The innovator’s dilemma – Isolating the Web team


For the last year or so I have been talking about our “restructure of” homepage and website. We have made some progress but we are not nearly where we should be. This isn’t because we don’t think the project is important, but instead have assured our clients’ (university departments/schools/colleges) deadlines are being met instead. This week that all changed. We isolated four staff members and dedicated them to the restructure and re-imagination of and the top 1,000 pages to support enrollment and retention.

The Innovators Dilemma

One of my favorite books is The Innovator’s Dilemma. If you haven’t read it I suggest you pick it up, it’s a short read and totally applicable to any industry. It outlines the process of company growth and why innovation slows as firms get larger. There are various reasons for this but the largest is that it is easier to up-sell existing customers instead of going after new untested markets with new products. Because these untested new products or markets don’t show value they often do not get the attention of resources they deserve until it is too late.

“What this suggests is that the management best practices are only situationally appropriate. There are times when it is right not to listen to customers, invest in lower performing products that promise lower margins, and pursue small rather than larger markets.”

This is the exact situation we find ourselves in. Because we’re focusing all our time on ensuring we have “internal client” work we haven’t had the time to focus on our true customers, prospective students.

Dedicated resources

The book goes on to explain how companies have been able to overcome this dilemma and innovate around or with disruptive technologies (even if they cannibalize parts of their existing company). One of these successful methods is to create an isolated team in both a workload and also a physical environment without any constraints of normal business practices. This allows a team to innovate in ways that are simply not possible in the day-to-day of company operations.

Starting this week we have done just that. Four staff members, Rolaine Dang, Tom Krupka, Rob Vrabel and Alex Bienkowski have been isolated and given an ambitious project. Take a step back and look at the macro view across all of the enrollment sites that now work well individually and stich them together to work well as a single user experience.


All of their current projects/tasks have been re-assigned to other staff members and they have physically been moved to a single office (above) where they are isolated from the normal client work we do here in Web Communications.


I won’t go too much into the project scope at this point other than the large and long term goals. The team is charged with launching a “re-imaged” by the end of 2013. This will include restructuring those top 1,000 pages that are focused on enrollment and retention.

At the moment the websites within work really well individually, they  have their own navigation, information and design. This works well for visitors that know exactly what they need and what department “owns” that information. But this does not work for those prospective students or on-boarding students who were recently accepted and now need to orient themselves with the university. Browsing through theses websites is not only confusing as they bounce from department to department but it also gives the impression that the university is disjointed. The first goal is to fix this by taking all the departments in these 1,000 pages and bring them all under a single look, functionality and domain. This will result in a single user experience, voice and impression of the institution.

The second charge is to create a revolutionary Web experience for our visitors. To use as much data to tailor the experience for an individual visitor and bring the power of the Web to that experience. This charge is still vague because we won’t know exactly how this will impact visitors until the discovery phase is complete. In the end, though, the final product will not be a set of static pages, but instead an experience that will resonate with the visitor. We’ll just have to wait and see how it shakes out.

Follow the progress

The Web team will be blogging about their status each week on the blog. Over the next few months they will be keeping track of scope, options, decisions and progress in both public and private posts. After the relaunch of we plan to make all the private posts public and allow everyone to see all the work/decisions that went into building what we hope is the most successful website for the university.

Follow the blog:

Managing distraction: “library rules” before 11 a.m.

The Wayne State Web department consists of ten people sitting at their desks in an open room in the middle of the marketing department, typically with the lights off. Each member of the team typically has fifteen tasks for the day and forty tasks assigned for upcoming dates. As you can imagine it can be hard to focus on the tasks at hand with people walking through the area or with even a one-on-one conversation happening at the desk next to you.

We try to manage these distractions by:

Wearing headphones – Being lost in our own music drowns out any other noise around.

Keeping the lights off – Reduces peripheral vision so we can focus on our screens and reduce the likelihood of noticing someone walk by.

Not having printers – No one in the Web group has a printer, we never have, and the rare time we do print we send it to a central printer in a different area of the department. This reduces noise and people just waiting around.

Reducing the number of phones – We only have three phones for the twelve total staff members. We do most of our support via email or Basecamp. But if someone does call, we have a single number answered by one person who can field the question and only interrupt another staff member if necessary.

“Library rules” before 11 a.m. – It’s simple: respect everyone’s time, space, productivity, just as you would in a library, before 11 a.m.

First things first


The video above, although not the most comprehensive, explains the crux of the problem. With so many tasks, projects and competing priorities it’s easy to get lost in the thick of the thin. We work diligently to not only develop personal tactics to stay productive but also an environment that focuses on completing those big or important tasks first.

Before 11 a.m. we collectively work to accomplish our most important item(s) for the day. We try to keep it to one thing, but you would be amazed how productive you are if you are not interrupted. Just try it for a week.

Managing distraction: OS X Mail unread count

There is only so much time in the day and if you’re not careful small distractions can chip away at your ability to accomplish tasks. I’m always looking for ways to reduce distractions for myself and my team.

Distractions break “flow”

We are big fans of 37 Signals and they have written about distractions extensively over the years. The nature of our work requires a balance of requests from many constituents around campus and the actual work those requests require. If we can’t accomplish the desired work we might not bother taking it on at all. The desired effect is to get in to a “flow” throughout the day to concentrate on the task at hand and complete it with the clarity and attention that every task deserves.

It takes a village

We have done many things as a team over the years to improve the amount of flow the Web team is able to obtain each day. It may seem like simple things but reducing the amount of sensory input  is a huge help. If you’ve been to the Web office at any time you’ve noticed ten of us work in one open area, which is an efficient use of space but is a slippery slope for distractions. We all work in the dark to reduce visual noise, most everyone wears headphones to reduce auditory noise, and there is very little talking before lunch. It takes the entire team to ensure the environment is respectful of everyone’s personal flow.

“Managing Distractions” series

I though I would start a series on the small things that make a big difference when it comes to managing distractions. The first and what I feel is the most important is the ability to get out of your inbox.

Get out of your inbox

Email is not a to-do list or an immediate trigger for action. If someone needed something this second they would call or rush in to your office. Emails never stop and reading/responding to them as they come in will keep you caught up in the thick of the thin all day. Before your know it, no real work actually gets done.


I’ve found the best way to remove the distraction that an email is “waiting to be read” is to get rid of the badge on the OS X Mail dock icon. Many would argue that never opening the Mail app in the first place accomplishes the same goal. But it doesn’t, because if you need to send an email or reading through a folder other than your inbox, that unread is there just begging for your attention.


Removing the badge is actually quite easy, just go in to the Notification Center and click Options. In here you can manage all the annoying alerts that each app can produce. Find “Mail” and uncheck the “Badge app icon” to remove it completely.

Overall I recommend turning any “push” type of alert off except for the absolutely necessary ones. But this one alone can make a world of difference. Try it for a week, my bet is you’ll focus more on the task at hand and check email only when you have a few minutes to dedicate to it.