The roles you really must have on your digital team

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The ideal

The GDS service manual is very clear on the roles required to run a proper multidisciplinary team to deliver digital services. It states that you must have a

  • product manager
  • service owner
  • delivery manager
  • user researcher
  • content designer
  • designer
  • developer

And this is, of course, quite right. Doing good digital work means taking it seriously, and that means resourcing it properly.

Indeed, 7 people doesn’t sound like that many, right? Well, in some organisations where the entire digital and IT team is only 10 people, which includes application support and the helpdesk, it’s huge. And most importantly, it’s never going to happen.

The compromise

In this situation you have to be prepared to compromise. I think you can get this down to three people in terms of a full time digital team, with the need to borrow a bit of time from others to get really specialised stuff done.

What this means though is coming up with some new roles that combine some of those in the GDS list.

First you need someone who understand both digital and services and can work between the two. In a traditional project this would probably be your business analyst, but that won’t quite cut it here. This person needs to be able to do a bit of BA, but also be handy at running user research sessions, writing user stories, and managing the backlog. Some kind of service design thinking would be helpful too, ensuring a focus on building an end-to-end service that delivers on that user need.

In my chat with Ben Unsworth, he mentioned a role in his team called ‘Business Designer’. Now, to be clear, this is NOT the role I describe above, but it is a great title for it!

Second you need someone who can build your digital service for you. This depends on your tech stack of course in terms of the specific skills, but a developer will be the person to do this. Now, in this smaller team, they are likely to need to be skilled in various disciplines, as they are likely responsible for not just the new digital service, but also building the integrations, the workflows, the web forms and so on.

Third, you need an organiser. They will need to be more hands-on than a pure Delivery Manager would be, but would combine elements of that role with more traditional project management activities, including liaising with suppliers and other third parties. The organiser would also pick up some other bits, such as managing the performance of the project, perhaps using OKRs, managing the transition from project to live service and BAU support, and also considering how the success of the service will be judged in the future.

Other specialist roles you either need access to, or some time from up front from, include:

  • Someone to influence others – in smaller organisations, it might well be a good idea to have a sponsoring Director that you can use to get others to toe the line, and to ensure others at the top are making the right decisions, and supporting the work
  • Someone to get the interaction design right – this is such an important element of successful digital services but often gets overlooked. At the very least, hire someone to produce a design system that can be easily followed by your developer
  • Someone to (re)write the web copy – having good content design is absolutely vital to building a successful digital service. Hopefully you will have someone in the web team or the comms department who can help out with this when needed
  • Someone to check what you’ve done – with a small, tight squad, it’s often easy to take pride in your work to the extent that you might miss whether you’ve done the right thing or not. So it’s a good idea to have someone neutral who can do a bit of quality assurance on it. A good way to do this might be to run a service assessment on completed projects before they go live.

Is it ideal to build end-to-end digital services using just a team of 3 people? No! But the reality of the situation in many smaller organisations is that having dedicated product managers and service designers is just never going to happen.

Having a small, motivated and enthusiastic squad of three adaptable multi-skilled people working together on multiple projects, and this building their trust in one another, can really get a lot done. Just as long as they are allowed to focus and don’t get dragged into other stuff all the time!

The thing you mustn’t miss

What I have neglected to mention until now is the vital importance of having committed involvement of the service you are transforming involved in your project. You need both a leader from that department around, to make decisions and to ensure there is strategic buy-in for the changes being made.

Then you’ll also need some front line folk and managers on board so they can give their perspective and also ensure they feel like they are part of the change, and can champion it to their colleagues.

The elephant in the room – capability

The question all this leads us to ask, is where can these three people with this amazing set of skills be found? Are there service designers who can also product manage, user research and process map just sitting around in large numbers, waiting to be called upon?

No, of course not. However, I can pretty much guarantee that somewhere in your organisation, there is a great organiser, an enthusiastic techie and, yes, an eager person who has a really good empathetic understanding of the needs of the users of your services.

I am not intending to diminish the professional importance or ability of the roles described in the GDS service manual. Where possible you should always try and find the budget to employ properly trained and experienced people in what are genuinely specialised roles.

But when you just can’t afford to do that, stick to the maxim that you hire for attitude and train for skills. Find the people who want to do this: those with ideas and the fire in their bellies needed to make change happen – and make sure you support them to give them the skills and experience to help them do a great job – whether through training, coaching and mentoring, or pointing them to websites with loads of sensible technology and digital advice.