We had finished our pitch to re-platform and redesign a large healthcare system’s aging website from Sharepoint to Sitecore and were chatting with the client’s executive sponsor. When the discussion turned to the scope and complexity of the project, she paused for a long moment and said, ‘I know what I want to do, I just don’t know how to start.’ I swallowed my surprise while she talked in broad strokes about her big product vision.
Of course, she had already started. She identified an opportunity, aligned the organization, secured funding and resources, and mapped out the initial technical solution. The value story was second nature to her, and easy to tell. The only part she was struggling with was Delivery, or the simultaneous execution of project and product management.
I joined aha! in the fall of 2018 to lead our Delivery practice after spending 20 years in corporate positions leading all types of digital products. Over the years, I have had the pleasure (and the misfortune) to work with large and small consulting firms and agencies. We created some exceptional experiences for employees and consumers. We also created some pretty average sites. Invariably, the difference between exceptional and average results came down to intent. Were we, as a team, focused on completing a project or crafting a product?
Good digital project managers understand the basic dependencies across the content, UX, design, and technical workstreams; keep the team informed on progress and delays; do enough stakeholder management to keep distractions at bay; stay close enough to the work to solve the daily problems; and find small steps the team can take each day to keep the project on track. Project managers will deliver what you asked for in terms of scope, timeline, and budget. This is no small feat, and it is to be admired. But ultimately, the project manager’s goal is an end to the project and as such, she will lead the team to implement project operations to most efficiently drive to close. It’s a laudable and necessary approach — no one wants to be on a project that never ends.
While the project plan to define and launch a website is basically the same, the formula for the Delivery of a remarkable product owned by an integrated team is nuanced and highly variable. In our modern age of digital products, the platitude of ‘what got us here won’t get us there’ rings alarmingly true. The difference between an average site and an exceptional experience that continues to delight the user lies in the product team and how they work together. The complication (or opportunity for the realistic optimists out there) is doing both at the same time. The product team is invariably part of the project team and the project must end while the product lives on.
At aha!, we are in the business of creating exceptional digital experiences for the healthcare consumer. Our subject matter experts in design, user experience, content, and technology bring decades of experience working with the world’s biggest brands and are purpose-focused on healthcare. Rather than pairing the best and the brightest with really good project managers, we’ve created a Delivery practice that brings a unique element to our engagements. Our Delivery experts have led global teams, created successful governance models, and have a general practitioner’s understanding of the core workstreams. The ability to bring out the best in subject matter experts, drive to scope and timeline, and grow the connective tissue of shared understanding and innate user empathy is a talent unto itself.
The Agile sprint process provides a practical example to help us understand the difference. In a typical project-focused technical sprint, project managers will introduce (or impose, in the worst scenarios) the agency’s standard process and fold essential client team members into existing roles. Design and UX teams are not integrated into the sprint process and are invariably front loaded on the project, rendering them nearly invisible by the end. It’s easy for the agency team to manage, and they don’t have to spend unnecessary hours building a client-driven sustainable process — they know the game and the rules, and are sure to come out on the other side. The project ends, and the client, lacking any real understanding of the roles and skills needed to facilitate and execute a sprint, struggles to make progress on an ever-growing backlog with processes and tools that weren’t designed for their organization, product, or team.
Alternatively, a starting together approach allows the Delivery team to begin to ‘glue’ product teams together in the early stages of the project. Yes, it takes longer. Yes, it’s hard. You must constantly focus on both people and tasks while realities of scope, timeline, budget, and resources still exist. aha!’s carefully applied Delivery ‘glue’ creates fertile ground for client teams to grow their own connective tissue that is strong enough to weather the storms of digital product launch and management. It looks a little bit like this:
- Gather the core workstreams (design, content, UX, and technology), elicit current state processes, detailed tasks, and dependencies.
- Build a shared understanding of the intention of a sprint process (both design and technical). How will we hold one another accountable to our release goals and ensure shared success.
- Create an integrated sprint roadmap by building a joint work breakdown structure to identify dependencies and requirements, and allow the teams to start and finish together.
- Objectively and passionately guide the product team to make it their own by applying organizational culture, norms, and ways of working to the standard process and tools. Identify key team member development opportunities and quietly work from the side to close the skill gaps for product leaders.
I’m often asked for my two-sentence vision for our Delivery practice. It’s pretty simple, really: Begin with the end in mind. The project must end, the product lives on, and how we do the work together is what matters to the people who show up to work every day.