Yesterday I had an interesting discussion with our other web guy. We recently underwent a fairly large redesign of our web site, which included the addition of new features and tools (read: more work for everyone). One of these is the addition of a home page centerpiece linked to stories about the people of the college: students, faculty, and alumni. The thing is, it’s not our job to write the stories, and it’s not necessarily PR’s problem that it was determined we need lots of these. And so the two groups talked yesterday about the scenario.
This was all relayed to me, which got me thinking: What are they trying to accomplish? There were lots of ideas thrown about, such as changing the release schedule, doing stories on campus things, highlighting groups or programs, etc. My main concern was that some these worked against our original theme of showcasing the people of the university. In all fairness, this original idea was made pretty arbitrarily. We made an assumption that showcasing successful people is a good use of that space.
Us: “What should go there?”
Them: “I dunno, people like seeing people.”
Us: “Okay, people it is!”
The problem now is keeping up, and trying not to impact people’s already full work load. But I believe that there was a clear deficit in the problem that they missed. What were they trying to solve? There’s a lot of talk about problem solving and goal setting that goes on in the business world, and for good reason. How can you effectively tackle a task without defined parameters? In this case, the problem was two-fold: workload and story quality. One of the ideas thrown out was doing stories on things like building history. But, does this really solve initial problem? Of course not. You still have an issue of needing someone to write the story, and that writing still has to be concise, engaging, and compelling.
Our original line of reasoning, to develop a people-centric centerpiece, was sound enough, I think. As a university, our commodity is people, after all. Potential students, parents, and donors need to see a successful product, just as if we were making suspenders, or clever shoe horns. If all we had to show were men with their pants around their ankles and shoes thrown to and fro, we wouldn’t be putting forth a successful air… we’d be Congress. Using our above example, how could we better tackle this?
- Define the problem: Be clear about what exactly it is that’s wrong. In education, there’s always someone around to tell you things are broken, we’re here to help define and explain exactly what that is. Sometimes this means recognizing that the problem presented isn’t the actual cause. Be sure you’re at the root issue.
- Brainstorm answers to those problems: If the workload is too high, perhaps set up a slower release cycle, or stagger new stories. The important thing is that these develop as an evolution from defining the problem. In our case, tossing out alternative story ideas is certainly a different option, but it’s not one that addresses the problem. The catch here is that good lateral thinking can create neat ideas, something we’re prone to get, just not necessarily productive ones to the problem at hand.
- Simplify: Take some of the potential solutions and see how far you can distill them down and still be successful. Bells and whistles can come later, for now, keep your eye on the ball. It will save you time and frustration.
- Decide how to execute the solution: If you’re changing the release cycle, what will you change it to? If you change an editorial process, what workflow will be used? Be clear about defining resources and responsibilities. If PR needs to write X and marketing needs to review it, get that down. That way if the process breaks down later, you can refer people back to the original plan.
- Execute: Set a time to get this ball of goo rolling, and do it as quickly as you can after you’ve decided what to do. Don’t give ideas time to get stale, or the problem time to magnify.
- EVALUATE: There’s nothing that says problem solving like being able to show you did it. This deserves a deeper look.
The whole point in problem solving is to set goals, and measure them. In the end, it’s all well and good if we choose a couple ways to change our story writing process, but if we don’t have a goal, not only for the problem solving but for the original need, how do we know if what we are doing is working? In this case, we need a primary goal, one for the centerpiece, and a secondary goal, one for the problem of story production. Overall, our goal is to showcase the people of the university. All well and good, but this isn’t really measurable. What we need to say is that we want to get X% of home page views a month to clickthrough the centerpiece. We would do this with enticing photography, and engaging quotes. From there we might even say we want an additional X% of those people to go on to visit a related page. There we have a defined goal, explaining how we’ll do it, and how we’ll measure success.
With the writing problem, we would say our goal is to generate Y new stories a semester, staggering their release ever Z weeks, and editorializing them through a new workflow. The measurement for success would be twofold. One, are we hitting our production cycle, and two, is our primary goal being met? If our primary goal isn’t met, we need to sit down again and evaluate if the problem is still in the production cycle, or if it’s something new, like needing more exciting photos, better placement, more concurrent stories, etc. Thus the process could start over. But by measuring our goals, we improve our ability to define problems, and determine a course of action, and identify deficits in the future.
Ultimately, your best key to success is a clear problem definition, and somebody to lead your discussion logically to a solution. We tend to come at a lot of problems with a “throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks” mentality. We’re also very good at going off on tangents or the previously mentioned lateral thinking. That’s just how tech people are. We love pretty, shiny objects. When you get neat or useful ideas, you need to weigh them against what you’re trying to accomplish and perhaps put those off until a better time and place. While these new, shiny ideas can frequently accomplish some kind of change, that change isn’t always solving the original problem. The result is something different that just forces you to keep revisiting the same problems. You just need to stay focused and keep the original problem and goal in sight. Once those are addressed, you can start doing some of the new things, which will undoubtably create an entirely new set of problems for you to play with.