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Are You Looking at the Trees or the Landscape?

Trees, Forests, Landscapes

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “He can’t see the forest for the trees” to describe someone so focused on specific details that he misses the big picture. Rather than repeat this cliche again, I’d like to discuss a third level I consider more important—the landscape, or how we choose to shape a natural environment to meet our needs.

Let me explain with an example. Recently, I was looking over a heavily-wooded property with a neighbor and discussing ideas for how to landscape it. We agreed the property could be greatly improved by removing many of the trees. However, when my neighbor pointed out which trees he would remove, they were the exact opposite of the ones I would! I realized even though we were gazing over the same property, we had dramatically opposed visions for the new landscape. We agreed on the need for change, but our desired end results could not have been more different.

Trees Are Features. The Landscape Is the Objective.

So, what does this have to do with planning complex digital projects? In this landscaping comparison, we need to think of trees as features—they give shade, add visual interest like color or shape, provide privacy, offset architecture, and so on. The right combination of trees, applied as part of an overall plan, can immensely enhance a landscape. However, features aren’t everything—they need to serve a purpose. Are you focused on individual features (the trees), or do you have a clear vision of the end business objective (the landscape)?

We often have new clients who want to begin the discussion at the feature level—take this one out, speed that one up, redesign another one. We always back up and ask: “What business objective are you trying to achieve?” The answer is usually some benefit to the bottom line like increasing revenue through growth in market share, or decreasing cost by leveraging technology more efficiently.

Ask Five Whys

An excellent exercise for zooming out from the feature level is to ask “why?” Then ask it again, and again, and again, until you have the objective-level perspective you need. Asking why through several iterations—I’d suggest five—can help to get at the real root of what you are trying to accomplish. Let’s try out this technique with an example that’s common in our business:

  • We need a new content management system (CMS).

Why?

  • Because it will make it easier to generate content for the website.

Why?

  • Because our current content management system (CMS) is outdated and hard to use.

Why?

  • Because we built it 7 years ago and it hasn’t kept up with the technology that people now expect.

Why?

  • There has been no investment in our website for the last several years.

Why?

  • Because then we were focused on growth by merger and acquisition, but we are now in a position to focus on organic growth in web traffic.

Look at the evolution—what starts as a question of how hard or easy it is for someone to use a tool ends as a discussion of the overall business goal that tool supports. Now we we know what we really need to achieve!

Next, Ask What

Using this big-picture vision, it’s time to begin from the top and go in the opposite direction, asking “what is needed for that” rather than “why.”

  • We want to grow organic traffic on the website.

What is needed for that?

  • A solid base of structured content, with a plan to continually generate fresh content.

What is needed for that?

  • A content strategy identifying what content our users crave and how to produce it.

What is needed for that?

  • Someone in the organization dedicated to defining and curating online content.

What is needed for that?

  • A team of subject matter experts and content contributors working through an approval process coordinated by the above person.

What is needed for that?

  • An Information Architecture to structure and organize the content generated above.

What is needed for that?

  • A governance process defining editorial workflow, approval levels, and communications guidelines.

What is needed for that?

  • An online toolset for the content contributors, including a modern Content Management System.

What is needed for that?

  • Training in the governance process and using the new CMS.

What is needed for that?

  • An SEO strategy to make sure search engines are picking up the content.

What is needed for that?

  • Analytics to monitor and review the effectiveness of the online content and SEO strategy.

Notice how the answer still includes the original requirement of a new content management system, but now that CMS is only part of a more comprehensive solution. What’s more, now the company will be much more likely to effectively use their new CMS to achieve their larger business objectives.

Choose the Landscape, Then the Trees

In terms of our original metaphor, remember to think of your objective as the landscape you want rather than a forest of random trees (features) to be addressed individually. To guide you in this process, use the “Why?” and “What is needed for that?” questions to lead you to the strategy you need. This lets you decide each feature for a specific reason, letting them all combine to form an elegant landscape that will stand the test of time.