Tips for quitting the blame game and becoming a game changer

During my recent Adweek webinar, sponsored by OpenText Hightail, I examined ways to avoid the “client-agency blame game,” a syndrome with many symptoms, including clients dissatisfied with project outcomes and agencies feeling like clients keep changing their minds. This syndrome, which I named the “Agency Hamster Wheel,” has its origins in the intrinsic challenges that agencies and their clients face around defining and understanding scope. The syndrome reinforces itself in ways harmful to agency productivity, with constant rework and robbing of healthy projects for resources to fix failing ones.

We had great engagement from the attendees of the webinar, and there was an excellent list of follow-on questions, many of which I hope to address in this blog post. If you didn’t already see the webinar, I recommend you watch it first for context. 

Who should do the scoping?

I often get asked if agency teams and clients should be scoping together. This is likely a misinterpretation of one of my key points: project success only happens when agency teams and clients understand scope in the same way.  Said differently, the project is over when the team has built what the client expects to see.  So, both parties should understand scope deeply and in the same way, but process-wise, having the agency team form its own perspective on scope and solution creates a much richer dialogue for the clients to respond to, plus it allows the agency to demonstrate its thinking, and ultimately, its value. Defining scope is an agency-driven task, while reviewing and aligning should be a joint activity.

Another version of “Who scopes?” has to do with the participants within the agency, specifically, whether senior personnel should be the ones doing the scoping.  The idea is intuitive, but wrong: Senior people will bring more expertise to the table. There is both a good body of research supporting that it’s wrong, and we have demonstrated it empirically in our trainings: 1) senior personnel (managers and leads, as we all them) tend to have several types of estimation bias that are far worse (or at least harder to manage to) than those of junior members; and 2) team-based scoping creates better execution because, through the act of scoping, team members take more ownership of outcomes, and are actually more thorough; and 3) team members benefit from the sensation of autonomy that a well-designed scoping process provides, increasing their productivity, quality and engagement.

Lastly, a very pragmatic reason validated by our work with over 100 agencies, about half of the chaotic and interruptive noise inside of an agency comes from people trying to understand scope once the project has started.  That is, the team (or client) being confused about what the scope or solution are.  Yes, Mount Death March (see the webinar) is a noisy place.

Doesn’t involving so many people in scoping take too much time?

I had one client explain it as follows: Only floss the teeth you want to keep. You want projects that don’t destroy other projects? Then take the time to start them right and keep them aligned. The payback is probably something like 5X or more for that project. And then factor in the value of less “contagion” that destroys other good projects, along with higher client and team member retention. It ends up being a pretty good amount of value that you can save.

And yes, the hard part, like with your teeth, is the discipline required: you must set the time aside … and I would argue that with the numbers above, you can’t afford not to. Once they’ve learned to make the upfront investment to scope properly, most agencies we’ve worked with see tremendous savings financially and large, positive changes in employee and client satisfaction. The payback is strong.

But what if scope still changes?

Scope will almost always “change,” in part, because agency projects start with so much uncertainty, and the shift from not knowing to knowing is, in fact, a change. What most agencies and clients struggle with is that lacking scope alignment, it’s not clear what a change is! If the client and agency had never discussed a given point—for example, maybe the client hadn’t even thought about what it should be—then why is the first (or second) opinion about it a “change?” Having a strong basis of what the scope is (and isn’t) helps guide both parties in the discussion of what the cost and time implications will be.

One other related point: Direct feedback from the client to the team (and vice versa) creates superior results.  You may be surprised to hear that clients are often more agreeable when the team members are in the room. The team also benefits from direct communications and being able to ask questions directly to better understand the feedback, speeding the feedback and learning loops whole increasing transparency.

What can clients do?

We had a lot of clients on the webinar—how awesome is that? Clients can also play a role in ensuring proper scope alignment. Partner with your agencies and insist that they have their team walk you through the scope. Make sure it is a conversation—that you understand what they are saying—not a recitation or lecture. As a participant in the scoping review process, do your best to identify what’s not known and where the risks are; hearing your comfort with these important topics can put your agency at ease, creating better conversations. Engaging your team with agency team members at all levels will also improve the quality of the work. As humans, we’re wired to enjoy working together better than apart.

For more information on how to stop the agency-client blame game from killing your productivity, please watch the webinar on demand.


About the author

Jack founded AgencyAgile, an agile transformation and coaching firm that helps agencies, marketers and other complex service organizations empower their teams to greater results and satisfaction. He formerly was a senior analyst at RAND, where he developed an approach to flat organizations and workplace inclusion that in the words of one publication is “successfully transforming adland.”

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