The Spark, or “How to take that half-baked idea and turn it into an intranet strategy”

Sparkler

Picture: Gabriel Pollard CC BY-SA 2.5

When I work with clients on intranet strategy, there is always a reason that I am there and that is the first thing I want to find out. I call this “the Spark”. Something has happened that has started this organisation thinking about the future of their intranet (or their wider world of digital work) and a wise old owl has said, “Hang on! We better get a strategy…”

[And if you are interested in improving your intranet strategy moves we’re running a one day training course in London in June 2016. It’s intensely practical and you’ll come away with a plan.]

The Spark is the most free-flowing and unstructured  phase of strategic definithttp://intranetnow.co.uk/workshops/ion. That also makes it the most dangerous; the time when things can go seriously wrong before you’ve even started. In this post I’m going to explain why you need to take care with the Spark, , how to recognise different types and then (like a corporate martial artist) steer the Spark’s momentum onward into what you really need.

Sparks are ideas of different sorts. Some good, some bad. They have other names: a “Vision”; sometimes they are pretending to be a strategy; sometimes they end up as a ballsed-up project plan Sometimes they are a nagging doubt which builds up into a crescendo and demands attention. Sometimes they are just simply a really good idea. There is nothing wrong with a good idea, but they can go wrong when too much blue-sky solutioneering has been applied before the problem is fully understood.

Negative Sparks are the attempted solutions to unmet hygiene factors. These are when someone has finally noticed that under-investment and under-resourcing has had the obvious real world effect. People are suffering: they can’t find things, they can’t complete tasks, maybe the intranet service itself is going down. Whatever the reason, someone says, “Something must be done.”  This in itself is not a problem, we all agree that something must be done. Intranet practitioners will be there  with the usual array of first aid and post-operative therapy to provide the appropriate rehabilitation. However, negative sparks are a problem if in the next breath they decide what the solution is: “Everything is screwed…. and the solution is SharePoint/ Social/ Cloud/ etc.”

Positive Sparks are attempts to exploit a perceived opportunity for advantage. This comes from a much better place than a negative spark, but can be hazardous in the same way. It might be a great idea to bring something new to your users, it really might! But maybe it won’t and stepping back and having a look at it together with all the other problems might be better. The nasty part of this, is that if you look at the wider strategic diagnosis and go with a more traditional way forward (boring old findability over radical socialisation being a total intranet classic), you might be labelled as conservative and not progressive.

Technology and Risk Sparks are desperately common. The platform has come to its end of life, or might even be dropping out of support, or we’ve now got licenses for this because we got them with something else so we’ve decided we should migrate. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, and don’t bring a technology driven project to the crazy mixed up world of the intranet. These Sparks certainly need some taming but they can sometimes go a loooong way towards delivery before anyone starts thinking about users, publishers and any implications beyond getting servers humming.

Organisational Sparks: Mergers, acquisitions, rebrands, reorganisations, mass redundancies and zombie apocalypses. Something big is brewing and the intranet will need  to change in response. By a week on Wednesday please. These may well take all of your skills to deliver a tactical solution that throws a bone to the problem, before wrestling with the fundamental changes that have just been wrought to your universe.

Senior sparks you know so well. Someone on high has had an idea. They’ve read something in an in-flight magazine, spoken to someone at a conference or their 15 year old has shown them something on their iPad. These sparks are very often delivered using the project methodology known as JFDI. Good luck!

“That’s just, like, your opinion man”

Being merely apes-in-suits, we modern business people are full to the brim of the cognitive biases our brains evolved with. One is called the Einstellung effect, which to put briefly, we can get stuck with trying to solve a problem is a certain way. When, for instance, you know that the answer is mobile-social-sharepoint-slack-apps-tasks-based-cloud before you know what the question is, you’ll look for evidence that will support the Spark and guess what? You’ll find some! Then you’ll stop looking for evidence to the contrary, and then wonder why users don’t like what you’ve provided.

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Without any rigour to your thinking, your whole plan is no more than your opinion, as the Dude above notes so clearly. This is how some bad intranets are born.

Other intranets simply stagnate, as well meaning but weak and fluffy business cases repeatedly fail to attract backing.

The cold dark vacuum of strategic space

Sparks are only bright when the scene is so dull. When there is an absence of strategic thinking and solid operational delivery it leaves a vacuum that can be filled with half-baked ideas.

It is not your job to deliver the Spark as if it were a strategy:

  • It is you duty to analyse it as if it were any other input. It has started you along your way. It has got people talking and interested. Be cool-headed and skeptical. Thank it kindly for its good service, but drop it if you have to.
  • It is your duty to complete the full cycle of strategy formulation and really understand the problems that you are there to solve.
  • It is your duty to ensure that there is not such a vacuum of strategy in the future, so that Sparks can have such a disproportionate influence over what you do.

Sparks catch

You deal with the Spark by using its energy to do something useful. You use a Spark to create some light: you take that interest, the engagement, the apparent burning platform, the god-damned EXCUSE to speak with people, into a process of creating an intranet strategy. The next phase is to cooly understand what is really going on with stakeholders and users. What does this idea really mean to them? What would the implications really be? Is it as valuable as they think? Where does it lie in priorities compared to some alternatives. We’ve written about the phases of Discovery and Diagnosis before.

Extra credit: How to make Sparks

So, intranet manager, if Sparks are so useful you might want to start some yourself. Some of those Sparks might be down to you. You maybe know that there is the potential for your organisation’s intranet to kick ass instead of sitting on it. Maybe you just want to personally do things better this year. These are your Sparks.

You can call me cynical (and many do) but there are darker, more negative Sparks most of us can confess to: intranet managers wanting to see exciting things on their CV have steered projects in certain exotic directions. Cough cough. Again, insisting on a decent strategy formation cuts through the reality distortion field, which is an important thing for more senior readers to note.

So now you know:

  • What the boss wants isn’t written in stone, but it is great way to start with some energy
  • You have to have a strategy – it isn’t optional, it is down to you
  • Having a strategy protects you from random ideas having too much of an effect
  • Having a strategy protects you from your own flights of fancy

The reason you started might not be what you end up delivering. That is not only allowed, it is much better – you are adding value to the process with research, thought and engaging stakeholders. If you have a decent strategy, everything will be laid out in black and white and  you’ll be able to show your working like in school maths class. Then  you can go back to those Sparky people and explain how those ideas grew and evolved and then started the fire burning.

Chris Tubb, December 2015

Join us for a workshop in June 2016

If you’re considering your intranet strategy and need a little diagnosis, why don’t you join me and Steve Bynghall on our day long intranet strategy workshop in London on June 30th 2016. We ran this in January and got great feedback.

Whatever the stage of your intranet we think you’ll find it useful but especially if you have a tricky Spark to deal with. We’ll help you think through the issues in a structured way and you’ll leave the workshop with a much better idea of the way forward for your intranet.

Steve says

“Chris is right when he says you’ve got to handle those Sparks with care. OK so sometimes being spontaneous is good, but not when it commits you to a massive SharePoint implementation your organisation doesn’t really need. Sparks are exciting or pressurising and usually demand rapid action. But the intranet plays too important a role in organisational life to work out the related strategy down the pub on a napkin during your lunch hour.  You need to rise above your own assumptions and those of your stakeholders. Be objective, go through a discovery phase and really understand what your organisation needs.“

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