by Perry Hewitt
As digital becomes part of every line of business, effective marshaling of digital capabilities is a critical competency. Management is often maligned (sometimes for good reason!), but strong management is an important differentiator in both digital delivery and in aligning that delivery to strategic goals.
So what’s the best way to tackle management of digital teams to keep engagement and output high? I’ve been through two Internet booms and busts in corporations, nonprofits, and startups — so I’ve made plenty of management mistakes by commission and by proxy. Here are five common ones I’ve seen or made myself:
Mistake #1: Enabling team member silos, divorced from execution. Encourage everyone on the team — including designers, developers, and content producers — to consider deliverables through to execution. There’s a risk of managing each person on the team to his or her discrete deliverable, rather than in a way that everyone sees their reflection in the final outcome. If your team today has practices like designers throwing PhotoShop files over the wall for developers to execute, you may need to build in more collaboration. Incorporate some aspects of design thinking into your digital projects — starting from a solution is a good way for everyone to envision themselves in the final outcome, rather than focus on their piece through to handoff.
Mistake #2: Not baking data-informed thinking into the culture. Digital, social, and mobile technologies are still new enough that there’s a lot that’s measured as a binary (a checkbox for responsive design, for example) or subjectively (that new app looks great). Managers need to create a culture of continuous measurement on a team. Without this focus, development energy can be expended on the wrong feature rather than optimization of a micro-interaction to drive conversion. Communicate what the quantitative success metrics look like. Share data points with the team regularly, or better yet, display dashboards that show progress against established goals.
Mistake #3: Letting fear of failure override thoughtful experimentation.
Experimentation is essential — a digital team operating within the bounds of tried and true will not advance your goals. And by nature, some experiments fail — but how can they fail forward? Beta environments and assiduous segmenting, testing, and iteration can reduce fear of failure. As a manager, you can also highlight your own misses, along with ways you’ve avoided repeating them. Tried a new software framework without development resources nailed down for maintenance? I’ve done that. Created a private online community with too much friction to attain growth? Yep. In enterprise the culture too often is to speak of failure in hushed tones, rather than “so, this failed, and here’s what we learned.” Managers need to avoid instilling fear of the F word, so teams won’t eschew experimentation in favor of the safest course.
Mistake #4: Prizing communications control over collaboration. When many managers entered the workforce, the company dictated the terms of communication. Paper memoranda were the top-down coin of the realm, and feedback upward was limited to select channels like town hall meetings. Woe to those managers who think that world still exists. While hierarchies of all kinds are alive and well — and will be with us always — work-related communications flows have changed dramatically. Ask your digital team the best way to communicate. Successful teams will likely use a flavor of collaboration software, whether that’s an explicit project tool like Apollo or a Google doc structure. Periodically, re-evaluate this decision. Has information sharing moved to instant messaging? To Twitter? Let your team vote with their feet, apart from security essentials. You have a better shot of retaining team knowledge if you’re optimized for the real ways information travels, and aren’t waiting for updates to the company intranet.
Mistake #5: Underestimating the speed of change. In 2003, blogging was still new in the mainstream, and mistrusted by corporations wedded to large CMS installs. In 2005, it was understood that video would never be a dominant form for readers. In 2007, mobile was mostly a development afterthought. In 2012, people insisted ephemeral content was a fringe use case, before Snapchat’s ascendancy among both preteens and Wall Street bankers. Managers must develop digital teams strong not only at rinse and repeat, but with adaptable skillsets and mindsets. Set the stage for expansive thinking about what’s possible through tactics as varied as shared bookmarking sites, lunch and learns, and guest speakers from different industries. Digital is full of examples of the unthinkable becoming the inevitable — and a default-open approach to new ideas helps your team adapt for these shifts.
Perry Hewitt has been happily working at the intersection of marketing, editorial, and technology since before people had the internet in their pocket, most recently as Chief Digital Officer at Harvard University. She writes about digital strategy at perryhewitt.com.