Why creative technology engagements go wrong – and how to keep them on track

ajit-assembla-headshot

Ajit Umrani, president of Assembla.

Websites, mobile apps, games, and video are an increasingly large part of digital agency engagements – and they bring a new level of complexity to client relationships. Creative agencies and development shops must professionally track not only creative assets and media, but also code and project tasks.

There’s potential for four-way miscommunication: Creatives and production may not speak the same language, while the account executive has to keep the client in the loop and respond to continuous requests and feedback.

Marketing agencies are adopting agile methodologies, and they are going through transformations that are similar to the ones software development went through over the last decade.

Let’s look at the four major areas where engagements can go south and then examine how to head off trouble with an agile approach:

1. Scope creep

Website and app development projects for clients can expand beyond their original boundaries for a few reasons:

  1. Lack of definition: One of the biggest reasons is that the project has not been sufficiently defined at the start. Sometimes clients don’t know exactly what they want. In a typical engagement a lot of time is spent up front detailing requirements and feature requests, and this information is spread around email, spreadsheets, or within project-management solutions. So there is a chance that requests may not be captured or defined adequately.
  2. Collaboration: Another reason can be that decision-makers on the client side are not brought into the process and kept in the loop. They may only begin to give input after the project is well under way.
  3. Enthusiasm: Scope creep can also be due to sheer excitement on the client’s part; “Wouldn’t it be cool to add X, Y, and Z?”

A good fix to scope creep

To limit scope creep, provide everyone – account executives, project managers, the creative team, software developers, and the client team – with continual access to project assets and work requests. This ensures that the client and agency have a clear understanding of the original scope. It also makes it easy for the account executive to flag client requests that are beyond the original scope.

The next generation solution: the agile approach

The new agile approach to marketing came about because of a need to adapt as quickly as possible to changing market conditions and customer preferences. This shift makes it hard (and unnecessary) to agree to a well-defined scope up front, since clients can’t define the scope well at that point. In fact, the agile approach welcomes priority, and scope changes because it means that you are working on what’s most important at any point.

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In today’s web and app development projects, clients want the ability to endlessly shift priorities and assign new tasks. If agencies don’t have a good way of capturing and reacting to shifting client requirements, the client becomes dissatisfied.

But for agencies that succeed in this new way of collaboration, the client-agency relationship goes from being based on a scope of work to being about capacity for ongoing work. To the client, this means that its service provider is always working on the most important task at any time. For the agency, this means a stable, long-term client engagement.

In reality though, many agencies find it really hard to negotiate a variable scope engagement with a new client up front. Most clients still have to work within the confines of a budget and timeline. So the first engagement is typically a small, fixed-scope project.

You never get a second chance…

It is paramount for the agency to create a trusting relationship with the client in that first engagement. A standardized, transparent, and collaborative agile workflow process helps agencies move faster and improve their ability to deliver on time and on budget.

The same process can then become the foundation of a longer-term relationship where agencies can work as an extension of the client’s team on a fixed-capacity engagement, helping their clients achieve their business objectives without a defined scope up front.

A cloud-based collaboration tool like Assembla Portfolio helps agencies and software developers work with clients in this agile, transparent way, on both the fixed-scope and on the long-term, continuous engagements.

2. Schedule slippage

Late deliveries of milestone items make clients anxious and unhappy. Slippage can be caused by:

  • Requirements that were initially unclear or misinterpreted.
  • Incorrect allocation of resources.
  • Lack of change control.
  • Incorrect prioritization on the part of the development team.

Another cause of client grief can be a lack of clarity on the schedule. The development team may think it’s right on track, while the client expected delivery last week. Clients may not have visibility into the status of their requests or understand how the development team has scheduled and prioritized tasks.

And, of course, there are times when the development team just misses the deadline. This can be due to inadequate tools for tracking releases.

The fix for schedule slippage

Agencies subscribing to the agile approach follow a fixed release schedule, typically with weekly milestones or sprints. This delivery cadence provides them the ability to reassess priorities and track project status at the end of each milestone.

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A well-defined delivery schedule ensures that the agency will deliver something on the due date. As agencies get better at capacity planning, they improve their ability to deliver the promised tasks on time. More importantly, since clients have the ability to reprioritize, agencies end up working on the most important tasks within the allotted time.

To make this work, agencies need an agile project management tool like Assembla Portfolio that allows them to define, track, and deliver these milestones consistently. The tool also needs to provide the ability for clients to prioritize weekly tasks, make requests, and communicate continuously. A transparent workflow makes it easy for everyone to track progress in a variety of ways.

3. Misdirected development or poor quality perception

When software is not edited and deployed in a transparent way, it’s easy to lose track of versions, increasing the likelihood of mistakes. The development team may be stalled waiting for client feedback, or it may continue to move forward only to have to revise code when feedback finally arrives. Or, you can successfully release, but later find out that it wasn’t exactly what the client wanted.

Getting clients to see the value in your work

First, the development team needs an excellent versioning system, along with a system for revising and deploying code that supports an agile development process. Whether opting for Git, Subversion, or Perforce; whether working on fixed-scope projects, agile sprints, or continuous request streams; a home for all code, tasks, milestones, and client collaborations is a must.

assembla-cumulative-flow

There’s additional benefit in allowing the client to test alongside the development staff, approving features and changes or submitting issues and requests. Finally, completed features or tasks should be approved by the customer, so that the agency can get clarification or positive feedback before final release.

4. Billing disputes

Any and all of these trouble areas can result in billing headaches. The agency may not have been able to capture all its billable hours, or it may not be able to justify items it deems out-of-scope. Sometimes the task names used during the project simply don’t match billed line items and become hard to track.

At best, the account executive must spend hours explaining the bill to the client and justifying the charges. Oftentimes, the agency ends up “eating” it because it does not have proper documentation to back up the billable hours claimed. At worst, the engagement ends in a dispute, with the client unwilling to pay and leaving the agency.

Abolishing billing disputes forever

Integrating time tracking and billing with the project management solution adds accuracy and clarity to the billing process. Line items maintain consistent naming from the initial request through the final bill. As clients approve each finished task, it can be automatically added to the invoice. Just the fact that clients have the access to all the work that the agency is doing at any time and can drill down on any task or line item to see all the details, gives them confidence that they are being treated fairly.

The bottom line is about transparency

The agile journey for agencies is about proving to the customer that you are delivering frequent releases or measurable marketing results, and each delivery contains things that the client thinks are important. This approach requires a new transparent collaboration workflow where clients and agencies are working together on the same platform.

The agile methodology has the promise to help eliminate the idea of scope creep, remove pressure from meeting a fixed schedule, improve quality perception, and stop billing disputes.

Gaining control and increasing the transparency of client engagements pays off. It contributes directly to the agency’s revenue. There’s bigger payoff from satisfied clients: new projects, continuing engagements, and referrals. That makes everyone happy.

Ajit Umrani is the president of Assembla, creating homes for companies who develop and design for clients. He is committed to the agile methodologies that make these workflows easier and better. When he is not working, you can find Ajit traveling the world and playing badminton – sometimes concurrently.

assembla-portfolio-logo*Sponsored content in collaboration with Assembla. Views expressed in this article are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect ClickZ’s opinions.

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