continent!
A redesign might yield a beautifully executed mobile UI, but if the messaging doesn't align with organizational intentions, users are being ushered quickly and efficiently in the wrong direction. A new, more effective SEO implementation could yield a 200% increase in users, but if they're the wrong audience or quickly click away because of poorly crafted content, how does this help? Adding social share buttons to a page may be useful, but without compelling, shareable content, they serve little purpose.
Manager/Producer concerns can be helpful starting points for redesign projects, but organizations need to dig deeper and put in the hard work to define a strategic purpose. A compelling vision is far more conducive to producing the desired results than simply working through a Scope of Services checklist. You could design a site that’s beautiful, cutting-edge, engaging, and easily updated, yet in the end find yourself with a fantastic looking and functioning product that isn't delivering the results you want.
How can you avoid this trap? Ask questions like a four-year-old:
You: "We need to add social media share buttons to our site."
You: "Because we need to do a better job of engaging our users."
You: "Because we want to inspire more people to action."
You: "If more people take action, this will help accomplish our organizational goals."
Now we've finally arrived at a purpose statement that is incredibly valuable. Instead of, "We need to add share buttons to our site," our greater purpose is, "To inspire users to take action, so that we can accomplish our organizational goals." This is a much more useful and can lead to any number of additional considerations, such as:
By working back from execution statements (add social share buttons) to the primary goal that is driving this concern (have users take action, so we can accomplish our mission), stakeholders and decision makers are better able to articulate ground-level goals that help provide a compelling roadmap for additional project objectives. We call this process, "Climbing Down the Tree."
Using this technique, we're able to evaluate whether a premise for the project is foundational or not by simply asking, "Why?". When you get to a point where there's no additional answer, it's likely you've arrived at a primary goal. This can be a very effective method when you're confident about a specific action you believe you need to take, but are having trouble identifying the root concern it addresses.
Once you've arrived at a foundational, primary goal, you can start working your way back up the tree. As you do, you'll discover that your vision for the project becomes clearer as you expand your vision to include other elements that serve your primary goal. You'll start to see additional concerns and priorities that you hadn't before, which in turn foster new ideas for ways to accomplish those objectives. A simple strategy session can easily yield a whiteboard full of branching ideas all finding their way back to a root, primary goal.
Unless your project is highly focused around a single campaign, it's likely that you'll have multiple foundational goals. These goals may address different sets of constituents, different aspects of your mission, or different stakeholder concerns. Well-aligned organizations will arrive at fewer, more succinct foundational goals. If you find that your list includes 10-20 or more, there's a good chance that you need to do some work to better define your organizational mission.
Once you have your list, consider if there are goals that appear to be (or really are!) conflicting. Are there ways to better align these goals? Are there competing stakeholder goals that need to be addressed at the organizational level? Are you trying to be too many things to too many people? Work to revise or eliminate any competing goals.
Next, work to prioritize your foundational goals. One effective method is to identify each goal as primary or secondary. A good rule of thumb is to have no more than three primary goals—any more than that and you'll find it difficult to effectively execute on any one, as your purpose becomes too splintered. Another helpful exercise is to force-rank your goals, ordering them from most to least important. Taking this step of goal prioritization will be incredibly beneficial when you get into the actual project and are forced to make decisions on page-level priorities.
Ideas for implementing on fundamental goals are virtually infinite. If you've enthusiastically filled in the branches, you could be left with an overwhelming number of possible action steps. It's not realistic to think that you can tackle everything in one fell swoop, even if you have unlimited resources to apply to the project. It's better to prune your project tree down so that it becomes more streamlined.
Manage the pruning process by focusing on your primary goals and the activities that are most important to fulfilling on those goals. Next, consider your secondary goals and choose one or two branches that will be most conducive to accomplishing those goals. Are there overlapping objectives? If so, you'll probably want to retain these, and be sure to skew towards the foundational goal that is higher priority.
Remember that the more complicated and involved a project is, the higher likelihood of something going wrong. It's generally much easier to execute when you have a laser focus on one, primary goal, and becomes increasingly challenging as the number of objectives increase. We often recommend splitting a project into phases, tackling primary goals in the initial phase, and then working on additional or secondary goals in later phases. This allows everyone to remain dialed-in to the goals for each phase of a project.
The most effective websites are ones where everything is intentionally and beautifully aligned with well-stated, foundational goals that correspond to the organizational mission.
The most effective websites are ones where everything is intentionally and beautifully aligned with well-stated, foundational goals that correspond to the organizational mission. The process of drilling down to discover these objectives is thus an invaluable component of every Web design project. When done well, you can ensure that when you get to the end of the project—after you’ve gone through endless content revisions and design iterations, meticulously parsed hundreds of lines of code, and tested and retested functionality—you haven't been tirelessly working to clear the wrong jungle. Moreover, and perhaps of most value, you may find that you’ve been challenged to re-evaluate and better define your own organizational mission.