Clarity of purpose

I’ve written another article for Create Hub. This one focuses on things I think the arts sector could look at to try and have a better time when it comes to delivering digital projects.

One thing I debated including, but ultimately didn’t, was about purpose, and justification. Your project has to have a reason for existing. “Because everyone else is doing it” or “we’ve been given some money” are not really good reasons to do anything.

In the not so distant past I did the PRINCE2 Practitioner qualification, PRINCE2 is a project management methodology that is used relatively widely on large, complex projects. Public sector projects are frequently delivered through this methodology (and I believe the UK government actually has a stake in the company that delivers the PRINCE2 qualifications). Anyway, all of that is fairly irrelevant. What is relevant is that there is a stage within the PRINCE2 process called IP, or Initiating a Project. This stage, amongst other things, aims to “Agree whether or not there is sufficient justification to proceed with the project” and “Document and confirm that an acceptable Business Case exists for the project”. Once again I am not evangelising on behalf of a particular methodology but both of these points seem, to me, to be useful and vital discussions that should be had with all projects. I have seen so many digital projects in the arts for which there seems no sensible justification and no real business case.

What I’m trying to get at is that if your project doesn’t have a clear purpose it will be almost impossible to deliver successfully. Not only will you end up with frustrated stakeholders but it will be difficult to brief any 3rd parties you need to work with and, if things go wrong, it will be difficult to prioritise to solve whatever issues you run up against. Not only does it need a purpose but there has to be a clear justification for that purpose and, ideally, some sort of business case to support it. Not only will this make your life easier it’ll make it easier to manage the project because everyone will be clear on what you’re all trying to achieve, it’ll be easier to sell to colleagues, work out how it should be funded and generally make everything better.

The best projects I’ve worked on have came from a starting point of solving an actual need/problem and had a clear set of goals in a sensible order of priority. Everyone working on the project understood what the goals were and why they existed and as a result were all bought in and pulling in the same direction from the start. The worst projects I’ve worked on have started because someone was awarded some money for no clear reason, or wanted to copy a competitor – there were conflicting agendas from the outset, noone really understood what was going on and they descended into near-farce. Noone wants to be involved in the latter type of project, it’s rubbish.

Common sense is not so common

Earlier this year Substrakt launched a new site for ENO, econsultancy wrote a nice case study on the project which garnered this comment:

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So far, so the-bottom-half-of-the-internet. However what Mr Francis touches on here is something that I believe is fundamental to the success of the new ENO site, and – more importantly – something that arts websites so often miss. Namely that your website should have a a clearly identified primary purpose or aim, and you should then proactively focus on achieving that purpose. Of course a website will often be trying to achieve multiple things, but you should be able to apply a hierarchy to that list.

The situation is certainly changing but in the recent past websites for arts organisations often seem to become a brochure for every single thing the company does. I empathise with the never-ending struggle to ‘be on the homepage’ or ‘have our own section’ but unfortunately your website visitors probably don’t understand (or want to understand) why your website’s structure mirrors that of the organisation’s staffing diagram or why there are 15 competing things on the homepage. Equally why is there such a battle for the homepage when the majority of the traffic to your site probably doesn’t even land there? (a conversation for another day).

So, yes Damien, common sense. It’s difficult to do, and not so common.

Cycling the Highlands

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A while ago I read something about the North Coast 500, weirdly marketed as ‘Scotland’s answer to Route 66′ or something. A Scottish Route 66 wasn’t really a thing that appealed but a continuous 500 mile loop around the Highlands did. Ever since I did the end-to-end in 2011 I’ve been looking for an excuse to go back and cycle in the Highlands – it is, if you forced me to have an opinion – probably the most beautiful landscape in Britain and the roads are (mostly) surprisingly good so it’s a fun place to cycle.

I managed to convince Alex – my eternally cheerful cycling buddy – that he wanted to do it too (despite the fact that our Wales ride last summer utterly broke him, the poor lad). So we got the 11.5 hour train from Euston to Inverness (proTip: if you do this make sure you book a bunk, we didn’t book bunks and 11.5hrs spent trying to make yourself comfortable in an airline-style seat is precisely 0% fun).

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However, the Highlands proved themselves to be just as beautiful as I’d remembered. The only thing that was a slight ‘challenge’ was the weather. Wind, hail, sun, rain, all within the space of an hour – it was constantly changing and coming off the top of a 5-mile climb with winds that felt strong enough to take the bike from under you and horizontal hail was one of the less enjoyable moments.

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Alex and I also both caught a rather nasty stomach bug which meant we had to cut the trip short (we only did day 1, 2 and then half of day 3) so we didn’t quite get up to the north coast.

He ended up looking like this (asleep in a tiny train station):

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If you fancy doing the route this is how we broke it down, once you’re out of Inverness the roads are really quiet and pretty good quality (aside from day 1 which is a bit shitty).

Day 1 – Inverness to Lochcarron
Distance: 65 miles
Ascent: 2,259 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921603097
Accommodation: Loch Dubh b&b (absolutely lovely, would totally recommend)

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Day 2 – Lochcarron to Drumchork
Distance: 90 miles
Ascent: 8,340 ft (however you can, as we did, cut out the Bealach Na Ba if the weather is bad/you don’t fancy it)
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921606773
Accommodation: Drumchork Hotel (basic but friendly and fine – they have a distillery next door)

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Day 3 – Drumchork to Drumbeg
Distance: 92 miles
Ascent: 7,347 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921608879
Accommodation: We were booked into the Drumbeg Hotel (we didn’t make it, we went to Garve and got the train back to Inverness cos Alex was so ill by this point)

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Day 4 – Drumbeg to Bettyhill
Distance: 86 miles
Ascent: 7,628 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921611669
Accommodation: We were booked into the Farr Bay Inn (again, we didn’t make it but it looked really nice!)

Day 5 – Bettyhill to Inverness
Distance: 97 miles
Ascent: 4,381 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921614219
Accommodation: We stayed in the Glen Mhor Hotel, totally nice and fine.

On the whole though, when it was good it was amazing, there’s nothing better than cycling on empty roads in a beautiful part of the world. If you’re thinking about doing it, go! It always blows my mind that there’s somewhere this beautiful in the UK, who needs the Alps (although I am off to the Alps later this year…)