Postlight is a digital strategy firm that builds software for clients. As go our clients, so go we. We’ve been surprised to find ourselves growing in the Covid-19 pandemic. We didn’t expect it. In fact, we made plans to weather a long, slow period of flat or even negative growth. Instead, our clients are coming to us, often for strategic advice, and often with the desire to change strategic direction or try new things.
Fast Strategy on a Shoestring
It took us a while to understand, but increasingly it’s clear what’s happening. There are two forces at work.
First, because the future is unclear, and because it’s been unclear for a while now, people are deciding that it’s time to get moving. The “new normal” is now just “normal.” It’s put a lot of pressure on existing systems to deliver new experiences. It’s forced telemedicine to grow up in a hurry, for example. Companies that were mulling over collaboration platforms for years suddenly picked Zoom and accepted the consequences. The pandemic triggered radical change that forced people to sidestep all kinds of bureaucracy in order to just keep moving forward.
Second, and as a result of the first, every meal is dogfood now. Everyone has to use the tools at hand, and those tools weren’t designed for these situations. Since the new office “is” software, instead of getting an update in a meeting or asking someone down the hall for a report, leaders are using the systems they manage. Suddenly everyone, from senior leadership to regulars users, has to use the same tools at the same time.
Put this together and suddenly you have lots of new ways of working and tons of shared awareness that things need to get better. Software and strategies that seemed sufficient…aren’t. Which means there’s an immense pressure to move fast, define a real plan, and build something that does work.
Here’s what we’re advising our clients and our prospects as they find their way forward.
You know what works. The pandemic has stress-tested your infrastructure. It isn’t hard to see what’s broken in result. You have (1) too many systems; that are (2) hard to access and difficult to learn and use; and (3) they don’t talk to each other. It’s not just you. Everyone is dealing with this. So you need to have (1) fewer systems that are (2) easy to access, learn, and use, ideally with one login, and (3) that share data in the background. Fixing this isn’t simply housekeeping. It’s basic infrastructure.
Break up big ideas. Don’t look for one big system that solves everything. They don’t exist. You’ll spend four months searching, and then you’ll be back on the path towards 24-month builds with eight-figure contracts and overlapping vendors. What does Earth even look like in 24 months?
Build small platforms, they scale fine. We’re seeing a ton of progress using very cheap, boring technologies (this is high praise) and working them incredibly hard. For example, we’ve been using old-fashioned SQL databases with API layers on top, then using that stack (or anti-stack) to stand up really complex platforms. This seems way, way too simple to work, but it scales easily to tens of millions of transactions, and it means we can launch incredibly complex experiences in months. It’s looks new and scary, but it’s based on…enterprise-quality SQL database technology. You might as well use it.
Everything is an API now. Need a CMS? WordPress is an API. Need a CRM? Salesforce is an API. Most have adapters that let them speak GraphQL, which will speed up your developers. Authentication is an API, too, so people only need to log into a system once. So you can: Glue together a bunch of systems into a custom experience, with one sign-on, held together with one “classic” database system that provides an API. And still have control over everything and run it in a trusted environment.
Trust the front-end ecosystem. Start with a popular design system like Material, Carbon, or Ant Design. Use React Admin for quick admin tools. You can have working front-ends that look better than anything you have now, in weeks.
Collaboration-first. People on teams need to be able to work on things together, with live updates and notifications when things change. They need to be able to paste links into Slack, and then everyone needs to be able to click that link to see and edit the artifact. This used to be really hard, and it’s very hard to retrofit, but there are a lot of great tools in the world that make real-time collaboration possible. It’s the new standard.
If you use approaches like the above, and you have a very serious commitment to iterative improvement, you can have four or five platform-based projects running at once. You can fix a lot of broken stuff quickly.
Of course all of this starts with actually listening to your users, finding out what they want, and constantly testing results with them.
I’m Sorry, We’re Growing
Larger, strategic digital projects are moving forward far more quickly because there is immense internal awareness that things should be better, and that things will not return to status quo soon, or ever. For the first time everyone is sharing the friction. The old ways, which bring with them a lot of process, aren’t going to survive. No one wants to fill out 50 different forms and spreadsheets again when this is over.
It’s an awkward time to grow. But it’s also the right time to try new things, even with smaller budgets. The whole point of good digital strategy is that you get more impact with smaller budgets over time, as your platforms grow and your users use them to do better work. Everything that’s happening in the world supports this approach. You might as well get started!