Becoming one team with Harvard Business School’s Digital Initiative. A conversation with community engagement manager Theresa Diederich and director Dave Homa.
I’m Theresa Diederich and I’m the Community Engagement Manager and all around content strategist at the DI. So I’m spending my time figuring out how we can best maximize our content strategy and our communications with the outside world and really leverage all of the amazing happenings at Harvard Business School in relation school to business and technology.
And I’m Dave Homa, the Director of the Digital Initiative. We’re really focused on building this community here of tech-minded people at the business school and then want to bring that world and all the great work we do to the outside community, the people that are beyond the walls of the school. So most of my time is focused on how do we do that as an organization, and obviously the website plays a huge role in reaching a large number of people.
3 months (June 2017 – September 2017)
To set some context for everybody listening, we did some work together on the DI site about half a year ago now. One of the places I want to start is before that work that we did. Maybe we can talk a little bit about the previous site that you had, some of the things that it just wasn’t doing well for you, some of the things that you wished it would do, and the quest to find somebody to help you do that. David, you want to start with that?
Sure. I’ve been with the Digital Initiative just about three years now and I inherited a website that was in place. It was built on WordPress and it was to basically get the organization off the ground. It was a young organization and I’ve been brought in to scale the group and reach a wider audience. The website was rudimentary; it was basically to have a web presence, and it had been done quickly. While we had some good content and were reaching people in terms of demonstrating what we could do, it wasn’t organized in a way that we felt proud of and comfortable driving more people to, and it wasn’t organized in a way to let users discover what was great about the work of the Digital Initiative. So it was more one of these things where we reviewed an inherited site and knew that we could do much better and that set in motion it being a top priority for us.
I know one of the things that we actually spent a lot of time in the middle of the project and during the project was actually just even saying what the Digital Initiative does. So maybe both of you, if you can just chime in what does the Digital Initiative at Harvard Business School do. How do you talk about that work even amongst yourselves?
When we talk about the DI and it’s work, it really is a lot about community. And that community starts here at the school with the students and the faculty and the researchers and the staff and making sure that there’s a home for the people who really appreciate the tech sector and the excitement going on in the tech community today and how it links and ties to business. In terms of the community, the work is really around producing events, giving people a nexus on the campus that they can join in and participate in sharing their ideas and love of this space. And then beyond that, we spend a lot of time making sure that people in the outside world know what we’re doing. So really the two things we focus on the most is the sense of community and then promotion of what’s great about the community.
One of the things we see a lot being here at the DI is we’re in this moment in time where economies are changing so quickly and the digital economy is becoming this talking point for all kinds of industries and in all kinds of ways. It’s really hard to decouple technology from business at this point in time. And we looked around and said, “We really have something here, and obviously being Harvard Business School, we really feel like we have something that we can bring to that conversation and bring to the table.” So we spend a lot of our time thinking about how we can make that happen and how we can further that conversation both here at Harvard Business School but also out in the world at large.
Those are both fairly tall orders. As you were looking to do a new site that better represented that, maybe you could talk a little bit about what was important to you in looking for a partner to work with, somebody that would be able to capture that and be able to turn it into something that you are proud of. What was that search like? How did you end up choosing SuperFriendly for that?
It’s funny because I actually didn’t join the process until we were a little bit further along in picking SuperFriendly. But for me this was a huge opportunity because I was just joining the DI and we’re a really small team, and, being the content marketing person, wearing many hats, it was a big question in my mind how we were going to put something in place that would really leverage our existing capabilities without overwhelming us. Coming in, we were really looking at the existing content we had and the content creation that we were doing, really trying to figure out how to make that scale, how to make it sustainable, how to do that with a really small team. In my mind, working with SuperFriendly was this huge opportunity to borrow an all-star team to help us get off the ground and help us really answer some of those questions that otherwise felt like I would have been alone and in the dark and just trying to figure out on my own. That was a really amazing chance and a really great opportunity.
I’m glad you mentioned extension of the team because, having worked to develop websites before and I had an executive role for a company that pretty much was a website, I knew what these projects take to get done. And they take two things mainly: a really good, solid understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish before you really what’s going to be displayed on the page. So I was looking for an outside resource that could both understand that concept, the idea that we need to get to the first principles here, we need to understand what we’re trying to do before we trying and build something, and then secondarily, this idea of a team. When you worked with an outside vendor—and I’ve worked with many—the most important thing is they’re not another entity. They actually become part of your team for some amount of time and it’s so important that you feel like you’re one team working on a project.
And from talking with you Dan, right from the start, I felt that you were right on target as a traditional consultant and someone who is a designer and someone who knows the space because you could answer for me the questions that I had where I didn’t have expertise, but then also you could play back to me what my own questions were about the project and what we needed. So I knew right away that you understood what we were up against and what we want to accomplish, and that was a huge first step.
And then we talked quite a bit, I remember, about how you form a team and how you put a team together. And I thought, “Hmm, this is exactly where I need this to head because I want us to be one team in the end.” And I think that was actually one of the biggest successes of this project beyond my expectations, it was the time we spent together whether it was online or in person or in meetings, SuperFriendly really felt like an extension not only of our team on this project but less of an extension and more just integral to our team. And I think that’s what you need for a project.
I’m so glad that you mentioned teams because it’s so important to me to how work gets done. So maybe we could talk a little bit about teams because one of the questions that I often get from clients, especially ones that are trying to hire us, is they just want to know that their teams are like other teams. I think that’s a common theme in tech in general, is just we all sit in front of computers and we all can work by ourselves, and sometimes we just need to look around and go like, “Am I crazy? Am I the only one doing this? Are all the people doing it this way?”
I want to talk a little bit about who was on the SuperFriendly team. You mentioned that we brought an all-star team and I don’t disagree. I was really fortunate to work with the people that were on this team. And maybe you could talk about who was on your side too just from an organizational perspective so that other people at organizations similar can say, “Oh yeah, our team is like that,” or “maybe we should grow into something like that.”
From the SuperFriendly side, we had Abby Fretz who was the producer. She managed the project day-to-day, worked really closely with you and your team, and made sure we all had what we need in order to get work done. Kevin M. Hoffman ran all of the UX and the strategy of this project. Octavius A. Newman was a design apprentice on the project. Ian Frost did all the front end development and Jesse Gardner did all the back end development. And then we had Jacob Greif make an appearance at the end and do some illustrations for the site.
How about from your side? Who was on your team and what were the roles of everybody?
It’s a small team on this end, so most of our big projects we worked on we were all involved. As the director, I was directly involved with the different steps of the project. As Theresa mentioned, she came on once the project had gotten off the ground a little bit but she was right there from almost the beginning. Also we had Caroline Fay who manages our close-knit community here on campus and with our alumnus and students and faculty. We talk about community a lot. Her input was focused on how this site would actually serve our constituency. And then Tanya Flint actually also joined once the project was under way and she is our technology specialist as well as our own project manager. And one of the really funny things about having a project manager on our side was that it took a while for her to get used to working with Abby because Abby was doing such an amazing job of being a project manager that Tanya was like, “Oh, I get to be the client.” It’s a new role but it was a fabulous role for her. So that’s who was on our side.
I think the SuperFriendly model of team building is so special in a lot of ways because it’s not often that you can join a team that is exactly as big or is exactly as small as you need it to be. And I think one thing that was really nice was that you brought people on that really complimented, or filled the gaps of where our talents lied.
It was so much fun for me, for example, to take lead on content in a lot of ways, but then geek out with Kevin on strategy, and on design and things like this, and just be able to riff off one another in that way. I think if we had had a really rockstar web person, then I’m sure you would have balanced that out with a different team member as well.
So, I think that was really cool. It made for a really lean team, which worked really well with our own small and lean approach. But I feel like it could have been bigger if we needed that; if that was the better fit. So, I just think that was a really neat model.
I wanna dig into that a little bit more. Because both of you mentioned this concept of we really were one team through this whole projects. It wasn’t like the SuperFriendly team and the DI team, even though we knew that, on paper, that’s how it goes. But we really ended up being one team on the project.
Can you both talk a little bit from your perspective about how that happened? I mean, because we didn’t just say from the beginning of the project, “Okay, we’re gonna be one team.” Right, and then we all went and did that. I mean, that took some time and some set-up.
So, from your end, how do you feel like that happened?
Theresa, you ... I can’t remember from the beginning, did you join us for their first on-site? Were you there?
Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Do you remember what it was like?
Oh man, that on-site was so much fun. I’m trying to remember-
There were donuts with bacon on it. I do remember that.
Yeah. There were frequently donuts with bacon on it.
I believe Kevin was leading that on-site, and he did a really great job of positioning everything. I think we did some really nice exercises at the beginning to frame how our work together was going to go. And there was a lot of intentionality brought to the table from both sides that I think just really set the tone for the whole project.
I think you can be as intentional, or not, as you wanna be on a project like this. And I think the fact that SuperFriendly came in, and you guys said, “We’d really like to see it go this way, and we’d really like to be a team working on this together, but we’d like to hear what your expectations are, and what you think this project could be like, and how it could go.”
I think those early exercises to write a manifesto of what our priorities were, not just in terms of what we want the outcome of the project to be, but what we want the project itself to be, and how we want that to go. I think all of that just was really crucial to the success of the project, because it really set things up for both of us and for how it could go. And I think it set it up to be the best that it could be.
I’m glad you used intentional, because one of the things that I noticed is that there were a lot of exercises up front to let us get to know one another. But they were wrapped around accomplishing tasks on the project, and I think it was only when I reflected on that first day of working together, that like, “Oh wow, there was a lot of intention to this.”
And it felt easy, and it felt fun, and it felt like sharing, and it felt like getting to know one another, but it was also real work. And I know, Dan, you’ve talked before about how important that is to you in how you run projects. But I think a lot of credit goes to SuperFriendly and you, particularly for understanding what it takes to build a team and build a team quickly, but also do it in a way that brings you together but around the project, and around getting actual work done, not just being stand-alone team building experience.
I have two stories to share. I don’t know if I’ve even shared this with you two; I don’t know if you know this about the project, but one of the exercises that was one of my favorites in our kick-off was one that I’d never done before. And it was one that Abby had suggested. And she said, “What I’d like to do is I’d like to do an exercise at the end of our time together about project values. What are the values that we as a whole team, as a holistic team, are gonna uphold on this project?”
And we spent about 30 minutes or so talking about what those things are. So, I’m gonna read through this list here I just pulled up in front of me that we said that as a holistic team:
As I reflect across our project, I think we did pretty well on those. We didn’t really revisit them officially or formally in any way, but I think starting the project with that conversation helped us to all go, “This is the way that we wanna work.” And I remember us having a little bit of back and forth about, well, we want everybody to be able to share ideas, but we don’t want people to fell cut down if they get critiqued. But we also want the best ideas to kinda rise to the top.
And that led us to things like “be prolific with empathy,” or “candid collaboration.” I think that those really were the spirit of our project. For me, that was really exciting.
The other thing, and this might be a little bit funny, but I have a screenshot of a particular thing. Every day in our Slack channel, we used to put our daily standup. “Here’s what I did yesterday, here’s what I’m doing today, here are blockers in my way.” And for a while, we had one Slack channel, and the SuperFriendly team would post that stuff every day. And I have a screenshot of the first day that you, Theresa, said, “Well, you all have been doing this, so I’m gonna chime in.” And you wrote your daily stand up. And I took a screenshot, and I named that screenshot peerpressure.png.
It’s actually one of the metrics that I use for success of a project is at what point do the teams start acting like each other? And that’s where the teams actually converge into one team. So, I think it was about four weeks in, when you were just like, “I’m gonna do this too.” And then everyone on the team started doing their daily stand up. And we started acting like one team.
So, those were some things that I look for in how we become one team.
That’s so great. I love that story.
I never shared that with you, did I?
I don’t think so, but I remember that day so clearly as well. And it’s funny, because I think it had been on my mind for at least a week before then, where I was like, “I should really do this. I know that this is best practice. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
You mentioned that this idea of a manifesto, which is not something that everybody does. One of the things that we like to do for a lot of projects is we like to write a manifesto, or a brief, or whatever you wanna call it, that basically says, “Here is the project that we’re gonna do.” Before we start a lot of work, before we engage on too much, let’s agree that these are the things that we’re gonna do.
I’ve written a lot of these for a lot of clients. I don’t know if you two have used something like this before. If you haven’t—or even if you had—how’d that go from your perspective? Like, what was the process like of working on the manifesto and working on it together?
That was the first time that I had used something exactly like that. I really like to have conversations that set expectations and hopes for a project in general. So, I was definitely down for the manifesto, but that particular iteration was new for me, and I loved it. I thought that it was a really great way to frame the project and start the conversation.
I think one of the things that was so important about our work with SuperFriendly was that we really needed, as Dave was saying, we were a new organization that was starting to come into its own, and really have those questions about growth, and scale, and all of these things.
Our website redesign was an opportunity for us to step back as an organization and say, “Okay, who do we really wanna be and where do we want this to go? We’ve been around for a few years, but we wanna talk about the next five.” Or the next ten, or the next however many.
And it was so important to us to have an ally in that, in SuperFriendly, to be able to not just jump straight to color and font and navigation, but to be able to facilitate those conversations and be able to have them together and really talk it through. And I think that the manifesto really set the stage for that in an important way that I really valued.
Getting down early what you want to accomplish is really important. And if you want to be successful in a project, you really do need to be intentional about he stuff that you wanna accomplish and talk about that up front. And so, while I had not been through that exact exercise, I could appreciate why and how it was so important to what we did accomplish.
As I look at kinda the final result, it definitely maps well to what we had done early in the project. It’s certainly not one-to-one, and it’s not like, “Hey, we predicted everything, we did it great,” but I think we followed the spirit of that manifesto all the way through.
Maybe for just a minute or two, if you can reflect on some of the rest of the process. We did design work, we did development work. Anything in that process that stood out to you? I know one of the things that I’m curious about your viewpoint on is that, in the kick off, we talked a little bit about our approach to agile development and design, and keeping this rolling and being really flexible. Maybe talk a little bit about, from your perspective how that felt, how you like working within that… pros and cons.
Having experienced a number of web projects before and understanding and recognizing what you know at the beginning, what you think you know, and then recognizing what you don’t know really sets you up for planning for a project that’s going to change, that’s going to be evolve, that you’re going to have to rethink. Building that into the culture of the team and building that into the way you think about the project and setting that expectation, which I know, Dan, you and I talked about this a lot up front, which is how do we think about this and build it in a way that we can see where it’s headed, and recorrect and change course as necessary.
I think the project was fantastic that way. Some people might think that we jumped around quite a bit, and maybe went off in directions and came back to things that we had covered and recovered them again from our perspective that was necessary to get to the final product that we wanted to get to. So for us, we went in thinking like that. For the right team who understands that and appreciates it, that’s fantastic, but obviously you got to get those expectations set correctly up front.
I just can’t say enough how lucky I think we were to have the team that we had, working on this, both from our side and from the SuperFriendly side. I think that there was just a really nice meeting of the minds that lent itself really well to the agile process, because I think we all brought unique but extremely relevant expertise to this project, and it was so great to be able to bounce around these ideas and run with them and then revisit them if need be. I think it speaks a lot to both Dave’s leadership of the DI and his willingness to experiment and really go down these paths. And I think it speaks a lot as well to SuperFriendly’s ability to run with that as well and just pivot quickly. It worked really well for us, and I think the result shows that.
Let’s talk a little bit about those results. Theresa, you mentioned earlier that it was really important for you to be able to leverage your existing capabilities without being overwhelmed. Let’s talk about the output of the site. One of the things we had come up with together was making this a monthly publication, centered around one topic, and that was not the brief. It wasn’t like when you were thinking about the idea of a new site, you weren’t saying from the beginning, “All right, we want to create something with this approach to it.” How did we come to that? How well did it actually do that thing, help you leverage the capabilities without overwhelming it? Did it end up being too much? Did it end up being too little? Was it the right way to leverage resources? Maybe talk about that a little bit.
Oh my gosh… I’m so happy. The site has been live for five, almost six months now. We just launched our sixth edition actually. For me, it’s a resounding success. Before we started this project and the way that we got here, we were looking at everything we did, the sum of everything. We had this newsletter we were sending out on a regular basis that was a little scattered but really good content there, and we had these amazing events we were doing.
We were doing content capture from those, but not always, and how could we leverage that. Then we had all these relationships throughout the community and people who were really excited to work with us, but we didn’t have a formal process for bringing them into the fold. I think the edition for us was the answer to all of these questions. That was a way that we can streamline our newsletter;. This is a way that we can formalize content creation. This is a way that we can really share all the amazing things that are happening at these events we’re doing and we can do it in this format that is iterative and we’ll be able to sustain.
For me, the real test is: are we actually sustaining it? How is it going? I think the data really talks for itself. Since we’ve launched, and in these past six months, we’ve seen our web traffic steadily growing and increasing in this really great way exactly as we had hoped to see. We’re putting out original content on a schedule in a way that we hadn’t been doing before. And it’s really freeing. I’m really busy with the editions still, but it still frees up some of my time to get to be focusing on some of those other things that I really cared about, like delving in deeper into our analytics and seeing how we can really work with that and tailor what we’re doing and focusing a bit more on advertising or marketing efforts that there just was no space and there was no bandwidth for before.
What we really did with SuperFriendly that was so important was set up a strategy for that. And it doesn’t come all at once. It’s still a process and it’s still in progress, but we put that in place in a way that now, I feel like, month by month, or week by week, I can start to check things off or start to dig into things a little bit deeper. Coming from a marketing background and a content background, I’ve been on so many projects before where it’s so hard to even get to that strategy place and putting a real strategy in place and then tracking it and seeing if it works or not. So to have done that and then now implemented it, and now be tracking it, and now be improving on it and iterating on it, it’s just such a cool feeling and it’s what you hope for doing work like this. It’s exactly what you hope to see. Like I said, I’m just so happy.
I have one last question as we wrap up. You’ve both been generous with your time, so thank you. So my question for you is as other organizations start to think about how they want to redo something that they’re doing and looking to hire a partner to do that, from both of your perspectives, especially for people who are doing similar jobs that you are but at their own companies, what’s some advice that you would tell them? What should they look out for? What are things that should be important to them? What are things that they don’t even know that they should know?
We’ve mentioned “team” a bunch of times and the match between your own team and the people like SuperFriendly in this case that’ll be joining your team to think that way. These are people that are going to be joining your team. Would you hire these people to be on your team, not hiring them to do a job for you or to deliver something or, like Theresa said, pick fonts and colors. That’s not really what it’s about. In the end, you’re going to produce something that actually defines more of what your team is for today, tomorrow, and into the future for quite a while.
I’d say really, really think about are these people I’m meeting with and talking to a good match both in style and the way you approach things, but then also in complementary ways too. SuperFriendly brought to us a lot of skills that we didn’t have on our team. That’s why we knew to look outside. It’s why we knew we would need help with the work. So I’d say one thing to really focus on is you’re growing your team. It may be for a short duration, but think of it as growing a team.
I would echo that and add that I think you really want to do a bit of self-reflection before you sign up for a project like this. I think the more that you’re honest with yourself about where you and your organization are at, the better of a collaboration it’s going to be. You want to ask yourself those, at times, hard questions about what is the buy-in like for my organization? Am I a sole person trying to push this through and am bringing SuperFriendly on to work on this? Or is there this strong buy-in from across the org or across the teams because a lot of the work, as Dave was saying, goes so much beyond the scope of the seemingly innocent web project. You’re going to be getting into that and delving into that with SuperFriendly. You want to know where you’re at going into it, and be honest with yourself about the type of project that you’re looking for.
I think that’s a great note to wrap up on. Thank you so much for this, and thank you for just a great project. My team and I, we loved working with you. We hope that you have this site for a very, very long time, and it serves you well, but on the other hand, we also would love to do another project with you too. So thank you so much for the whole project and for this conversation. I appreciate it.
Thank you Dan. We really appreciate it.
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