What Now: Facing Team Challenges During Quarantine

04-15-20 Katie Jennings

During this pandemic, how can teams continue to run successful digital projects? Katie shares four different challenges teams may be facing right now and strategies to overcome them.

At the moment, it feels as though life is on pause. For many of us, that’s true in our day-to-day interactions with “the outside world,” and it’s also true at work. Whatever you thought you were going to be doing in late March this year, you probably aren’t. Travel? No way. Conferences? Canceled. Budgets? Uncertain. Product development? Stalled.

The world will start spinning again. We don’t know what it will look like or when, and much of that future view is above my pay grade. What I’m thinking about this week is what to do in the meantime and what our partners might need to do as they navigate the coming weeks and months.

At Sparkbox, our engagements range from website redesign projects to large-scale software product development. Our clients range from nonprofits to major educational and enterprise organizations. But ultimately, we’re all members of a team, and many of our teams are facing some pretty steep challenges right now. Here are some ideas about how to keep digital projects moving, even in the face of uncertainty.

If you’re negotiating budget allocation, which may be changing right now…

I regularly chat with clients and prospective clients who’ve spent years building a case for a digital initiative. They’ve done their research, studied costs, pitched it to executives, set expectations for ROI. If you’re still waiting for budget approval, much of that work may now be called into question.

Comb through your research and planning and make sure that it still holds up. If your business is facing hardships, you may need to proactively find ways to scale back. Think in terms of a minimum viable product that would be valuable for your business while still responding to this changed economy. If you’re working with a team that needs to scale up and staff up to meet a new reality, you might need to increase your budget request. Make sure you clarify how your plan supports organizational objectives in this new environment. Many of our clients are seeing that the investment they’ve made in digital products is paying off tremendously in a world where physical interaction is necessarily limited.

If you don’t have the team you’d planned for…

The harsh reality right now is that some teams are going to shrink. You may have expected to have eight developers and several consultants on your team, and now you’re looking at just four with no outside help. It’s important to maintain momentum (keep working if you can!) but also to manage expectations. If your team is shrinking, then you need to adjust the scope and/or timeline of your output accordingly.

Pull critical team members and stakeholders together to reassess your priorities. If you included any “nice to have” features, you may need to table them for now to focus on the “must-haves.” Your business goals may be changing, and that should drive your assessment of what to keep in scope. But whatever you do, don’t lose track of your bigger goals and vision. The path may be longer, but any research or planning you’ve completed for features that get deprioritized now will be useful in the future when you can bring them back into your plan.

If you have to improve digital products right now, with no downtime…

I think we’ve all been astounded in the last couple of weeks at how quickly everything is changing. What seems clear in the morning may be obsolete by the evening. For some organizations, this may mean that systems that were serving user needs perfectly well a month ago are no longer able to keep up with demand. Or that you need to go from 20% of sales coming from ecommerce to 100%. If you’re facing this kind of pressure, you may need to make improvements without risking downtime.

Have UX and dev experts audit your site and look for the low-hanging fruit. (You might want to consider bringing in folks from elsewhere in your organization or from outside the organization. This way, the people charged with keeping the existing product running smoothly can continue focusing on this.) Ask developers for recommendations on speed, performance, and accessibility that can be made mid-stream. Ask your UX strategist to look for small adjustments to UX that will have a big impact on users. This might be a time to consider some quick user testing so you know what to expect before you commit to changes.

Take a second look at your product design and development pipelines to ensure that you can easily test and stage changes. Knowing what you are releasing makes all the difference and can help reduce risk. Having a staging environment allows you to help less technical members of your team understand changes before they go live. The best way to constantly iterate is to release early and often.

If your budget has been slashed…

Unfortunately, I think we’re going to see a lot of this in the coming months. But even before the world changed, clients and prospective clients rarely started conversations by saying, “Don’t worry, we have unlimited funds.” Budget constraints are a fact of life, though for some that may become more extreme in the coming months.

Every initiative comes with tradeoffs. A reduction in your budget will force you to consider (or to REconsider) what you must keep within scope. It will be tempting to do a project on the cheap and quick. I’d recommend that you carefully consider the long-term implications of decisions that you’re making right now. If you choose technologies just for speed and savings, they may not be as flexible or sustainable. In the long run, the return on your investment is lower if you end up having to throw everything out and begin again a year from now. As you think about the best way to spend your limited resources, it might make more sense to do less now but build a stronger foundation for future improvements. Also, remember that there are certain corners that cannot be cut: security, stability, accessibility.

What’s on your plate?

There are dozens of challenges that aren’t on this list. What’s on your plate? Let us know, and we’ll be glad to brainstorm with you to help you figure out where to go from here. You can email me at katie@heysparkbox.com or call me directly at 802-382-0484.

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