Doing Strategy to People


As consultants, we know there’s a right way to do websites. This belief often comes from a good place: We care about good design. We want to see it work.

“Strategy is the conversations between deliverables” – Kristina Halvorson

As consultants, we know there’s a right way to do websites. This belief often comes from a good place: We care about good design. We want to see it work.

But there’s a downside — we can get a touch judgy. We highlight everything that’s wrong with an organisation’s website (chaotic, redundant, and irrelevant), and feel duty-bound to point it all out. After all, that’s what we’re getting paid to do, right?

The risk is that we end up ‘doing strategy’ to our clients. They already know (or at least fear) that their website is a disaster area. Rather than helping our clients, pointing out these flaws tends to leave clients in a crumpled heap. The client may swallow the medicine, but chances are they’ll never want to come near us again. Kristina Halvorson, speaking at CS Forum 2016, had some very simple advice:

“Show clients how they can be even more awesome.”

Better collaboration through not being that guy

How can I apply her advice to my own work? Well, I need to start reframing my advice so I’m presenting opportunities more than naming faults, and stop being so quick off the draw with my opinions. That’s a work in progress, but there is a headstart to being more constructive: changing our language. Also at CS Forum, Hilary Marsh shared two simple phrases that can turn the dynamic around:

  • “You’re right”
  • “Let me show you how.”

This theme also emerged in Michael Metts’ presentation. “Strategy does not belong to us,” he said. “Instead, our message to clients is, ‘Let me come alongside you, see what you do, and find ways of doing it together’.”

In this vein, Kristina Halvorson suggested we shift our thinking from deliverables with rules to principles. A rule sits outside and judges, externally compelling you to do things that someone else deems right. A principle, by contrast, is internally motivating. It’s developed with the client, and can be as simple as a few guiding lights.

Talking strategy talk

Doing strategy better isn’t just about reframing our interpersonal relationships. It’s also about getting clear on how our work ties into business goals. As a free-roaming consultant/contractor, when I see a client with a clear brief and budget, it’s tempting to just pick up the project and run with it.

The danger here is that our work embeds siloed thinking. Nothing is transformed. Instead, we should interrogate the brief. We need to understand what’s happening on either side of our work.

How can we understand that broader context? The client’s ultimate objectives are unlikely to be ‘have a spectacular website’, or even necessarily ‘meet the needs of the user’. Every objective needs to be tied to a business driver, ratcheting up till we reach the organisation’s reason for existing. 

When it comes to business drivers, we should talk about them in whatever language the client uses. Those of us with technical backgrounds can go to the opposite end and overuse jargon – our jargon. We trot out the ‘XML’ and ‘’, because that’s smart talk. The same goes for designers, coders, and researchers – it’s easy to slip into our own jargon.

For me, as a trained writer, that means letting go of what I think I know, and not automatically deleting jargon. What if that’s the language that the audience is most comfortable with? If the client thinks in terms of ROI, we talk ROI. We make them feel comfortable and that we ‘get’ them, which builds up trust.

Outputs and incentives

As online communications people, we need to pay close attention to how we’re measured. At CS Forum, Max Johns examined incentives. Are content people’s reporting and reward systems geared around outputs such as blog posts published or reports laid out? By continuing to be measured as manufacturers, are we being excluded from vital conversations on strategy?

Reflecting on how to apply this, I don’t think content people can simply uncouple ourselves from output metrics — at least not straight away. A lot of managers, particularly those in the public service, are too used to a completion paradigm: success is measured by delivering a set of discrete products.

One idea, sparked by Max’s presentation, is that rather than just saying “Yes” to output metrics, we say “Yes, and…”. We produce that content piece, but also ask questions about effectiveness. “How do we know this stuff is working?” “What organisational objectives are we pursuing?”

We can even reframe what we call ourselves. When Rahel Anne Bailie, Chief Knowledge Officer for Scroll, worked for enterprise-level clients, she didn’t always call herself a content strategist. Sometimes, she was “a management consultant specialising in content turnarounds”.

We can be less attached to the divisions and micro-niches in our fields of expertise — and more attuned to the language the client uses at 3.00am, when they’re thinking about the problem.

How do you keep your clients and stakeholders on the same page? Share your tips in the comments, or over in the forums.

Written by
Matt Fenwick
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