The Business Improvement Network

How to improve the success of your digital projects

By Alex Hayes

Alexandra Hayes

Let’s get the C word out of the way early...Yes, I know...we can’t do or read anything without it being mentioned, but I can’t ruminate about the successes and failings of digital projects unless we also talk about how Covid has accelerated the use of digital, particularly in the workplace.
Big companies that were putting off their digital transformation programmes have had to re-think, quickly.  There’s been a scramble for businesses trying to accurately gather data as the whole world went online.  Organisations with analytical capability were able to increase their budgets in the right places, flawlessly move from office working to home working and manage their supply chains more effectively because of their ability to forecast their sales. They were able to turn up the tactics dial when a crisis hit. 

As we all know, the outcome was that there were some real winners and losers in that scramble.

Avoiding digital is no longer an option? 

  • Increase in spending on devices and remote working touchpoints due to COVID
  • The biggest jump in spending is forecast to be from 2022 onwards
  • 2002 being seen as the year we return to a level of certainty


Forecasts Worldwide IT Spending to Grow 6.2% in 2021

Through 2024, businesses will be forced to accelerate digital business transformation plans by at least 5 years to survive the port COVID world that involves permanently higher adoption of remote work and digital touchpoints.  Gartner forecasts global IT spending related to remorse work will total $332.9 billion, an increase of 4.9% from 2020.


So, how do you turn the tide on digital? 
Many clients that I’ve worked with over the years have a very negative perception about digital projects and the value they deliver to the business compared to the cost.  Which during these COVID times can be a bit of a blocker.
And yes, I hear some shocking horror stories about the roll out of digital projects and either how late they’ve been, how over budget they went and how they were left feeling cheated, rather than how they have moved the business on, which was what the original objective was.
And no, projects aren’t always perfect but they can still be successful.  Here are my top tips to start you off on the right foot.

1. Define your strategy - be driven by output not capability

I’m sure I'm not alone in seeing red when someone says to me…’We need an app, our competitor has one’ or something similar.

When you have defined a legitimate need within the business there may be several ways to fix it.  Think about what you want from it, what are the critical success factors?  They may be financial, culture, increasing revenue or margin perhaps? 

Once you know this start talking to some people who you think might be able to solve it. I don’t know a single company that wouldn’t happily discuss your challenge with you.  They’ll probably say something like ‘it sounds like you need a X and Y’.  Then write the brief.

If the brief is brief, then don’t be afraid to explore further and have more conversations, canvass opinion, add to the brief as you go.  If your contacts aren’t comfortable with that then find someone who is.

2. Trust your partner

This is a marriage, you’re allowed to get divorced but it’s not easy.

When the relationship is supplier/client, often the final output will be compromised.  The language used and complexity of the project process can be confusing, there needs to be trust.  It's an old saying but people buy people, in this industry I absolutely believe it to be true.  It’s a long road and you need to like your co-pilot.

When you have a long term working relationship with an agency there is an ebb and flow of favours, they’ll do this at no charge but when you ask for us to build something new don’t get three quotes again.  In my experience agencies will go the extra mile, as long as the client doesn’t want the impossible at that stage they start to bill by the hour.

The agency that asks the most questions at pitch stage is often the one that has your best interests.  If they're not the cheapest, but you liked them the most, then ask them what they can do or why they’re more than their competitor, it might not be apples for apples.  

3. Budget - You have to have one!

‘We don’t have one, we’d like you to tell us how much it costs?’ 

Well it's a bit like buying a loaf of sourdough from Lidl or Waitrose.  You'll get sourdough, but one will be better quality than the other.  Longer shelf life, one might be bigger, the ingredients might be organic, the wrapper might be compostable.  
But if you only have £1 then the answer is you’ll have to buy this one from Lidl.  If you have £3 then you can have this one from Waitrose (Other supermarkets are available - and I love Lidl because I have a big family and food only lasts 24hrs anyway)

Digital projects can be done on the cheap, but is it going to meet your expectations? 

Also remember, a budget doesn't just cover the build. It's got to include the discovery, build, maintenance, software licenses, support and if the product has a long life span, then future investment in development to keep it fresh and valued.

And if you only have £1 then why not spend 30p on a discovery session so that the planning, schedules and budgets are nailed down before you invest any further.

4. Planning - Discovery, KPIs, roadmapping and timelines

A sensible way to engage with a new agency for a big project is to split the project out into discovery and build/campaign (see above).

It's fair that agencies don’t want to do all the thinking, roadmapping, designs and business plan  for nothing before they have won the project.  And yet this is the only way to get to the technical specification, schedules and therefore exact cost.  It’s their knowledge and expertise and it’s got value after all.  So, do a discovery with them. Test the water, if it doesn’t go how you wanted then you’ll have some learnings to take forward onto the next project.

Roadmapping at this stage is important.  I’ve often created MVPs with a view to adding on bits and pieces in phase 1, 2 , 3 etc...but knowing which direction you want to take the project in means that better choices can be made when building the foundation.  This is particularly important when deciding on the tech stack required. 

Ask yourselves, how long do we think this will be used for? How many users? Where are they located? What do we want them to do now? And in 3/6 months and beyond?

5. Not enough time planning - don’t forget the users

The planning phase can take as long as the doing phase.  And prior to that you have to consider how long it’ll take your organisation to get through the strategy piece.  Consideration has to be given to the stakeholders and business objectives - and then what about the users?  Still finding that within business applications this is frequently not considered.   

Users are often neglected during digital projects, but yet their opinion is everything.  The way the system looks, the UX is all important in the success of the project.  They are the ones using it after all. 

Again, output over capability.  The output is something that will be used by all staff to quickly deal with customer complaints on the shop floor.  Ok - so think about that.  What does that need to be? Easy for the staff to use - good design that isn’t too heavy on their cognitive load, because they’re probably having to deal with someone stressed, buttons to click not big chunks of text etc. 

You can spend money on research with the users before developing or thousands on training them how to use it after it’s been built.  Saving money on user research and design isn’t worth it.

6. Team communication MAKE SURE the right departments are involved and it’s not death by committee

Digital applications touch so many departments, which means lots of stakeholders. 

Don’t be afraid to manage them.  Create internal roles, give a hierarchy on the project, so that decisions ultimately fall to a few individuals.  Make sure those individuals are the ones that have the subject matter knowledge.  

They don't have to be involved throughout but the beginning is vital.  What's the tech stack? Is the application suggested going to be hosted internally? What does the wider business want from this? Has that been considered? How are you going to roll it out?

Internal workshops with the stakeholders and agencies are a must.  Collaboration is key and it can be done effectively providing there is trust.

7. No digital knowledge in house

You need someone in house who knows what they're talking about, they don't need to know about servers and hosting and IP addresses but they need to understand the strategy, process and the desired output.  

Doing your due diligence and feasibility is important and you'll need someone who's going to ask questions to ensure as many different outcomes have been considered.  

Project changes do occur, you just have to accept it, but understanding the implications of these  delays or changes need to be flagged and discussed thoroughly. 

Projects go wrong, the spec has changed but no-one has owned it. It’s not a mistake it's just the way it is...own it, discuss it, replan and move forward.  I believe we call this Agile :)


About the author

Alex has worked in client services in digital agencies for 20 years. Doing good work for great organisations is what makes her tick as well as making the roll out of digital projects less daunting.

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