Castles & Gardens

11.12.2015

Perhaps more than any other area on the planet, the realm of digital, web-based technology is in a period of accelerated evolution.

What was true yesterday, is not today. What is true today, may not be tomorrow.

This rate of change is a hugely de-stabilising force. At its most corrosive it can render massive investments obsolete almost overnight. Even at the benign end of the spectrum it means that key technologies or practices are different from the last time you checked.

For the entrepreneurs, engineers, marketers and teenagers who are close to this change, it's an exciting place to be. For those who depend on it, but don't understand it, it can be a huge source of both fear and frustration. Especially if they're also the ones who have to pay for it.

As someone who has worked for 15 years in agencies, I've seen this fear and frustration first hand. Most often it appears when marketing teams in their 20s or 30s have attempted to justify a large capital expenditure to a board in their 50s, 60s or 70s.

"You want £500, 000 to build a new website? But what about the one we've got? What's wrong with that? We only built it 3 years ago!"

And while anyone who's worked in this area will know that digital ecosystems need constant resource, none of the language that we use around non-digital people supports this.

If you think about the words we use to articulate the process for building a website, you'll start to see a pattern:

Planning, architecture, design, build. See where I'm going?

All the language supports a physical building metaphor with one of our clients even calling the site his "digital castle".

This metaphor for the site as a castle was popular in his organisation and it's not hard to see why. It gives non-digital folks an easy image for them to wrap their mind around. "It's big, it's expensive and we spent a lot of time on it, so it sure feels like a castle."

And what we found was, this metaphor was everywhere. Even in clients for whom it wasn't a castle, the website was still a large, permanent monolith.

The problem with this metaphor, is that the image of a castle comes pre-loaded with a notion of permanence, which runs contrary to the reality of the web's corrosive rate of change.

You could build a castle, walk away for 3 years and upon your return it would still be there. It would still look the same and could largely perform its key functions as well as the day you left. That's this notion of durability.

If you launched a website however, which converted 5% of all visitors to customers and you walked away for 3 years, how might it look on your return? The site itself would look the same, but it wouldn't convert at anything like 5%. In fact, you'd be lucky if it converted anyone at all.

From the day you walked away, the evolution of user behaviour, technology and best practice would erode the value of what you had built. After 3 years, your castle may as well be made of sand.

Bringing people around to understanding this change and the requirement of matching its pace is no mean feat, but it has a simple starting place. It starts with our language, and that means it starts with a better metaphor.

When we talk about the process of creating digital assets for a client, we describe it as curating a beautiful garden. All of the same planning and process terms still hold with the metaphor (planning, design etc), but most importantly, it comes pre-loaded with a better idea. A garden comes loaded with the notion of impermanence. As soon as you describe your website as a garden, non-digital people understand that you’re talking about something different.

Gardens are seasonal, they require regular maintenance, time and attention. Gardens are not a “fire and forget” asset. Nobody expects to walk away from a garden for 3 years and have it look the same on upon their return.

This distinction is huge, because it creates space for the most important aspect of your digital ecosystem - evolution.

The only way you can defend against the merciless ravages of change, is by rolling with it. The only way you can roll with it, is if you have the budget and resource. The only way you get the budget and resource is if those holding the purse strings understand that you’re a gardener, not a stone mason.

This isn’t meant to be the whole solution (nobody is going to double your budget as soon as you say the G word), but an important first step.

If you want to change circumstances, then chances are you need to change behaviour, and that doesn’t budge without a shift in understanding. Changing language is one of the simplest but most effective ways of evolving understanding, and all it takes is a couple of words.

I’ve done my time petitioning for budgets from c-suite execs whose minds are stuck in the castle and I think there’s a better way. It’s not a panacea, but a good first step on this journey is the one that takes you over the draw-bridge and past the rose bushes.

 


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