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Strategy Matters: How To Start a Successful Project

Why all successful projects start with a Strategy phase, and how your project can too.

Recently we had a higher education client approach us for help with a strategy project which would define the goals for a future redesign and rebuild of their website. They knew their current site was no longer serving its audiences, the CMS workflow wasn’t working for their team of editors, and the internal political structure around who controlled which part of the site had gotten convoluted and unruly over the years. Overhauling the site wouldn’t be an easy undertaking, since several departments would be affected regarding both cost and workflow, and there would be some unhappiness within one group with the switch to another content management system.

They knew it was time for their team to come up with a solid plan to get a project of this scale off the ground, so they decided to start with an initial strategy phase that they managed internally. They took the time to do some initial internal work outlining high-level goals, taking stock of their current content, revisiting their governance plan, taxonomy structure, and doing a fair amount of research on their users.

This helped get the internal stakeholders on board to move forward with the larger project, but they still needed help in defining the goals and applying data to give them a more measurable outcome at the end. Since they didn’t quite have enough hands on deck to get this done internally, they called us to come in and give a strategy assist. We loved seeing this initial work done by their team, since it gave us a greater understanding of what they needed. It was now our job to take this existing strategy work and ramp it up on steroids in order to create a stronger and broader foundation.

I’m particularly fond of this phase of a project. I love getting to know clients, learning about their needs, uncovering their frustrations, and at the end, being able to start a new project with a clear understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. Once we’ve defined a plan for success, it not only provides a clear path forward on the project, but it also allows everyone involved to circle back at the end of the project in order to assess the project’s success.

But what’s involved in strategy work? What does it mean exactly?

Some things you need to establish during this phase are:

  • What are the goals of the project?
  • Who are the main audiences?
  • How do we make the site work best for audience needs?
  • Who are the main stakeholders?
  • How do we best communicate and collaborate together?
  • What obstacles are in our way?
  • How do we measure success at the end?

Strategy work can be very extensive involving several weeks of in-depth analysis, or quite lean with just a day or two of work. The more work you can do upfront, the better. Not everyone has the luxury of time and budget to go as deep as they’d like, but even if there’s a very small budget, it’s better to do some strategy work upfront than none at all.

Tasks that could be completed during initial strategy are:

  • Understanding your benchmarks. What measurable outcomes do you want from the project? What metrics are you trying to hit? Understanding what success looks like at the end will guide the rest of your project. Look at your analytics, and talk with stakeholders about what would make the project a success when it’s all done.
  • Competitive analysis. How well do you know your competitors? What are their strengths? Their weaknesses? How is your organization different from theirs? Knowing how your business compares to others within your market will help differentiate your website and message going forward.
  • Usability studies. Talk to your users about what their needs are. What do they like about the current site? What needs improvement? What do they want to do that they can’t currently do?
  • Persona creation. Develop personas for each of your main audiences to understand how typical user groups interact with your site.
  • Review and audit existing content. Audit the content so you know how much you have. Is it current or does it need updating? Who is in charge of updates? What can be deleted or archived? Take a look at taxonomy, user mapping, and content types as well.
  • Information architecture. Does the navigation of your site make sense to users? Is it logical how a user would look for content or information on your site? Are the terms used in the menu confusing in any way?
  • Risk assessment. What are the possible risks to the project? These could include personnel (vacations coming up or lack of availability), to technical (is there a key integration or dependency that might be delayed and affect other parts of the project?) to design related (will excessive rounds of approvals be necessary?). Getting the obstacles out in the open early will help in addressing them quickly and transparently. Talk through any possible obstacles, decide how to mitigate them, and then assign each to someone on the team to ensure the risk is lowered as much as possible.
  • Foundational development work. The more the developers can learn upfront regarding the technical needs of the site, the sooner they can anticipate and plan the structure and architecture, and make their best recommendations.
  • Meetings with stakeholders of all types. Get everyone together who has any sort of stake in the project. Audiences, marketing, executives, technical teams, and other stakeholders will benefit from hearing about the needs of the other groups, as well as give you fantastic information about their own singular needs for the new site.

It can be a lot of information to absorb and consolidate depending on how deep you decide to go. At the end of this phase, your team should be well organized, with an understanding of the top-level findings, and able to make recommendations on how to address them in order to hit the defined goals and make the project successful. It also helps redirect the team if they are going down the wrong path, giving everyone a feeling of reassurance that you’re all moving forward in the same way.

After three months of diving deep into strategy work, we were able to give our client a fine-tuned strategy document, backed up by data, and supported by a comprehensive plan of action. They are just now entering the design and development phase of the project with the plan we helped craft, giving both teams the confidence they need to ensure a sustainable website at the end that accomplished everything that was needed.