“The Process.” “Proven methodology.” If you’ve ever interviewed agencies, you’re probably familiar with such phrases. Every agency has a way of doing things they have developed over time to deliver a great product. Yes, us included. In a service industry like ours, it can be a big differentiator. And if you've ever worked with an agency on a creative technology project, you are likely familiar with a lot of artifacts from designers or developers as well. Things like mockups, documents, spreadsheets, flows and wireframes. Agencies flaunt their artifacts in the sales process as evidence of a bullet-proof way of doing creative work. Process and deliverables are both critical to creating good work, but it’s important to understand why, and the differences between each, before accepting the gospel of any process pitch into your heart.
How process and deliverables are different
The way we do things vs the things we make.
At a rudimentary level, an agency’s process is nothing more than an evolved set of habits based on experience and trial and error, a series of shortcuts that helps teams like ours recognize common patterns quickly. As an agency, having a defined process helps everyone work in a similar way. In our case, we can bring new people on board quickly and do work more efficiently, and thus, produce great, consistent work at a price clients can afford.
Deliverables, on the other hand, are concrete things you can hold in your hand, designed to answer two basic questions: “do I understand this idea?” and “does it solve the problem?” We deal with complicated stuff and often creating representative analogs is the only way to communicate complex ideas. And because businesses will rarely write a blank check with “go for it” in the memo line, agencies like us have to show our thinking and prove that we are on the right track.
Risk vs cost spectrum
In the grander sense, process and deliverables are simply a means of mitigating risk. Human beings don’t like risk, we all know that. Ever since human beings were on the lookout for sabre-toothed cats we have been wary of risky situations. And while we typically don’t fear for our lives nowadays, we are all subject to the common fear of failure. To an agency, failure means losing a client, laying off employees and closing up shop. AKA “bad.” To a client, failure could mean the loss of customers and a fired CMO. Also bad. In other words process and deliverables help avoid bad situations, for a price.
Using this risk/cost spectrum idea, we can create different proportions of process and deliverables that reflect different styles of working. While I am, of course, generalizing, the process end of the spectrum typically has more client risk associated with it and is less expensive when compared to extremely deliverable-heavy projects. In the extreme case, clients are asked to trust their vendor without seeing anything until the end. While that way of working might be more efficient and cost-effective, it’s a high-risk situation. It takes a hell of a lot of client trust to work this way.
Conversely, if fleshed out concepts for every iteration of every idea can eliminate risk, theoretically. But this means spending a lot more time and money to produce artifacts that are merely representative of the project rather than working on the project itself. This way of working is also rigid and does not react well to change along the way.
Agile workflow, for example, has much more of an emphasis on process as opposed to deliverables. It is designed to react well to change and relies on activities to keep moving. Waterfall, on the other hand, is more on the side of deliverables, designed to be definite and efficient in accomplishing set goals. There are also an infinite number of styles in between. Each way of working is designed to mitigate risk, given certain criteria. However, this poses the obvious question: which style works best?
There is no one right way
Obviously, no methodology is 100% process or deliverable based and every project will have a combination of both. Tolerating some risk and accepting some costs is inevitable. However, the ratio of risk to cost is never the same between two projects. Given diverse enough projects, process ideology and fanaticism will fail. For projects that need comprehensive architecture, for example, agile doesn’t help you. You can’t iterate through a database schema and need a deliverable to define it. On the other hand, a waterfall style project that has no requirements, goals or clear direction is a recipe for guesswork and endless iterations.
Therefore, no single methodology will always work for every project. However, the success of a project can be improved by recognizing the individual risk factors associated with a given project and having a flexible work style that can adapt to each. Over the years, we have learned that some projects need to swing one way or the other. Numerous stakeholders, short timelines, small budgets, vague concepts, as well as client personalities all play a role in choosing the appropriate methodology. Avoiding dogmatism and a one-size-fits all mindset allows agencies like ours to adapt our work style as a kind of structured framework that can flex in different scenarios.
As you interview agencies and hear how they describe their approach to process and deliverables, think about your project and what you will be asking of them. Can they adapt to your way of working? How much risk are you willing to take on compared to your cost? Thinking this way won’t help you determine whose methodology is best, but it will reveal what agency methodology will work best for you.