This Business Brittle
In: Columns > Pro Dot Con
Published on January 3, 2002
Let's talk planning.
Let's talk planning and collaboration for a desired purpose.
Let's talk planning, collaboration, purpose, and cohesive organization.
All right, now let's forget all that, and build a design company.
Welcome to the age of web design, or at least the age that was. Looking back over the last year is much like surveying Ground Zero after it's stagnated in silence, I suppose. The boom and bust of "the net" as far as business investment and profit potential goes, was as inevitable as it was complete.
Now, we could sit here and yak about how Venture Capitalists are greedy and short-sighted, or how hack designers propagated like Tribbles... but why? Let's lay some phat blame, baby...general and sweeping, just the way I like it.
The fall came because people were poor businessmen. Period.
Oh, I'm not blaming you, when you got laid off, and I'm not even blaming your boss. I'm laying all of this at the door of some poor business modeling, and the formerly-golden few who ran with that.
The question came early. "How do we put together an effective, productive team, regulate what they do, and keep them focused on a single purpose?"...strangely no-one was ready to answer...or at least no-one could see that the answer was a self-evident part of the question.
Anyone who has ever put together their own computer (Yes, even the retail enders who pull it from the box, and stare blankly at the serpent pit of cables) can tell you that starting off with the layout in hand, and moving piece by piece is head and shoulders above randomly plugging in cords until something works. Many a bandaged finger, many a first degree burn have come from intermediate users who just didn't take the time to lay it out first. I know what you're thinking "But, we're experts in our fields, put us together and we work it all out."
Um, right...that's why Razorfish stock is doing so well these days.
The fact of the matter is that effective planning has never been more important than it is now. Sure, if these practices could have come into play a couple years ago there might not have been a crash..but now they're completely integral, because without them there won't be work at all.
Yes, you may all be professionals in your field, some of the world's greatest designers, coders, engineers... but collaborators? We all have to admit that there's a certain bit of demagoguery involved when we build our own sites from scratch. We are beholden to symbols and source..and that doesn't mean that we can work within a team environment at all. Collaboration and planning are skills in and of themselves. The quickest route to failure involves filling a room with professionals trying to cross over into each other's specialties.
"Too many cooks spoil the soup" isn't just a tired cliché.
Well, it is a tired cliché, but cut me some slack - I needed it.
Back to business...
"So what are these divine answers you have, column boy?"
I'm glad you asked. I don't have any information that hasn't been around for ages. A team model is a remarkably simple thing, complex only in its ability to be executed. A business model is just a focusing of that team.
Let's play "Ten Points" and begin.
You're a pro, that's great, stick to what you know: Many projects fail when people decide that they need more control instead of seeing the project as the purpose. Designers and coders can always dabble in each other's areas (in fact it helps with communication) but understanding your strengths and weaknesses (and those of your team members) helps to keep egos in check, reduces power tripping to a minimum, and even saves you from the occasional snafu.
The client is always right, until they're wrong: Look at point 1. You're a professional for a reason. You've grouped professionals together, forward thinking people who know what boundaries they want to push. Listen to them, and listen to yourself. Your clients might actually have wonderful ideas to go along with their objectives, and you can tell them if you can make it happen or not. Don't give in to the pressure of "I saw this done on TV, so you can do it." The practice of standing up to clients still falls under the heading of knowing your limitations... and how to transcend them effectively.
Make an outline, then make an outline again, and then collect the team together to make an outline: Yeah, it seems like overkill to make such a big deal of process, but without years of modelling and design, the Ford Pinto would have remained a mere dream. The same is also true of the Ford Mustang. If you slack off on the stages of sitework that nail down your requirements and objectives, it will inevitably come back to bite you on the arse. Let everyone get their digs in at this stage. Raise all possible (or at least likely) situations and issues, and you might not meet any along the way. Yeah... that's a lie, but it sounded so hopeful.
Delegation parties are as fun as keg night: You're not doing it on your own, and if you are, then you probably need some intensive observation, and wrist restraints. The ability to delegate authority and trust those who've gotten it is one of the traits of a strong leader. Respect the different sections of work needed to be completed, and fit them all into the flow...oh yes..the flow...
Workflow, it's not just for sanitary engineers anymore: Ensure that all the steps involved in building are executed are essential... Ensure they're executed in the proper order, because you don't have a better choice. No-one wants to go back and try to unfry the egg, so why would you want to leave workflow out of the equation? Don't be afraid to say "I need this before I can start my own work."
In focus, lies strength: How easy is it to wander off track when you're designing? Hell, I remember this one time that Coco Chanel and I were conspiring on a new line of trackwear. Well she's a real wolverine, ya know. Absolutely wanted her way, and didn't care who she had to kil... Alrighty then... drifting off focus, I remember what I wanted to say! With so many creative minds in close proximity, it becomes paramount to have someone who's really directing the show. Keeping everyone in line and on topic is vital and necessary. Projects can always be expanded after their completion - hey, this opens an opportunity to do this down the line, nudge nudge wink wink... but never should you take your eyes from the prize of completing the project.
Loopholes, they're the way of the world Expansion is always a key variable in any equation that represents your future or your client's, and the debacle of the past two years hasn't changed any of that. Ford left room in his factories for continued growth of the assembly line even while it was little more than a conveyor belt, and some poorly fed capital-slave labor. Forward-thinking leadership requires the ability to build backdoors, places to expand the design and the functionality. Never let your ideas for the future supercede the production of the present... but if you limit your client, you'll be digging yourself into a hole.
Web designers who write are intensely brilliant and stunningly attractive: This is self-explanatory... let's move on.
[Editor's Note: Nick, Rudy, Ben, Stephen, James, Heather, Meryl, and Sara all want to mention at this point that they agree with you 110%, Peter.]
I knew they would. Thanks very much for pointing that out. But I digress.
If you stepped on the gas pedal at the start line, be there to tap the brakes at the finish: Throwing people at a project is pointless if their work will simply be undone by someone else who's obsessed with filling the vacuum created by their departure. Maintain a cohesive team, and if you're involved in the planning, make sure that all steps are executed in step with a common process. Building the organizational factor of good business practice is tough, and keeping it intact is even tougher.
Purpose, professionalism, payment, perfection: A job well done is its own reward...yeah, and minimum wage rocks. Of course you love what you do, but when the bills show up, a pat on the back hardly sates the thirst of your creditors. Make sure that the client understands the need for prompt and consistent payments through the course of the project, and that the team members can be confident that they will receive appropriate payment for their sweat. Sticking to a business model is the only way to give it worth, and in order to do that you need to communicate closely with the client at each stage of development. Don't let them run your business, but sure as shekels, don't let them ruin it either.
So what have we learned here today? Hopefully you're starting to understand the importance of planning in a collaborative environment. Perhaps it's occurred to you that in a world of "do or die," the lack of a solid foundation for your work and business will result in a course of do and die.
Having made it all the way through this article you've doubtless learned too, the many ways in which self-evident points need not be beaten to death...
...And that web developers who write are the most erudite and alluring people of all.
Yes, we've dealt with the real issues.
[Editor's Note: "Good Night, Gracie. And Peter."]
It's not an easy market to deal with these days, and the stories of recovery keep pouring in, alongside the stories of bankruptcies and layoffs. We owe it to ourselves to see that the our post-collapse reconstruction is undertaken on a solid business base, and not run on the rails of pipe-dreams and purposeless flair. We continue to push the envelope, but we need to keep on making sure that the envelope isn't empty, or holding a notice of arrears.
I'll be back next month... even though I'll probably have to break a hot date to make it by.
Peter Fielding makes the pretty things for Pixelflo.com, while he hunkers down in the frozen tundra of western Canada. Receiving his email by data dog sled, he is most often found lighting miniature garbage can fires for the homeless baby seals that power his cpu, and lobbying for the inclusion of Full Contact Page Design in the next Winter Olympics.