Indianapolis, IN - July 30, 2007
I had a boss once who was infamous for his adages. Uniquely appropriate (or not) for nearly every situation; he rarely failed to have one of these nuggets immediately at the ready. True, he would occasionally misfire, tossing off a "let's throw it against the wall and see what sticks" when the situation may have clearly called for something more genteel like "run it up the flagpole and see who salutes." But most of the time, he was right on the money.
I was reminded of this recently while reading a book on writing called "Bird by Bird." In it, the author tells the story of her younger brother, about nine years old at the time, who had been procrastinating writing a school report about ornithology. He sat, somewhat downtrodden, at the kitchen table the night before it was due, surrounded by all the tools of writing: pens, pencils, paper, and a multitude of books about birds. And on his page, in his own words... nothing. His father, who was a writer, happened by and noticed his predicament. He placed his hand on his young son's shoulder and offered sage advice: "Bird by bird, son," he said. "Just take it bird by bird." My former boss would have said, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." Sometimes you just have to start.
Either is great advice for life, for writing, or for web development. Often, when you stand near the opening salvo of a major site overhaul or new development, it can be overwhelming. The concept is so big ("we need a new web site") that it can be exceedingly difficult to see the forest for the trees. But almost any task we have before us that appears daunting can be attacked from this angle: Just break it into smaller pieces and eat it, like an elephant, one bite at a time. To do this, it's helpful to break the entire project down into manageable chunks and ask yourself key questions along the way: What is the overall goal of the site? How will success be measured? What is absolutely required for launch? What can be held until later?
These last two questions can be some of the most important and require the most critical thinking. Too often, even after the project is fully broken down into manageable bites, there are features and functions included in the development plan that aren't necessary for success. Even more common, things get added to the task list while development underway.
I was reminded of this recently while talking with a new client. They had been working with a company to develop the website for their new startup for more than fourteen months and estimated that the job was about half way finished. Not surprisingly, they were frustrated with the progress, but even more so considering how things looked for the future: more of the same, with no clear idea of when the job when be completed.
After meeting with them the second time, some of the reasons for the delay became clear. Certainly the development company they'd been working with was partly to blame, but they were surprised to know that we felt they were culpable as well. Here's why:
Web development is a different animal that most forms of marketing or business processes. Sometimes it can be difficult to know when you're finished and even harder to realize when you've done enough. Businesses and their developers, while tasked with creating the best possible solution to a problem, often get buried in feature-creep. It often works like this:
The phone rings and the client says: "Hey, I just had a great idea. Wouldn't it be cool if we added the capability to [enter really cool idea here]?" The developer, not wanting to ever say no, instead says, "Yes, that's a great idea!" So the timeline shifts, the parameters of the job expand, and the client burns another month of development time and money without truly realizing how or why.
A better response, from both parties, would be to evaluate the [really cool idea] in light of the overall affect it would have on the development, particularly with an eye toward a measurable return on investment. It might make more sense especially in the case of a new business venture to do just enough to get the site ‘finished' and launched and work on adding [really cool ideas] in subsequent phases. This allows you to pursue ideas in the light of their own success and failure, without necessarily tying them to the overall success of your core business concept. It also allows your site to begin performing its primary function sooner whether that's generating sales, increasing retail foot traffic, or simply acting as a key sales support tool.
Because of the nature of web development, especially with ever-evolving emerging technology, this approach takes a great deal of discipline. But it is precisely due to the technology that it's vital. In the course of development, if you are constantly re-evaluating the strategy and process considering emerging technology, you'll never reach a point where you can feel comfortable flipping the switch and turning it on. The shifting sands of technology would simply eliminate the sure footing necessary for launch.
Instead of letting technology be your guide, focus on the core strategic vision for the site and analyze exactly what needs to be done to begin achieving your stated, measurable successes. Then, after your initial launch is complete and the site is performing these tasks, you'll be free to evaluate any [really cool ideas] in the calm environment that comes from having reached one important milestone. This will allow each idea to stand on its own merit and ROI, without affecting the overall development or hindering your core business strategies. Then you'll be truly free to "throw it against the wall and see what sticks."