Want to make big changes to your web presence? The first step should not be to develop a request for proposal (RFP) to select a new CMS or an integration partner or both. First you need to answer four questions.

  • Question 1: What is important for our business?
  • Question 2: Big picture -- do we know how to get there?
  • Question 3: Does everyone know the implication of the decisions we are making?
  • Question 4: Are we setting ourselves up for long term success (and changes we don’t even know about yet)?

These questions break down into two types: a) what do we need from the business perspective (the first question) and b) are we going to be able to pull this off (the last three questions). Your response to the last three questions will be based on your first -- a clear understanding of what you are attempting to accomplish in the first place.  

The reason for answering these questions is important: when you do put together an RFP, you are clear on what you are asking for. This sounds obvious but is often notably lacking from RFPs.

Question 1: What's Important For Our Business

One of the first steps organizations take when getting ready to make big website changes is to go talk with a lot of people within the organization about what they want in a new site. Obviously getting a wide range of perspectives is important, but if done in an unfocused manner results in a useless laundry list of requests (or worse, a dreaded matrix of requirements).

The problem? These lists don’t get to the essence of what the purpose of your revamped site is. Even if you wind up with a lot of specific requirements, these should all be grounded in an overarching vision that is based on the business needs. Various business groups within the organization should help inform the definition of this vision, but in the end each business unit should fit within the larger vision.

Question 2: Big Picture - Do We Know How to Get There?

If your vision is not implementable, then you are better off resetting expectations at the beginning of the project rather than upsetting everyone later. So a key step in the process is to define at a high level the steps it will take to achieve that vision. This isn’t down to the level of Gannt charts -- just the big steps. Even this level of planning will often uncover steps that were not obvious in the beginning. Aside from simply confirming the vision, this high level planning of the sequence to get to the vision means that you may uncover ways of optimizing your process.

Question 3: Does Everyone Know the Implication of the Decisions We are Making?

This may the most overlooked question of all. What tradeoffs, from the way things work now, are going to be made to achieve the vision? For instance, if the vision winds up meaning that content automatically flows between current silos, then that means a loss of control by the owners of those current silos. Or if you are going to allow site visitors to slice and dice content in more ways than they can now, then that probably means you will need to produce more content. If you want more storytelling in your site, then that’s going to require a change in how everyone works.

There are two separate questions buried within the larger question about implications: 1) what are the implications, and 2) how to communicate those implications. Both are critical. In particular, most stakeholders do not have a deep enough understanding of websites to clearly understand what they are agreeing to.

Let’s take a common example: each business group argues that they have highly specialized needs which are different from the other teams. This has a variety of disadvantages: it is more difficult to make company-wide website changes over time (for example, if every business unit has custom HTML then it may be difficult to change the color scheme across all web pages), it is more difficult for cross-selling and it is probably more confusing for the site visitor. In this case, the first step is to list out those implications, then to figure out a way to communicate them. For example, you could demonstrate sample browse paths that show how people get trapped in silos.

Question 4: Are We Setting Ourselves Up For Long Term Success (and Changes We Don’t Even Know About Yet)?

Are you concentrating too much on the flash-in-the-pan relaunch or long-term success? Organizations usually focus too much on how the site looks on the launch. This is of course important, but even more important is getting the bones right rather than just having a fragile facade that breaks the first time it needs to change slightly. There are two sides to pulling this off: 1) getting the bones right and 2) having processes to deal with ongoing change. Some decisions you make for the current deployment of your site may have long-term effects on both. For instance, not spending enough time on a strong publishing process can mean that you will need better support, training and heavier weight governance (or reduced quality). You need to decide where you want to pay, because you will pay.

Sometimes seemingly-disparate requests can be distilled down to a common approach that is much better suited for long term success. For instance, if each team is suggesting a different template, it may be worth the time to search for commonality long before the RFP. If there are common elements, then getting a system and implementation partner that can accommodate that is important (rather than the easier-to-implement but difficult-to-maintain free for all approach).

Try to Avoid the Rush to RFP

Try to avoid the rush to RFP. Make sure you have a clear vision based on business goals, make sure it is implementable and that stakeholders understand the implications of your approach and then (and only then) develop your RFP so that you have a clear idea of what you are asking for.