A couple weeks ago, I inherited a project and found myself lamenting that the solution was already proscribed. In some cases I probably would have come to the same or similar solution had I been part of it from the beginning, but others I probably wouldn’t have. Either way, it made me realize the importance of having web professionals be part of problems, solutions, and products that involve the Internet.

At the 2013 IA Summit, Stephen Anderson gave a talk called “Stop Doing What You’re Told.” I’ll admit that I was drawn to the title because I pretty much hate doing what I’m told to do. It was one of my favorite talks of the conference. To keep the conversation going, he set up a Google Doc of “Bad Problems” that anyone can contribute to. I’ve shared this with my team and several other people I work with. The document gives names to many problems we are presented with day in and day out. Things like bandwagoning (framing the problem as something important to do because everyone else it doing that thing), solutioneering (framing the problem in terms of a technology purchase), and anchoring (framing the problem in the context of a specific solution) are things I deal with frequently. The solution to dealing with these types of problems is asking “why” over and over until you get to the crux of the problem or need. Only then can you find the right solution.

Asking questions is not easy for many people. It can mean challenging authority and doing more work. But it is essential if we are to develop good solutions that actually solve a problem. I have warned people in my organization that they should be prepared for lots of questions from my team and me. Directors and managers should expect to get questions from their newly minted and empowered web editors. They should also be prepared to hear “no.”

Too many times I’ve had to take a project a few steps back (or talk people off a cliff before jumping into a boiling ocean) to make sure the project had defined goals that could be measured – and achieved  We are too often given orders to “make a website for this group” or “build a community for our members” or “create an app for this conference.” When I ask “who is going to use it?” or “how will it be used?” I usually get responses like “my committee said I had to” or “Mr. von Important said he thought it would be a good idea.” None of these people suggesting solutions are web professionals who have done research about whether a new website, an online community, or an app is really what is needed – or how they might create it. In fact, they haven’t even defined the problem or need, just a solution.

You can imagine that I was thrilled when I mentioned to our conferences director that I thought maybe we just need a mobile site for our annual conference rather than an app and she replied, “I don’t care what we have, as long as it does what we need it to do.” We still haven’t figured out the solution, but if we start with identifying the need, I am confident that we’ll end up a solution that will take less work and money while better serving the needs of attendees.

As I was contemplating this blog post, I read Colin Meney’s Why you shouldn’t dictate to your web team on his Content Strategy Scotland blog. He covers many of the same points. It all comes down to web professionals taking responsibility for helping others understand what we bring to the table. To do this, we have to ask questions, develop solutions collaboratively, and show results. It won’t be easy at first, but once we have seats at all the tables, everyone’s life will get better.