Turning a strategy into reality: Project Alpha

Diego Lago
Apr 9, 2020 · 7 min read
Project team members discussing project goals in small groups

The first Medium post of a three-article series on Strategy, Design Thinking and Ideation for Project Alpha.

Introduction

In this article, I will outline the strategy work completed at the beginning of the discovery phase for the National Archives Project Alpha in October 2019.

Setting the project off in the right direction

Digirati are collaborating with the National Archives, as part of an integrated team with National Archives staff, to help with the discovery phase for Alpha, and the building of the Alpha prototypes.

The discovery phase is crucial to setting digital projects off in the right direction by focusing on the right problems and, consequently, building the right thing. For that, we all needed to understand the vision and the current state. And with that, define the goals for the project. So outlining a digital strategy was our first step to ensure we:

  • Focus on delivering business goals and user needs rather than features
  • Set up measurable objectives to validate the course of action
  • Guide adaptive planning to allow for quicker build-measure-learn times
  • Help to align stakeholders and communicate assumptions across the organisation

A vision to drive the project strategy

There are numerous definitions on strategy out there. Many books have been written on the subject and definitions vary from author to author. For those interested, this is a great online resource on the many definitions of strategy.

Still, our merged, colocated team needed a common understanding of what strategy was and what it can do for the success of the project. It then was critical for everyone to:

  • Be on board with the project vision
  • Grasp the problems we were facing
  • Determine the goals that would get us there

So we ran a two-day workshop at the start of the project to bring everyone together and ensure we were all on the same page.

The first point we needed to understand and agree was that strategy is about change: moving from your current state into a preferred, future one, as experience designer Austin Govella puts it. That preferred state is your vision. And the vision for TNA’s Project Alpha is this:

‘To reimagine what TNA might be on the web’

‘Tackling some of the issues and challenges we know we’ve got but also what we can do beyond that to test our riskier assumptions.’

John Sheridan, Digital Director, The National Archives

John Sheridan also wrote a blog on the outset of the project. This quote from it is worth noting too:

‘We’re taking a ‘blank sheet of paper’ approach to Project Alpha, challenging ourselves to look beyond our current technological and cultural limitations, to define what a modern, accessible archive should and could be for all our users.’

This is also aligned with TNA’s own strategy as an organisation: Archives for everyone.

A context to frame the project strategy

Strategy then consists of the goals you choose to evolve from your current state to your vision.

But a strategy does not exist by itself. Strategy is a product of the organisation’s environment. We also needed to understand that a strategy lives in context.

You can understand the key pieces of your strategy’s context by answering three questions:

  1. Why should you change? What’s driving your organisation to change?
  2. Why haven’t you changed? What barriers stop you from changing?
  3. What will change? How will you know you’ve succeeded?
Goals take you to that future state: your vision.

Identifying drivers and barriers

So drivers and barriers are two opposing forces that exist in the present. Drivers explain why the organisation wants to move from its current state to its future state. Barriers are any organisational force that hampers change.

The first workshop activity for the team was to identify the drivers and barriers we needed to account in our strategy to move forward. The ones below emerged from that session:

Drivers

  • Rethinking what an archive is
  • New models of engagement
  • Reaching new audiences
  • Increase commercial opportunities
  • Need to update the existing technical infrastructure
  • Need to fix a fragmented user experience

Barriers

  • Legacy technical infrastructure
  • The current state of the data
  • An isolated organisation
  • Conflicting visions
  • Siloed working
  • Resource availability
  • Government status

Understanding this context helped the entire team to frame the strategy into reality. Design thinking, which I write about in the next article of this series, would help an organisation evolve from their current state to the future one. But you don’t stand a chance of success if you’re not designing to overcome the embedded barriers to that change.

The current state, future state, drivers and barriers represent the context that frames your strategy. Goals connect it all together.

Setting goals

The main challenge of setting goals in Project Alpha was to facilitate a session with just under twenty stakeholders and ensure everyone got their chance to interpret the project’s vision and come up with, as a team, well-aligned goals.

So to allow for true collaboration we needed a framework that was focused and well-thought out. We used Booking.com’s 7 steps to set goals and metrics. In a nutshell, the approach is about ensuring that goals are not defined directly as metrics e.g. increase conversion, decrease the volume of customer service queries, increase customer return rate, etc.

Instead, goals should read more like:

  • Make payments easier, evidenced by an increase in conversion
  • Reduce confusion, evidenced by a decrease in customer queries
  • Increase satisfaction, evidenced by higher return rates

These goals say exactly how you want to satisfy customers. The metrics provide the evidence you are on the right path.

In this framework, goals then take the following forward-thinking shape:

A diagram describing how goals can be visualised to have a dimension and a direction
A diagram describing how goals can be visualised to have a dimension and a direction

The statement inside the block is referred to as the dimension, what the thing you are interested in changing is. And the arrow provides a direction, describing how you would change it.

In addition, you look for observations to attach to every goal. Observations, as Booking.com’s framework describes them, are the things you expect to happen at each end of the arrow. Conceptually, people seemed to understand these better when explained as the expected benefits or outcomes from reaching a goal. Still, it is important to note the focus for these observations is on how the customer is thinking, feeling or behaving.

Below are the diagrams for the three project goals and associated observations the team produced during these workshops:

Goal 1: Making it easier for users to find relevant content

A diagram describing goal 1 for the project and its associated observations
A diagram describing goal 1 for the project and its associated observations

Goal 2: Helping users to better understand TNA content

A diagram describing goal 2 for the project and its associated observations
A diagram describing goal 2 for the project and its associated observations

Goal 3: Enabling more user participation with TNA

A diagram describing goal 3 for the project and its associated observations
A diagram describing goal 3 for the project and its associated observations

This seven-step process also outlines that once a goal has both a dimension and direction; and the observations are identified, then you can start to think about and choose what metrics would provide evidence that each of these observations are met. As TNA’s Project Alpha focused only on the two initial agile phases as recommended by GDS, discovery and alpha, we left the definition of metrics for the later phase, beta, when the solutions that we build are opened up to larger audiences.

Summing up

The project vision helped to answer why we needed to come together as a team.

Over the course of a two-day workshop, we were able to identify those elements of a strategy that were key for developing a successful product aligned with that vision. Drivers and barriers informed the team about the context in which we needed to operate.

In addition to the goals diagrams depicting their dimension, direction and expected observations, they were also phrased as sentences for cross-department communication at TNA:

  • Goal 1: We will help people find The National Archives on the web. However users start their journey, searching for a historical event or an individual, we will connect them with relevant and useful TNA content, providing meaningful context to encourage serendipitous exploration.
  • Goal 2: We will help users to make sense of what they have found and empower them to confidently navigate the rest of their journey.
  • Goal 3: We will enable users to become an active participant in TNA activities, through contributions and engagement, and the sharing of experience and expertise.

These initial strategy workshops were the first part of a number of steps we took to ensure we could “define” and collaboratively agree what “the opportunities” for the project were in more detail. With the project vision and goals in place, the team felt more confident and understood the impact their work would have.

In the next article, I will describe our Design Thinking approach and how the project vision and goals guided us when framing user needs, challenging assumptions and redefining the problems we set out to resolve.

The National Archives Digital

Building an archive for everyone

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