What responsive web design means for team organisation

After working as a consultant with some very talented internal teams to redesign corporate websites using responsive techniques, I've identified a common theme over the past year: responsive web design (RWD) is a catalyst for organisational change.

I'm unsure if larger companies have structured teams based on the waterfall process, or if the linear nature of our traditional approach has impacted the way teams are organised. Regardless, for every RWD redesign project, I've always ended up making organisational structure recommendations. From what I can see, we're still stuck in an old way of organising our teams, and responsive is having its way with us.

In 2007, Jeffrey Zeldman said, "Almost no one who makes websites works in their company or organisation's web division. That's because almost no company or organisation has a web division. And that void on the org chart is one reason we have so many bloated, unusable failures where we should be producing great user experiences."

The age-old battle

Unfortunately, my 2013 experience hasn't proven this 2007 assessment wrong. The age-old battle between IT and marketing is still going strong. Poor web experiences are often the result of being caught in the middle with content, UX and design in the hands of the marketing team and development, performance, security and CMSs being managed in IT. Both sides see the other as a black hole and rarely are they willing to coordinate their efforts.

I was recently in a meeting with a fantastic client of ours and was asked, "What do you feel will be the most difficult challenge for this [responsive web design] project?" I answered almost before I had time to think it through: "Getting buy-in." Obviously, I meant buy-in from senior executives, but also from members of the team in other departments. Thinking back now, I realise that my experience working with larger organisations to implement these techniques had me worried more about the people involved than the technical challenges.

Brad Frost noted this same challenge in his closing keynote for Artifact Conference in Austin. In this presentation, he quoted Mark Boulton discussing process on Twitter: "The design process is weird and complicated because it involves people, who are weird and complicated".

Weird and complicated

The same could be said of our weird and complicated organisations. But there isn't one way to organise our people so they build better multi-device web experiences. The more I work through these challenges, the more I realise that these flexible processes require us to do less to organise our teams. We must begin to invest in people over process. We have to trust our people to collaborate to figure out the best solutions.

Cross-disciplinary teams

Encouraging collaboration is different for each organisation and project. However, building cross-disciplinary teams can be a great benefit. This doesn't mean you need to tear down and mash up your IT and marketing departments. Putting people from both groups on small, surgical teams (See Trent Walton's advice) to tackle these efforts can yield great results. Sometimes it's as simple as expecting progress in all disciplines as you move through each phase of a project. This brings all team members into play earlier and keeps them active throughout, moving the whole forward instead of the parts.

Over the past few years I've learned something else: collaboration is contagious. Find a way to get just a few people from different teams working intently together and it will take root. Most people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. You don't need your CEO to approve a major organisational change. In fact, that probably won't work.

A desire to collaborate among the folks on the ground is what's needed inside most large organisations and it can start with you. l

Words: Ben Callahan

Ben Callahan is president of Sparkbox.

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 247.

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