Thinking about a product approach

Let’s start with a quote:

“Most web teams I’ve met are being nibbled to death by tiny tasks. They don’t have time to focus on what really matters – the top tasks* – because the org is so vanity-prone, inward-looking and organisation-centric.” Gerry McGovern – Transform: A rebel’s guide for digital transformation, Pg158

I’ll wager most higher education digital teams can relate to this. We’re no different at Bristol. This is exactly the challenge we face. There are so many demands on our time it’s very hard to make the time and space to focus on the important things. But when us digital folk try to kick back, we’re told that each project is utterly crucial, has an unmissable deadline, and has some seriously senior backing.

Many of us will secretly face-palm when we get these responses, but it’s a natural way to think and act. We should be more surprised if our colleagues didn’t respond this way. But the fact remains – we are all too often stymied by ourselves.

So how to change things? How to help refocus our efforts onto what really matters to our users/audience/students? 

One answer we’ve been discussing is the creation of ‘products’, each one aligned as close as possible to the  cornerstones of the University’s strategy. So, for example: student recruitment, student experience, research, staff experience and reputation.

Potential products

What exactly are these ‘products’? They aren’t audience-facing sections of the website. Some might end up being but that’s not their reason. Staff experience most definitely isn’t – it’s largely an intranet. Student experience will probably exist on multiple channels e.g. an app, Blackboard and our website. In truth we don’t yet really know what exact shape these products will take. We do have some ideas, but that’s a story for another post. They may just end up as work streams.

What they are is a convenient way of breaking down what’s really important to the University and its audiences. For each area we can:

  1. assess what the users need us to do in this area and do it (for example: determine each area’s top tasks/prioritized user stories and ensure they’re met)
  2. assess what we need to do in this area and do it (ie business objectives)
  3. measure whether we’re actually achieving 1) or 2) in this area

If we’re not achieving these we’re not functioning correctly as a digital team – we’re not ensuring the University’s business needs or the audience needs are being met. But going from 1-3 isn’t enough. Once we’ve done it once, we’ll do it again, and again. We’ll do it continuously.

The word ‘continuously’ is key here. These aren’t projects. They’re not timeboxed. We don’t know the solution or the ‘definition of done’ upfront. The reality is they’ll never be done. For many years to come these areas will be the most vital to the University. And, unless all of a sudden, the digital juggernaut stops transforming everything in its path, the demands and needs of our audiences will change and continue to change.

But student recruitment, student experience, research, staff experience and reputation… aren’t we just creating new silos? Siloed thinking is massive problem in HE (and probably many other places). And to a degree, yes, we are. But these silos are built around our audiences’ needs rather than our internal structure. And if governance is functioning correctly there’s no reason why they won’t and shouldn’t be completely permeable.

Of course, none of this is rocket science. It’s a fairly common approach for digital across many sectors. And we’ve tested much of the theory in the development of our new homepage. It means you can invest in agile, lean teams who are continuously testing, assessing, measuring and delivering rather than in multi-year, six-figure waterfall projects with pre-defined solutions that barely ever end up delivering what was initially planned.

We’re at the start of this journey and we’ll be posting here about our progress as we go. In the next post I’ll talk in more detail about how these products might work.

*McGovern defines top tasks as: “a model of management that puts the customer at the centre by measuring success based on the success of the customer as completing their top tasks.”

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