The Art of Project Management

At Fifth Tribe, we’ve worked with a variety of clients from different sectors ranging from government to healthcare to retail. Our projects have ranged from launching a mobile application to help a non-profit engage in advocacy to Congressmen to building a website in 40 days to accommodate a $1 billion Federal fund program. To manage all of these projects, we adapt our management style to the particular needs of the client. Below, we’ll highlight the four main project approaches we use:

  1. Waterfall

For clients that have a lot of financial scrutiny and the need for sign-offs from other stakeholders, waterfall is the ideal approach. Here, the project is organized into discrete steps: requirements, design, development, testing, deployment, and maintenance. Waterfall works best when there is a stable product definition, the stakeholders are relatively accessible, and the project has a lot of dependencies.

The advantage of waterfall is that forces discovering errors early on in the process during the requirements phase. It also produces a lot of documentation which is helpful in environments where there is high turnover rate. On the other hand, the main disadvantage of waterfall is that it is notoriously inflexible. As most people know working on a design or development project, it is extremely difficult to fully specify all the requirements at the beginning of a project. Moreover, requirements change and technology changes, the lag created between the requirements and the development phases was incredibly frustrating for all the parties involved. The requirements phase would take too long, resulting in delayed timelines, simultaneously underworked and overworked developers/testers, and upset customers who couldn’t make changes and had to wait long periods of time to see product changes and give feedback.

At Fifth Tribe, we use Waterfall largely for government clients where the contract duration is long, the deliverables are well-defined, and the need for documentation is crucial. The requirements phase is critical in identifying potential flags and stakeholder buy-in early. However, even the government is now beginning to switch over to Agile Scrum, which is the next project approach we’ll discuss.

2. Agile Scrum

Unlike Waterfall which is slow and methodical, agile is highly iterative test-driven development. Agile has four main values: (1) individuals and interactions over processes and tools, (2) working software over comprehensive documentation, (3) customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and (4) responding to change over following a plan. Similar to Lean Startup Principles, wherein a user produces a minimum viable product, agile scrum focuses on developing functional, valuable software at the conclusion of every sprint which ranges from one to four weeks. Each feature is broken down into a user story, sized based on a level of effort, and entered into a product backlog managed by a product owner. The development team decides what stories go into each sprint. This entire process is managed by a Scrum Master whose goal is to facilitate communication and transparency among the team. Each day, the team does a simple fifteen minute check-in. At the conclusion of each sprint, they also do a sprint review, a sprint retro, and planning/sizing for the next sprint.

The biggest advantage of agile scrum is that large projects are broken down into modules and quickly designed, developed, tested, and deployed. It also allows for continuous feedback loops from the stakeholders and allows teams to adapt quickly. The disadvantages of agile scrum are that project dependencies are sometimes difficult to identify, scope creep becomes an unfortunate reality, and it can be hard to facilitate communications with all the various team members. The latter is especially true of developers who like to go through a ticket list and not have to talk with people. The user story approach forces them to talk to the product owner which forces the product owner to talk to stakeholders and develop clear acceptance criterion.

At Fifth Tribe, we’re certified Scrum Masters and we love agile development. We organize all of our projects into epics and user stories, size them, and assign them into a sprint. We use Atlassian’s Jira platform to manage our sprints. Our sprints typically run a week long and we do our retros and reviews at the end of the week. This allows us to push a release within a week as well. The sprint reviews are exciting because we all get to see what each team has been working on that week. Its always remarkable seeing how far we can push a project in just one week. The retros are also helpful because we are constantly iterating our process for how we manage ourselves. We’ve also noticed that agile scrum works best for software projects that typically have modules. For simple landing pages and our digital marketing projects, we’ve found that agile scrum isn’t fully optimal as a design or marketing user story is sized differently from a development user story.

3. Agile Kanban

Similar to Scrum, Kanban is also an agile approach. However, unlike Scrum which is broken down into regular fixed length sprints, Kanban takes a continuous flow approach which allows for continuous delivery — a practice very common for modern web and mobile applications that reside in the cloud. Moreover, Kanban lacks any roles at all so there is no need for a product owner or scrum master. Everyone just does their tasks based on a simple board of to do, in progress, review, and done.

The advantage of Kanban is that it is incredibly fluid and highly adaptive. Resulting in a constantly re-prioritizing of tasks and quick execution. However, boards tend to get outdated very quickly and without a product owner as in Agile Scrum, prioritizing can be hard to manage. Moreover, with so many users, boards can be cluttered and critical dependencies can be lost. It’s also very difficult to give a proper estimate for a level of effort because tasks are not time boxed as they are in Agile Scrum.

At Fifth Tribe, we’ve used Kanban for projects that are simple and task-oriented as opposed to Scrum which tends to focus on projects with higher levels of complexity. For projects heavy on design, marketing, and front-end development, we’ve found that Kanban is more effective than Agile Scrum and vice-versa.

4. Prototyping / Design Sprints

The prototyping and design sprint approach works best for helping a customer go from an idea to a proof of concept. The process is kicked off with a research sprint wherein the design and development team comes up with a list of questions to ask the stakeholder. They then meet with the stakeholder to get their questions answered and based on the stakeholder’s answers, the design and and development team begins building out incomplete wireframes, mockups, or even landing pages instead of a complete and functioning system. The small portions they’ve designed or developed are then shown to the customer who provides another round of feedback. The prototype is then iterated upon quickly and repeatedly until the client feels they have an MVP “minimum viable product”.

The advantages of prototyping is that it allows the customer to develop a proof of concept without spending too much money on a large-scale project they might not even need. Sometimes customers need a proof of concept to find investors, convince a stakeholder, or test out the market before committing to a full-fledged product. This approach saves the customer a lot of time and money. If they build a product that flops, they can cut their losses early on. Conversely, the opposite is also true, if the project succeeds, they can invest more resources and properly build out the product. The biggest disadvantage of prototyping is that it is very difficult to plan as you don’t know how many iterations are needed to get a product-market fit or to make the customer feel that the proof of concept is sufficient.

At Fifth Tribe, we use prototyping when we have very aggressive deadlines and no clear requirements. For example, we inherited a large legacy IT system and the previous vendor was uncooperative. Our government client had an aggressive deadline and needed the software up and running. Within 40 days, we had been able to build up the legacy system from scratch with minimal requirements using our prototyping model. We began offering design sprints as a service to our clients who want proof of concepts without investing too much in time and money. Our favorite approach has been to combine design sprints with agile scrums.

Conclusion

Regardless of what type of project approach you take, make sure its one that maximizes value to your customers and also motivates and inspires your team. Project approaches should be adapted to the customer’s needs and create positive interactions between all the various stakeholders. Don’t hesitate to try out new project approaches and customize them as you go along.

About Fifth Tribe
Based out of the Washington DC Metropolitan area, Fifth Tribe is a digital agency that empowers visionaries to launch bold ideas through our ground-breaking solutions. We specialize in providing product development, branding, web/mobile development, and digital marketing consultations to top industry leaders in the Government, Healthcare, Finance, and Social Impact sectors. Our client list includes Oxfam, Kaiser Permanente, Ernst and Young, the U.S. Air Force, INOVA, the Hult Prize, the Department of Defense, and more. To learn more, visit www.fifthtribe.com.