Staying Agile in an Agency Setting—A BDPM Meetup Wrap-up

Agile. It can be a loaded word, and despite having a written manifesto, a word with many interpretations. As a “Certified Scrum Master” I do feel relatively up to speed on what’s intended when someone wants to work in an agile fashion, but I’m not an expert, and I would never claim to be.

DISCLAIMER: I’ll say it again, I am not an agile expert, and throughout this blog, I will be using the term “agile” loosely. I’m not trying to start a debate on what is or isn’t agile, but rather discussing on a broad scale how to incorporate more agile-like processes in projects involving clients.

Is Viget agile? This is a question I hear all the time, and while that’s a complex question, the short answer is “no”. There are however a lot of people here that want to move more in that direction, and over the years we’ve certainly adopted some agile-like principals that we regularly utilize. As a Project Manager, I like to run projects in a way that will make the team happy and the most productive. Lately, the preference has been to at least try an agile process — and tried we have. Despite our best efforts though, inherent complications when working with clients usually come in and disrupt our flow. This is why my ears perked up when Sara Barber, Senior Producer at Mondo Robot, mentioned that she’d like to give a talk at a Boulder Digital Project Manager Meetup on how Mondo Robot remains agile while working with large companies.

Sara gave her presentation during the July Boulder Digital PM Meetup, and it was fantastic. She had some great points, and it was awesome to get an understanding of how one small agency fits agile into customer relationships. Below, I’ve highlighted a few key points that stood out to me. If you want to see all the notes I took from the event, I’ve posted them on peggd.

It starts with the sale

It should come as no surprise that clients can make or break a project. An easy way for a project to go downhill is when the client doesn’t understand or buy into the process the agency has chosen. If you want to show demos every two weeks, and the client expects polished reviews at those demos, you could have a problem. If clients think they have a couple weeks to provide feedback on a design, and the agency wants to design and build features in two week sprints, you could have a problem.

I think the pitfall I’ve fallen into is the belief it can be simple to get on the same page with the client regarding process at a project kickoff. The reality is not all clients are suited for all types of processes, so if you wait until kickoff to start the process discussion, a lot of time can be wasted in back-and-forth discussions. If you rush through those conversations to make up time, you can end up not explaining the process well enough and dealing with the ramifications of miscommunication later. The bottom line? Process should be discussed during the sales process. If you want to run a project in an agile function, ideally you help educate the client before the project starts and come to a mutual agreement on how to run the project.

Design / UX can still blaze the trail

When I think about running a client project in an agile fashion, I immediately pause at the idea of clients approving designs quickly enough to allow features to be built in quick iterations. In my experience, that often feels impossible. Multiple stakeholders means multiple layers of feedback and approvals, which can at times stop progress in its tracks. This is OK when a project is more waterfall, but when developers are on the sidelines waiting to work, this can be stressful.

It seems that Mondo Robot acknowledges this difficulty and generally does a UX/design phase up front, before moving into agile development with the developer team. They complete the designs, and then begin build out. This can cause problems when the client doesn’t understand all the features that were in a design comp, but generally this seems to work out. I think this point in particular cleared up in my eyes one of the biggest blockers to being agile with clients.

Approval ≠ Final

Okay, so this does not specifically relate to agile projects, but I love it. I’ve already quoted it multiple times in my day to day work. Just because something is approved, doesn’t mean it’s final. This is key for clients to understand, as it helps when the budget or timeline doesn’t support all of the enhancements they may have seen in a comp. I really believe that understanding and agreement on this point alone could have single-handedly saved budgets across many projects I’ve run in the past.

I don’t want to shy away from running a project agilely when the team wants to, but until Sara’s presentation, I wasn’t sure how to practically make it work. Now that I’ve seen how one agency does it, I’m excited to try some new ideas in my next project!

Are you in an agency that’s tries to stick to agile methodology? What tips or tricks do you have?

Becky manages digital projects from our Boulder, CO, office for clients such as Duke University, Volunteers of America, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Shure.

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