In late 2007 I asked my team, the online team at DNA, to share some of their opinions on challenges facing businesses with regards to digital. While a few of us were used to writing for a living, many weren't, so to keep help I came up with a simple brief: write about something we should all think more about, and keep it to 800 words.
Every single one of them was great. It was an awesome exercise in getting a group of people to step outside their day jobs to share their views. We had each of the '800 words' designed up as whitepapers, and shared them with each other, the rest of the business, and with our clients.
Going through some of my old files recently I found the 800 words that I had written to kick things off and I thought I'd share them here.
A lot has changed in digital since 2007, obviously, including the mainstream adoption of Agile, data maturity, and more recently Lean UX - but many of the core ideas in those were on my mind when I wrote 'The Gap'.
Ironically I am on the other side of the fence now, leading a team inside a big corporate, overhauling (among other things) a big, tired website. In many ways I am the target of my own writing from 2007.
Originally written for DNA in 2007
Nothing’s ever perfect or completely finished online – there’s always room, and the opportunity, to improve. Unlike offline we don’t need to get everything perfect upfront, but we still waste time trying.
Creating an approach based on systematic, continual improvement is a luxury of online that we shouldn’t ignore – rather we should constantly look for ways to leverage. Establishing site goals are a good way to drive this.
Let’s say a website is clearly in need of an overhaul. It needs new content, functionality or input from within the business. We’ll spend a fortune planning the detail of what is missing, what the needs are and then carefully craft a solution. Thousands and weeks are spent debating content, design, technology, process etc, and when it’s all done, after all the cramming, boom, the changes go live ...
What are the chances the site couldn’t be improved somehow? At launch you really have no idea how it’s gonna roll – it’s the moment we’ve all been planning for, but what about when the stats come in (you’ve organised that right?), user feedback drops into the inbox, or when you ask users how they found it? Did sales change? Are conversions up? Is absolutely everything that could be improved all improved – is it completely, and totally ‘peaking’? No, of course not. It never is. You may have run out of time, interest, budget, or ideas, but chances are there’s still room to improve, not to mention that people’s needs also change over time.
The Gap between where your site is today, and where it ‘could be’, always exists. I call it: The Gap.
As your site improves, you’ll reduce The Gap, but it will always be there. Don’t panic, no matter how great your current ‘project’ there’s always room to improve. Silver bullet projects can only take you so far: acknowledging The Gap is the thing that fundamentally refocuses you on ongoing improvement, not the ‘fix-all’ initiatives we all too often embark on.
‘Projects’ are the fad-diets of the web management
We form habits from the way we work. If all we do is run big-bang projects, then over time we lose site of the (also) important little things, in time, you can’t see the little things anymore, that’s when they’re really dangerous. A project may improve ‘success’ post-launch – but how long will that last? Will The Gap keep getting smaller if nothing else happens? Will you just wait a while for another big saviour project to play catch-up on The Gap a few months from now? There’s more to being successful than only doing something big – every now and again (Tyson learned that the hard way).
Little things are important too, the things that would take 20 minutes each, and there’s no shortage of them waiting in the wings. The analytics, the quick website promo implemented on the back of an unexpected spike in traffic, etc. Sure these are just a couple of weeny things – but the point is if you train yourself and your team only to manage in sanctioned chunks, you are also teaching everyone that the other little non-project things aren’t important, before long, you can’t see them anymore, or start to forget how powerful they are.
Whose job is it to pick up the little things and get them sorted? Who’ll come to a review and say “Actually I didn’t do anything huge this period, there were a tonne of teeny things that were more effective overall”. I guarantee nobody hired to ‘manage big things’ ever would. Who should then?
This isn’t a rant about the value of the little things per se; but the need for a management mindset that isn’t scared to zoom out from a project mindset and consider the broader set of activities that make websites successful – big or small.
The ‘Gap Aware’ leader should let projects deliver the chunks (of improvement) but be sure to surround them with lots of ‘business as usual’ improvement activity. They’d implement a system whereby they’re totally aware of what’s improvable today, and what will be addressed later, and why. They won’t let one activity, or the focus on ‘big projects’ consume all their focus.
Without awareness of The Gap we’re all too likely to ruin project budgets and timelines trying to get things that little bit better... cause we know it won’t happen later. Offline that’s more normal, there you get one shot, once a year to improve the most you can.
Use The Gap concept to remind yourself that everything you do can, and should still be improved in future. Educate your clients or peers to understand that a constant improvement mindset is more effective and less risky than just a one-punch Tyson approach. What we do now needs to be great, but never perfect.