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The agile Scrum framework is powerful. It has proven itself highly effective for startup teams, larger organisations, and teams working towards continuous digital product improvement.

But what we’ve discovered is that it often costs more money to run a textbook Scrum approach for smaller and more ‘controlled’ digital product builds.

For a great overview of what Scrum is, check out this article from Atlassian.

For startups paying out of pocket, or SME’s working from a tighter budget, cash is scarce and there’s not a lot of wiggle room. When I say smaller projects, I mean smaller marketing website builds, or first release of a small mobile app, for example.

Why?

The Scrum process in the hands of an in house team and stakeholders has little downside. But when a client and digital product team (not in-house) are working together, there are two new factors to consider:

  1. Client and delivery team are not always aligned and prioritisation is generally harder. This leaves margin for constant changes in direction in an attempt to reconcile differences. This wouldn’t be too bad, but:
  2. the delivery team are not on the client’s payroll. This means changes during the project will cost the client extra time and money.

But I am not proposing a standard waterfall approach either.

No matter what project you are doing, there will always be rework and iteration – it’s necessary for success. But the Scrum process encourages highly regular iteration and “re-steering”, and when it’s abused it creates a “we will figure that out later” culture.

This is problematic for smaller client+studio projects because it’s nearly impossible to create a controlled scope of work, meaning:

  1. The client can change their mind and revise, endlessly. If a client can do that, they will – it’s a law of nature and the Srum process encourages it (although with logical and constructive intention).
  2. Friction occurs because if the studio bills per-hour or per-sprint, the client ends up paying more and lengthening the project timeline.

In these cases we have created a cycle where the process to execute doesn’t quite match the client’s need to control the spend and timeline while guaranteeing some kind of finished product.

The agile mentality and Scrum framework was designed for software teams with a view of continuous improvement. Atlassian’s guide says:

“People often think Scrum and agile are the same thing because Scrum is centered around continuous improvement*, which is a core principle of agile.”

https://www.atlassian.com/agile/scrum
*Bold style added to highlight and emphasise.

As my co-founder Bailey says “the whole philosophy with Scrum is that your product is never really finished.

This approach, then, isn’t going to end well for a client with a short budget. The kinds of projects I’m talking about here are meant to be “finished”, not go forever.

But if you don’t allow for iteration, alignment, and room for adjustment as things become clearer, then it’s also going to end up a complete mess.

So, how do we approach it?

It sounds very abstract and something that a digital transformation consultant says to get new business, but it’s true:

We combine the sequential, requirement-focussed and scope-controlled approach of waterfall with concentrated and ‘expected’ pockets of iteration and flexible response to change.

Rather than the iterations changing the scope of work and causing the client to lose track of their budget, we’ve designed our approach so that each planned ‘pocket of iteration’ better informs the next phase of the project.

Design & Prototype Sprint

One way we do this is by starting every project with concentrated Design and Prototyping Sprint. This is an altered version of the design sprint. It focuses on the creation of a high-fidelity interactive prototype (using inVision, Framer, or other appropriate tool) which is then tested with users/customers or target audience.

This lets us take a controlled “chunk” of the budget and “jump into the future” of the product, shortcutting the build and launch phases of a Scrum cycle/sprint.

Design & Refine

After this initial sprint, we reassess and prioritise everything that must go in the final product based on what comes from the user validation as well as what was not covered in the prototype sprint. From here we try and answer every question we may ask during the design phase. Then we design the product, with the view that what gets designed will “go into development and come out the other side as a real product”.

Tech Spec Doc

Next, we create a tech spec document as a team, which involves designers, devs, PM and the client documenting everything that can’t be obviously assumed from the prototype. This covers things like how forms will be stored, database schema, and even the subject line of automated system emails. It’s like writing a script you could hand to a developer to follow and come out with exactly what you are hoping for. Our intention isn’t to direct the developer and tell them how to do their job – it’s to give them all the information they need to do it well.

*Disclaimer, a tech spec doc can never cover everything, but it takes out a lot of guesswork.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying digital product studios can’t run a Scrum process – we do it with bigger projects and ongoing engagements with our clients and partners. It works best for bigger product builds and continuous improvement. What I am saying, is that you need to apply it to the right projects. Small, controlled projects are not the right ones to do so.

So, to summarise?

The Scrum framework is powerful and flexible for teams working with a view of continuous delivery. It’s great for big projects and products that are intended for ongoing improvement. Small digital product builds (marketing websites, first release of an app, etc.) where the client is not yet intending on “continuous improvement” are not appropriate for Scrum. This is because the client is looking for a particular outcome for a set spend and intend to simply launch the product when it meets completion criteria and may come back when they need further rounds of iteration.

Posted 14.05.19

Choosing to partner with the right digital agency will set you up to better achieve the results you want, create a profitable long term business relationship, and enjoy the whole process.

If you’re at a medium to large sized company, It can be daunting choosing an agency, especially if you’re responsible for the outcome of the project. You don’t want the project to backfire and have your head on the chopping block. That’s why you do all the research that you do, and get a few proposals from different agencies – but you need to know what you should be looking for in an agency, right?

Depending on the size of your company or business, you’ll be looking for different things in an agency. If you’re a global company, then you’ll be looking for an agency who has a portfolio that fits your brand, and can guarantee reliable management and delivery of a project your size.

If you’re an SME, you have the most flexibility in comparison to bigger companies and smaller freelance businesses. If business is booming and you’re looking for an agency to help you grow, then you can afford to look at larger or more premium agencies, to really up your game. If you need something cheap, look for a local agency who have a visible portfolio that they’re willing to share, good quality of work, and who have great communication skills. That’s what you need.

In either case, it’s critical to have an agency that you trust.

A lack of trust will lead to stress, a need to micromanage, unnecessary disagreements, and a feeling that you’re just not getting everything you should out if your agency

Small businesses will go to a freelancer in most cases, but if you’re looking to invest properly, then you need to look for a small or boutique agency that you can afford. That’s unless you know a freelancer who you’re positive can bring just as much, or more, to the table.

If an agency seems excited about your business it’s a great sign, especially if they’ve already got a solid flow of work and don’t desperately need your business. Interest shows that you’re not just another job to pay the bills, but a business they can really get behind.

Here are a few tips on how to deal with an agency so that you get the best out of the relationship, and they do too:

  1. You want to create a win-win situation. This means defining a healthy working relationship at the beginning. Tell the agency how you’d like to work with them, then learn their process and discover how you’ll bring out the best in each other. If you’re not sure, let them lead you.
  2. Let the agency do their thing, but make sure that they listen to you and what you really need from them at the beginning. If an agency doesn’t ask you questions it’s probably a bad sign. To understand exactly what you need, an agency needs to ask clarifying questions and really probe the issue.
  3. Try and write a brief before you approach an agency, so that you already know what you want, or what you need the agency to help you solve. Going in with a clear understanding will help agencies know how to respond and whether the project is right for them. It will also help you pick up and know which agencies are really switched on.
  4. It’s better to approach the agency with a problem that they need to solve, rather than a solution that you’ve already guessed is correct. You should definitely give them your ideas but don’t pigeonhole them into your solution, because you might have missed something. If you’re an expert in the field it’s a bit different, but if you’re paying an agency you may as well let them fully do their job.
  5. Look for an agency that shares your values and culture. If you’re not aligned you can clash on everything, from concepts, to copy and design.
  6. You may as well pick people you think you’ll enjoy working with as long as they pass all your other requirements of course. Life’s too short to cause yourself grief, enjoy the process especially if it’s a creative one.

At Fullstack Digital we believe in working with the right people. When we talk to a new client we like to make sure we’re as in line with them as possible, their brand, and their goals. That way we’ll be able to do truly awesome work. If we’re not a fit, we’re more than happy to recommend another local agency who might be a better fit.

Posted 19.12.18