5 top tips for optimising agency processes

Good process, they say, should always guide, never dictate. What could be simpler? And yet it’s so easy to get wrong. Bureaucracy is not good process – it’s what happens when we mistake paperwork for proper procedure. But for agencies without a certain level of standard practice (and yes, paperwork) the result is often unsuccessful projects, unhappy clients and inefficient teams, where one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

So where’s the middle ground? At what point does good process go bad? When does it stop being a help and start being a hindrance?

Effective process is something we’re passionate about at Cohaesus. It’s how we deliver projects on time, on budget and on brief. And it’s how we make sure that whoever is involved, and wherever they get involved, they can hit the ground running and provide seamless service to our clients.

Now, we love to be helpful, so we thought we’d share a few of the things we’ve learnt.

1. Spend time on the important paperwork upfront to avoid tensions later on

Nobody loves paperwork but there are certain documents that to us are non-negotiable because they all help to establish the agreed ‘truths’ of a project.

  • Briefs
  • Statements of work and contracts
  • RACIs (a log book of roles played by all project stakeholders across a number of tasks and activities)
  • RAID logs (a list of evolving risks and issues)

Projects fail and tensions arise when people have different interpretations of the scope and deliverables, timeframes and individual ownership. Spending the time upfront to make sure that scope, contracts and project roles are mutually agreed and understood is critical to successful delivery and provides fail-safes if disagreements come up later on in a project.

As a blueprint to follow and a single source of truth, they act as a safety net for both agency and client, protecting their rights, time and money. So the more time spent anticipating risks and detailing deliverables, assumptions, risks and working practices across the various project phases, the more prepared the whole team will be to deal with the surprises that every project experiences. Templating those documents means important considerations and learnings from other projects are built into the early stages of each new project.

When paperwork is a waste of time

  • When it’s used to patch up a fragile relationship or compensate for a lack of trust between parties. Excessive note taking and emails that attempt to capture every word ever said because trust has broken down within the project teams are a sure sign that the relationship needs fixing.
  • Making people go round in agony, filling out forms to accomplish basic tasks is clearly a waste of everyone’s time. And it suggests an organisation’s size, hierarchy or politics are working against their clients’ interests.

2. Keep workflows and project plans flexible: there is such a thing as too much detail

Workflows – like project plan gantt charts – provide a helpful guide and reminder to project teams about milestones and key dates, as well as steps and actions to be taken in each project phase. The more visual ones often work best, and should be presented at the start of the project to outline the ideal project running order before getting into the nitty gritty.

The more detailed the project plan or workflow, the more prescriptive and rigid it becomes. While that can be a good thing for some projects, it can also be quite limiting, disabling the team from using their skills and common sense to respond to unforeseen circumstances.

Where it becomes really counterproductive is when agencies or companies mandate a very detailed step-by-step plan with tasks and milestones that follow a strict waterfall layout but are not adapted to the actual brief or needs of the project.

Giving project teams too little room to tailor the workflow to their needs makes it a tick box exercise in which steps are fulfilled but add little or no value to the project itself. A good example of this is a workflow that insists on daily meetings and complex status reports to be shared. Are these genuinely important to the progress of the project? Or does the trust in the team and velocity of the project mean time is better spent elsewhere?

3. Find the right tools to make communication a breeze

We were once asked to steer a broken project in which the project manager (PM) spent three hours a day updating a 30 slide presentation for a daily call with the client. There’d been a massive erosion of trust on the client side and in response, an over-serving and over-communication on the PM side using a comms tool that demanded a lot of time to update. Following a quick chat with the client it became clear that they hated the 30 slide presentation as much as the PM hated updating it, and while trust had to be rebuilt via daily calls, the presentation was unnecessary. Once trust and confidence had been restored those daily calls became weekly.

It’s a common misconception that clients love PowerPoint and Excel. And while this may be true for steerCo groups and very senior stakeholders, it no longer applies day-to-day. Digitally-savvy clients these days are more than happy to work with Jira, Trello or Confluence as the main task and communication tool.

The key is to define the tools the team will use, limit them to no more than two or three (in addition to traditional email and calls) and then monitor them. There is nothing worse than joining a project half way through and finding that all communication and paperwork is spread across multiple platforms, software and sources. Too many tools will spoil your project.

In the same vein, excessive face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication can be a sign of mistrust and lack of confidence. If the project tools can be accessed by all parties, are easy to update, and allow instant sharing of information then the need for calls and verbal confirmation drops and can be kept to the crucial project conversations.

4. Don’t be limited by a single project methodology

We’re not big fans of the term ‘wagile’, but it’s one way of explaining the hybrid methodology we apply at Cohaesus – taking the human-centric principles of Agile while retaining some essential Waterfall pillars.

On the face of it Waterfall versus Agile looks like the argument between process versus no process. Waterfall has a rigid format of defined step-by-step tasks leading to a predefined goal, irrespective of whether that goal is still the right one by the end of it. All with a heavy reliance on documentation.

Agile on the other hand promotes people over documentation. It celebrates the team, collective ownership and a test-and-learn approach where the end goal is unknown at the outset and becomes the collective result of iterative development.

But it would be wrong to define Agile as a lack of process – it simply approaches process differently, with a focus on continuous work packages (sprints) each with their own set of strict rituals (sprint planning, estimation, daily stand ups, sprint demos etc). The process is expressed through collaborative cadence, rather than written documentation.

Both approaches are extreme and we are yet to see a truly Agile process work in a setting with multiple agencies and external cost/time factors. Added to which, its flexibility is often misinterpreted as the ability to add or take out whatever the budget holder wishes, while remaining within the same financial and time constraints. In reality, Agile has no time or budget limits and is rarely if ever ‘complete’.

On the other hand, pure Waterfall seems archaic and offers little room to respond to the type of change and fast-paced developments that are so common in the digital sphere.

But it is possible to take the best of both and create a process that marries the principles of team-work, collective ownership, permission to test and fail, and communication, with some of the essential documentation we mentioned earlier in this blog. And a clear focus on project deadlines.

5. Think UX when setting up your processes

Ultimately processes are used by people, which means they are never going to be perfect, regardless of how well you stick to them, or the tools, documentation or workflows you use.

When we define user experiences for our clients, we conduct interviews, research and studies to optimise user journeys for a website or application. We make it as easy as possible to find information and interact with content – maximum output from minimum input. We test and learn to find the best layouts, page connections and visual cues for the ‘average’ user of the service.

Our approach to defining agency processes is the same. The purpose of our processes is to help users like project managers, designers and clients, to find information in the most efficient way, and to regulate interactions so that quality of output is maximised and effort spent is minimised. UX patterns around content structuring, navigation and hierarchies are perfect examples of helping to build shared project spaces and the communication and documentation around them.

It also means that we never stop learning and that what works for one project may not work for another. It means we can update and adapt our process but also advise on good practice when we see client processes that may work against a project’s success.

If you have a project that could benefit from some of our project management prowess, please get in touch.