Digital initiatives can easily rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard costs, claiming months of research, planning, and effort. Smart organizations understand the importance of articulating a waterproof foundational strategy for any such venture, backed by a rationale that is anchored in some higher grand business strategy. Yet any actual strategic thinking that gets done in the context of these investments is generally constricted to the planning stage, leaving a significant chunk of the process – the implementation phase – untouched. However, strategy shouldn’t end when the planning docs are signed and delivered; it should be deeply embedded in technical implementation and tactical execution. Before I joined Undercurrent as a strategist, I worked on the production side at an eCommerce solution startup. We were a team of seven when I started and had grown to 12 by the time I left – being such a small business, everyone had to pitch in on everything. By the time of my departure, we all had at least some experience doing front-end and back-end development, sales, support, training, design and project management. This gave us a holistic frame of reference for thinking about how to design, build and maintain web properties, and it helped our team develop an internal toolkit of processes and tricks, ranging from code hacks to standardized design templates to automated scripts that enabled us to make custom configurations in one click. We found ways to operate smarter on the executional side that ultimately made our clients smarter and better on the business and consumer side. Even though we were detached from our clients' long-term business decisions (we were only looped in once our involved had been justified by those decisions), we did apply real strategy to our end of the process.
Now working on the other end of the process with planning and strategy, I've realized that there's a commonly held misconception among marketers – the people who control the lion's share of the world's digital brand budgets – that strategy ends where implementation begins, or rather: that the key to a successful digital execution lies in the preceding research and planning, and not so much in the execution itself.
“Digital” Needs a Holistic World View
Marketers tend to either gloss over the implementation phase, or obsess over magic pill partners. The former find it not to be as sexy or as exciting as the hunt for The Big Insight – or as much fun as planning for how the experience will be grown into a huge success with the help of the right media buys, brand fans and social media efforts. The latter assume implementation is mysterious, and fear change once things have begun. Marketers don't make things; that's a responsibility that falls on the IT department or on a partner agency. But digital strategy cannot be confined to one department, just as it cannot be confined to a single stage of the process that moves a product from conception to something real in the hands of people. That's why strategists and marketers need to be at the very least conversant in the basics of digital technologies, so that when the time come to choose a production parter, a meaningful discussion can be had about the best executional solution (my colleague Matthew Carlin has written cogently about this).
Theory and Practice are Linked
In a perfect scenario, every tactical execution ladders up to the grand strategic vision. The best strategists know that there's a very real risk of becoming handcuffed by seemingly insignificant decisions made early on. They know that digital strategy starts with theory: our collective knowledge and experiences help us formulate a set of assumptions and hypotheses about how the world works and how the thing we're creating fits into it. More importantly, the best strategists also know that strategy is integral to successfully translating a hypothesis into practice. How well you manage that transition is what determines the ultimate effectiveness of your strategy.
Successful digital initiatives rely less on our skills as thinkers and analysts alone, and come as much from our skills as tinkerers, orchestrators and evaluators.
The idea of linking theory and practice is by no means a new one – indeed, it has its own philosophical practice, Pragmatism, focussed on the process of separating intelligent practice from uninformed practice. The intelligent part comes by extrapolating theory from practice, and reapplying it back again - simply speaking, using past experiences to derive a set of guiding principles for future action (and this, in turn, resonates with the increasingly iterative nature of software development and the need for businesses to be nimble and adaptive in a world that is quickly growing more connected and complex).
Thus, successful digital initiatives rely less on our skills as thinkers and analysts alone, and come as much from our skills as tinkerers, orchestrators and evaluators. A first-hand experience with any of these things – be it a previous career as a web developer or technical project lead, maintaining a blog as a hobby or building iPhone apps at your kitchen table after getting home from your "real" job – will make you a better digital strategist. Seeing the process through from start to finish from research to strategy to implementation to maintenance and evaluation will make you better yet.
These things may seem trivial (anybody can write a blog right?) or irrelevant but they provide us with a profound intuition for what works and what doesn't. That's why we welcome and encourage people at Undercurrent to make things for and with the Internet (be sure to check out Numblr, our most recent project). Practical experience instills in us a wider arrange of perspectives and techniques to apply to complex, digitally centric, problems (Ben Malbon captures this nicely in the concept of the T-Shaped person), and enables us to make smarter decisions at all stages of our work as strategy consultants.
Continuing on this theme, tomorrow my colleague Vlad and I will be sharing learnings we’ve found valuable in our most recent work that we’ve embedded from previous experiences working in software and web development. I hope you’ll come back for part 2.