A good idea only qualifies as a real, sustainable solution if the day-to-day realities of an organization have been factored in.  
A view of our Boston Symphony Orchestra redesign.

We work with innovative partners—their products are one-of-a-kind and their problems are complex. Our client roster includes fresh startups looking to define themselves as well as established, global corporations trying to untangle what’s no longer working for them. Although these businesses often have very different goals from each other, we’ve found that there’s one thing that can make or break any project: the process. 

When we say ‘process,’ we’re talking about more than timelines and budgets. Rather, we mean the intentional practices that underpin every project and allow us to dig deeper than the product, into the way that product’s organization works. It can mean the difference between a band-aid that’s good enough for now versus a sustainable solution that drives a mission for years; between stakeholder indifference (or worse—resistance) and enthusiastic adoption; between a team that’s scrambling to make it through the day and a team that’s empowered to continuously advance their goals with everything they do. An effective process should not only support organizational change, but encourage it.

While our exact steps are tailored to each unique client, the same guiding principles drive our approach regardless of the problem we’re tackling. We’re writing from the agency point of view, but these principles are tools for people on both sides of the project. They’re designed to facilitate and reinforce an environment that sparks transformational work for an organization’s people, product, and mission. Here’s how they work throughout a project’s lifecycle, which we split into Vision, Build, and Delivery stages.

Vision: Discovery, data, and deep listening

Every agency project should start by learning a client’s business and stakeholders inside and out. This might look like interviews with both leadership and makers, workshop activities with stakeholders, and research exercises such as surveys or comparative analysis of competitors. The agency should be doing their homework, and the client should be making their organization as transparent and accessible as possible for research.

By developing a nuanced understanding of the opportunities and challenges the organization is facing, an agency can craft a more holistic strategy that factors in variables like workflows, culture, potential pitfalls, and areas of untapped potential. Our goal is always to craft a highly customized outcome that’s the opposite of a one-size-fits-all solution—one size might fit everyone, but it’s not going to fit everyone well, so we leverage our findings to tailor our strategies accordingly.

As part of that customization process, this is when we crunch numbers and evaluate data in order to identify meaningful KPIs. With KPIs, we can establish an enduring rubric that the organization can use to measure efficacy well into the future. It also provides the project team with strategic guideposts to refer to throughout the Vision and Build stages.

Additionally, understanding a client’s hopes and fears on both an organizational and an individual level better positions an agency to approach the work with empathy, and to create an engaging and supportive environment for change built on collaboration, co-ownership, and a shared enthusiasm for the opportunities ahead. Cultivating strong relationships with engaged, knowledgeable collaborators will pay dividends both throughout the project build and as the organization continues to advance the strategy once the project has wrapped.

We were building something that was changing both the look and feel of the website, but more importantly, we were changing how we thought about producing content.

Mike Petroff, Director of Product Management, Harvard Business School

Vision Share: Align and inspire for the journey

At the conclusion of the get-to-know-you phase, learnings are distilled into a narrative strategy deliverable that can be used as a project roadmap: a Vision Share. We aim for these to be airtight, evidence-backed, highly-designed cases for change that can serve as steady inspiration and a “north star” to keep us aligned throughout the project (and often beyond). While our core client collaborators will have helped us shape the strategy, this presentation is often the first chance for the full stakeholder landscape to get a look. This can be a powerful moment for generating both alignment and enthusiasm. Both agency and client should ensure that individual stakeholders clearly see their stories and goals reflected in an inspiring plan that everyone can work towards.

A view of our Vision Share for Boston Symphony Orchestra; the project North Star.

Even though it’s still so early in the project, this is the moment where we validate that we’ve designed a solution from that’s not merely good enough (one-size-fits-all), but actually good. Did the proposed plan resonate not only with the end audience or user, but with the internal audience of stakeholders? Does the strategy makes sense to everybody, and inspire them to become engaged evangelists throughout their department? Have we created an impactful, sustainable, measurable solution the organization is excited about owning for years to come?

Build: Work together, in the open

When it comes to collaboration, we may be the digital design experts, but our clients are the experts on their organizations. Regardless of whether you’re following an agile workflow (Upstatement is an enthusiastic practitioner), transparency and collaboration are essential throughout any project that aims to be truly transformative. This is really what helps us go far, fast.

So energized by this—it’s both pushing our work and supporting it.

Project team at Voting Rights Lab

Throughout a project, we consider our internal team members and our client core team members to be a single, unified team. We work collaboratively on nascent ideas, final presentations, even live design sessions. We also frequently call in folks we met back during the research phase to provide their expertise on specific issues, or tap our collaborators to recommend the right connections. Bringing in the right people to contribute at the right moments builds on the trust and enthusiasm that was established with stakeholders in the strategy phase. Even more importantly, it greatly enhances our ability to craft sustainable solutions that consider the day-to-day realities of an organization. Working with the whole team the whole time is a catalyst for big breakthroughs in organizational change. We want to hear from the overburdened web admin begging for help because feedback about day-to-day burdens can become the basis for a strategy to simplify cross-departmental workflows. Even small changes, like creating a shared vocabulary after noticing discrepancies across departments, can be high-impact.

Delivery: A future-proof handoff

The final phase of a project should be spent ensuring client teams are equipped to thrive once the project has wrapped and we’re out of the picture. We like to set aside dedicated time to help clients prepare for the immediate road ahead. Once again, we draw upon our deep understanding of the organization and its stakeholders to help create a transition plan that’s tailored to what the organization will need in order to achieve long-term success after our project has ended. This might entail the obvious activities—training sessions and creating the right documentation. But this can also mean helping to think through final workflow considerations, having meetings with different departments to answer any final questions, brainstorming with teams on what to tackle next, and suggesting how to track KPIs. As a client, you’re well-suited to identify where you feel shakiest—ask for help!

Deep listening, a longterm mindset, and transparency aren’t things you can check off a project to-do list. But when we’re able to practice these principles, we can empower clients and optimize any project for impactful organizational change. It results in lovable products and platforms that are changing the world—all made possible by a mindful process.