Breaking Process.

Why digital project managers are spending more and their more of their time breaking process rather than following it.

Every digital agency has a delivery process. A series of rules and principles that dictate how they should execute projects. These rules are designed to ensure the delivery of a quality execution, on time and on budget. As digital project managers we’re the champions of this process. But more and more frequently we’re playing the role of arbiter — deciding when and where these rules are broken to the benefit of the business or project.

Digital is a fickle beast. Constantly evolving and changing with new platforms and technologies. As the medium evolves, the agency offering also changes, to adapt their services to suit their client’s needs. But although they’re fully aware of this evolution, a lot of agencies have historically tried to push a single delivery approach that can encompass everything. Most agencies will have this process carefully documented, if only as a response to any RFI’s they receive throughout the year. But the reality is that it’s unlikely that every account team is following that process. A lot of the time these teams are operating ‘under the radar’ when the change in approach might be frowned upon by the wider agency as too risky or contrary to their supposed offering. Ironically however, when these smaller account teams demonstrate an improvement in delivery, they often become the catalyst for changes to the over-arching agency process.

Digital agencies are starting to accept that a single delivery approach might not be the best fit for every client and execution. That’s not to say tried and tested methods like PRINCE2 and SCRUM are wrong — but that they need to be flexible, and they need to find the right approach for the client, rather than shoe-horning the business into an inappropriate method for delivery.

I previously worked on a fashion account with a global presence. Their business was segmented into local markets and global campaigns. The agency had separate teams working with both local and global teams. Executionally the work couldn't be more different. The global business was focused on product development with big project budgets. The local market had similar cash — but it was spread across a multitude of smaller campaign based projects. The team working on the global business ran large cross-discipline scrum teams, following a software development approach akin to agile. Scope was defined/prioritised through stories by the client and project timelines were predetermined by how many sprints the client could afford. The local business on the other hand was entirely different. The client couldn't afford large retained agile teams, and deadlines, cost and scope were always typically fixed. To support the business, the creative director had developed a multi-discipline team. Resource that could wear many hats, rather than just one. Art directors who could also do design and user experience. Copywriters with strategic experience. This reduced costs and complexity, allowing them to be more nimble, and less expensive to the client — while still being effective enough for campaign work.

Both methods of delivery were entirely different. The agency encouraged this mentality, since they acknowledged that every piece of business might need a different approach to delivery. Ironically they were also obsessed with defining a one-size-fits-all delivery process for the whole agency (it was still in debate when i left).

Most project managers are drilled that process is king. It’s there for a reason. A good one. And if we deviate from it, chaos will reign. This mentality breeds inflexible project managers. Policing process and forcing their teams to follow an approach that simply doesn't work for the business. That sort of behaviour hurts the discipline and the respect the industry has for project management in general.

Project management should be masters of change. Any change is inherently risky — but our most valuable skill is mitigating that risk. Conceding that the agency delivery approach might not be right for a project should not be considered a defeat. We should embrace change if it might benefit the business, and push for change when we believe the approach necessitates it. And as with any change, we should have strategies in place to reduce the impact of the associated risk if it were to become an issue.

There is no single delivery approach that guarantees award winning work and innovation. Although it’s easy (and a common practice) to blame delivery for the success or failure of a project, the reality is probably a lot more ambiguous — influenced by many factors that might be completely out of the control of the project manager. Very few digital agencies will have the same approach to delivery that they had five years ago. But it’s highly likely that they believed both were the best approach to producing creative, award winning work. That in itself should be a demonstration that success or failure cannot be solely the responsibility of the approach employed.

Clients should not be asking an agency for a single delivery process or approach. They should be asking them to demonstrate different approaches for different businesses. Agencies that push full service digital need to prove that they can adapt and support different executions and mediums, while guaranteeing that tried and tested project management principles are still in place to prevent a collapse into chaos.

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