Agile principles for design agencies

There are many different ways for agencies to deliver projects. Most creative agencies that I’ve seen use the waterfall method. In this method, projects are broken down into several linear phases, which are fully completed one after another from start to finish of the project. However, more and more agencies are adopting agile principles instead.

But what is agile? What benefits can it have for design agencies specifically? This blog aims to explore some of the basics, so that you can decide whether this is something that may benefit your business.

What is agile?

In order to be considered a methodology, something should clearly detail the tools and processes to be used. As such, while many people assume that agile is a standalone methodology, this isn’t really the case. Instead, it should be viewed as a mindset towards completing projects, or an ‘umbrella term’ encompassing several different methodologies such as Kanba, Scrum, and Extreme Programming.

The agile way of working for teams first occurred in 1993, implemented by Jeff Sutherland, John Scumniotales and Jeff McKenna at the Easel Corporation. In 2001, The Agile Manifesto was published. This was essentially a call to action for software developers to embrace this new, effective, and different way of creating software. Since then, the idea of agile has grown. While it is still used in the software industry, its influence is now far broader and it is used by countless businesses across the globe.

The agile approach to project management centres around incremental and iterative steps to completing a project. Teams complete tasks in ‘sprints,’ which are usually two or four weeks long, allowing for constant feedback. While the waterfall methodology focuses on delivering one, fully-complete outcome, agile can deliver several incomplete but functional iterations that are perfected during each sprint, based on feedback.

What is the best approach for design agencies?

Although using an Agile methodology, for example Scrum, can work well for a digital agency that has a development team, I don’t think it can be used in its purest form for a design agency. Most design projects have to be completed in a linear way. For example, it would not be possible to start design concepts without defining the strategy first, and any design development work would have to follow a chosen design concept. 

However, I do think there is an opportunity to use a hybrid of the waterfall methodology with agile principles to improve efficiency and in turn deliver projects more profitably. Here are a few examples:

Sprints

The Scrum methodology requires sprints. As previously mentioned, these are incremental and iterative steps with regular feedback. Within a design agency, it is common for a designer to work on the concept stage by themselves and, when they are ready or close to the deadline, to share their ideas with their creative director and client servicing team. If everyone loves the designer’s ideas, there is time to make any small adjustments before the work is presented to the client. 

However, there could be a problem if the creative director doesn’t think the work is up to standard, or the account director feels that it does not meet the brief. In this case, there will be a mad scramble to redo the work with additional resources and late nights. In the worst possible scenario you have to ask the client if the deadline can be pushed back, which is far from ideal if you want to provide an excellent service to your clients.

Although a budget is set at the design concept stage, there is no guarantee that the work will be completed to the required standard within that time. It is not until the work is reviewed internally that you’ll know if the project is on track. Now, this may not be an issue with a senior designer that has worked on a particular client for a number of years and knows what they like, but it can still be a risk.

Using the idea around sprints, the designer could instead be briefed to work on some ‘scamps’ for a day or two and then share with the wider team to get their feedback. The designer can then work up the best ideas and share ‘mac'd-up’ designs again before the final deadline. This would prevent any nasty surprises when the work is seen internally for the first time. In fact, the concepts could be a lot better with the creative director’s input at an earlier stage. 

This approach could also work well for a brand-new client when you are not sure how the work will be received. By involving the client earlier on in the concept stage, you can get their feedback and to ensure you are on the right track.

Scrum Master

Scrum requires a number of roles to execute the methodology correctly. This includes a Product Owner, the Development Team and a Scrum Master. The main role of the Scrum Master is to ensure the team is following the Scrum methodology. Although I don’t think a design agency requires a Scrum Master, they do need to know the best process to follow to deliver a project to the highest standard, within the budget, and on time.

Design agencies can benefit from mapping out their design process and, more importantly, highlighting the best practices that must be adhered to at all times. If the process is mapped out and everyone follows it, you will have a formula for successfully delivering a project without requiring additional supervision. You can find out more about process mapping and how it can help your agency thrive in this blog: What is process mapping and why does your creative agency need it?

Scrum ceremonies

Open and regular communication is a core part of Scrum, and there are four main meetings (also known as Scrum ceremonies) that teams participate in during the sprints. They are:

  • Sprint Planning
  • Daily Standup
  • Sprint Review
  • Sprint Retrospective.

As I wrote in a previous blog, too many meetings in agencies is already a problem. But, there’s no getting around the fact that they are a critical requirement for successful project delivery. The main issue is the number of meetings and the amount of time that they take away from actually doing the work. However, I do like the concept around daily standups. That is, having quick and focused meetings first thing in the morning. There are three daily standup questions;

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Is there anything blocking your progress?

This ensures that the whole team is on the same page and clear on responsibilities, which helps to keep the work on track. The added advantage is that teammates can help each other by removing blockers or impediments.

One meeting that rarely takes place in design agencies is a post-project review. That is, an equivalent to a sprint retrospective. The Scrum methodology requires the whole team to meet and discuss four main questions;

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go that well?
  • What did every team member learn?
  • What puzzles every team member?

Scrum is a process of continuous improvement, and a post-project review is an opportunity for design agencies to also review their ways of working on a regular basis.

Conclusion

Overall, while Agile is not typically the best fit for design agencies, some of the principles of Scrum can definitely be useful. After all, while methodologies may set out clear processes to be followed, you are free to pick and choose what works best for you and your agency. By implementing some of the elements of Agile, your agency can benefit from better organisation and completion of projects. In turn, this can help you to boost your profitability and reach other goals. 

While implementing new methodologies can certainly help, ensuring that your design agency reaches its goals is, unfortunately, a little more complicated than this. There are a huge range of factors that go into improving profitability, which you can read more about in this blog: There’s no silver bullet for creative agency profitability.

Many agencies choose to work with an outside expert to help them achieve sustainable profitability and other goals. I will take a deep dive into every aspect of your agency and come up with a bespoke plan to help you find the right balance between quality creative work and profitability. To find out more about what I do and how I can help you, please visit my website by clicking here, or alternatively get in touch by clicking here.

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April 18, 2021
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6 minutes
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