Read More
Dave Prior

Dave Prior

Fact: Digital agencies struggle with Agile. It feels like a private club with a secret handshake. But if you get in it will open up a world of faster and better project management. The problem is it never quite fits with how a shop works. One solution is to lowercase the "A", or "a" if you will. What does that even mean? Listen in as Dave Prior, PMP, PMI-ACP, CSM, CSPO, CSP and CST shares his insights from over 20 years of helping teams and individuals manage their work in the most effective way possible.

Want to learn more? Catch Dave's workshop at the Digital PM Summit this October in Vegas!

Announcer: 
Welcome to the Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital. An organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're gonna talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hey everybody, and welcome to The Bureau Briefing. It is Carl, and with me today I have got Mr. Dave Prior. He has all the certifications you can imagine. In fact, I'm not even going to start. Oh, hell I am gonna list them. PMP, PMIACP, CSM, CSPO, CSP, CTS, and VIP if you ask me. Mr. Dave Prior.

Dave Prior:
Thank you.

Carl Smith:
How's it going, Dave?

Dave Prior:
Good, man. How you doing?

Carl Smith:
I'm doing good, and I'm in a totally goofy mood so it just hits. I'll probably have the giggles the whole show. Now, you're gonna be joining us at the Digital PM Summit, which is in Vegas this October 15th through 17th, and you're gonna be talking about hacking agile.

Dave Prior:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
And I love this, because as somebody who ran a digital studio, man, we couldn't figure out agile.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
So what do you see when you're talking with studio owners that they struggle with all the time?

Dave Prior:
Well, it comes up in a lot of the classes. So I get a lot of digital students in the CSM and the CSPO classes, and they're all trying to figure out how to make it work because so much of it seems at odds with the way that most of the are run and have been run for a really long time. So the whole idea of stable teams are only working on one thing for one client is very challenging if you're used to an environment where you're switching people around all the time and everybody's working on 13 or 14 things. I think for a lot of folks, it represents a bit of a barrier. And one of the things I've been trying to do in the past couple years when I've been at the summit is finding ways to kind of adapt it. I personally feel like there needs to be a different format for agile, or some kind of different framework that's better suited to the type of work agencies do.

Carl Smith:
I appreciate you saying that, because agile has always felt like ... I don't know, it was almost like a club you had to join. As somebody who was running a studio, I was worried I wasn't gonna know the handshake, or I was gonna say something wrong and suddenly somebody was gonna lowercase my A.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
Right?

Dave Prior:
Well, when I took my class they actually, first I said I was a PMP and they booed me. And later on, I talked about fixing people's estimates, and I think at one time I referred to people as resources and they threw stuff at me.

Carl Smith:
Oh.

Dave Prior:
That happens to me all the time. I think if you're gonna be hanging around agile people you're gonna have to just accept that at some point you're gonna be wearing the dunce cap and sent to the corner.

Carl Smith:
At DPM camp, and I'm not sure, it might have been Tara Simon who said this. Or, they were quoting somebody else. But they said, "If you can call me a resource, I get to call you overheard."

Dave Prior:
Nice. That's good.

Carl Smith:
And I was like, "Oh, my goodness." So you went in, and you mentioned you were a PMP and you got booed. You said resources, so I totally get that. And agile, like the true discipline.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
Has been around forever, right? And you've been doing this for almost a couple of decades.

Dave Prior:
Well, I don't know. I've been managing projects for over 20 years, and more than the last 10, at least, has been spent fully just focusing on agile. But before that, I spent about eight years trying not to do it. So I was around it. I just hated it, and thought it was stupid, and didn't want any part of it. So the stuff that I do, like the session or the classes that I teach, the focus that I have is really on the fact that when I went through that transition it was really, really, painful and there wasn't anybody to kind of explain a lot of it and it helped me understand how it was gonna work. So the work that I do, kind of professionally, is focused on making that suck just a little bit less for somebody else than it did for me.

Carl Smith:
What was it that finally convinced you, after those eight years, "Oh, hell. I gotta do this."

Dave Prior:
Well, one, there was sort of an intervention meeting where a bunch of developers sat me down in a chair and stood around me in a circle, and one of them pointed 

Carl Smith:
Was duct tape involved?

Dave Prior:
No. Well, emotional duct tape. They sat me down, and they stood in a circle, and of them looked at me and said, "Dude, you've gotta stop with this waterfall crap." And he said, "We've proven that it doesn't work." And it seemed like the agile people always say, "We've." Like, "The universe. Except you, you dumb bastard. We know it doesn't work." And so I went off and I got certified in scrum. I took a CSM class.

Carl Smith:
Right. 

Dave Prior:
And I came back and went into the room like, "Guys, I learned scrum." And one of them turned around, like didn't even fully turn around. Just turned his head around, looked at me, and said, "Scrum? Please. Scrum is full of waste. We do lean." And I was like, "Ah. Now I gotta go learn something else."

Carl Smith:
Ugh.

Dave Prior:
There's not as much, but there's still a bit of the dogmatic thing. There's some people that are a little bit snooty about different flavors of agile. But at the end of the day, nobody's gonna give you a bonus for being super agile. It's about delivering value for your customer, and trying to treat people like human beings. I think however you can go about doing that is a big win. In the context of digital, there are practices that you can employ and there's lots of different things you can do to head in that direction. But I still think that there's some kind of inherent issues with that model and the relationship with the customer that bring a lot of challenges. So in the session, I'm hoping to kind of dig into that a little bit further and explore some things people might be able to do so that when they leave they have some tactical steps they can take to try to move more in the direction of agile.

Carl Smith:
I have this desire right now to just, loud and proud, promote waterfall. 

Dave Prior:
Have at it. Let's go. I can fight this debate on a developers side.

Carl Smith:
I want to see either side, so. Let's sit a developer down, and surround him, and go, "Look. I've been trying this agile crap, and it just doesn't work. We've shown that waterfall works."

Dave Prior:
I don't think that argument's gonna last very long.

Carl Smith:
I don't think it is either. Because as well as, you know, the well-being of the team and the client, it's also the bottom line. And it does feel like agile gets to the finish line with a better product faster.

Dave Prior:
I think it does. I think you might not get everything the customer needs. Yeah, I heard they're everything the customer says that they want when they walk in the door, but my experience has been that most of the time the customers don't necessarily know what they need. They just have this idea of a solution to a problem. And a lot of the people who do the work have a tendency to kind of jump the gun and say, "Oh yeah, we know how to do that" when they haven't really figured it out.

Carl Smith:
Right.

Dave Prior:
So this whole idea of fast feedback loops and just learning is ... You know, in kind of a partnered environment, is meant to help get to a better solution even if it doesn't include everything that the customer said they had to have when they came in the door.

Carl Smith:
And I'll tell you, the reason I think most digital agencies, ones that do have more of a creative element. Not that everybody doesn't have a creative element, but I mean in the sense of, you know, more design oriented.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
They hate spec documents anyway, right?

Dave Prior:
Well, and they don't read them. Yeah.

Carl Smith:
No. And if they do, they don't understand them.

Dave Prior:
Right.

Carl Smith:
And it's just so nasty your brain shuts off. That's why you're in the creative space, because you couldn't focus on that crap for that long.

Dave Prior:
Yeah, and I think a parallel would be if you built, you know, something for a customer and did all the design work, and built the entire thing out, and never showed them anything until the end.

Carl Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave Prior:
Design needs that iterative approach, and so does the rest of the work. We're just trying to spread it down to the rest of the system.

Carl Smith:
And that's definitely been a change. I even saw it in nGen in 2003 when we started. Like, you know, that traditional advertising model was, you know, show three things. 

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
And throw away two of them. And honestly, show the one thing you like, the other one that's okay, and the one 'cause you needed three.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
When we started at nGen, we just told people. If we knew we were going against a shop like that we'd be like, "They're throwing away 66% of your budget."

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
Like, why would you let them do that? Do they not know what's gonna work? But then again, if we were going against the person that was showing one we'd say, "How can they only show you one?" Right? So we would always just position that way. But what do you see? When you're talking with a digital agency, what are the things they hold on to? What are their comfort points that they don't like to let go of when it comes to agile?

Dave Prior:
I think that they don't want to let go of this idea of, you know, being able to move people around from team to team and having them work on multiple things at once.

Carl Smith:
Hmm.

Dave Prior:
Because the nature of running one of those businesses is, you need a lot of clients and they all want different things at different times. And the only way to keep everybody, you know, fully billable is to have them work on a whole bunch of stuff at once. And so that's part of the challenge. I think one thing that they might, agencies might want to let go of but that is just built into the nature of the relationship is, to say it in a very crude way, the agency is basically the client's bitch. And the client gets to say, you know, snap my fingers, do this now. And the relationship has always been that the client, you know, the agency responds immediately.

Carl Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave Prior:
I don't know if that's changeable or not, but I did have a customer. Or, I had two people in my class last week that came to find out how to work better with the digital agency. So that was the first time that's ever happened, it was pretty amazing.

Carl Smith:
That is amazing. And I'll tell you, what I've seen is you've got digital agencies emerge from one of two places. Either advertising agencies, or software companies.

Dave Prior:
Yup.

Carl Smith:
Right? And when they came out of software companies, they're used to weekly billing. They're used to more agile approach, they're used to saying no. Right? When they come out of agencies, advertising agencies, they're more relationship based. They want the client to be happy, all this type stuff. But there were also other shops that came out of advertising agencies. Engine, my shop, was one of them where we said we were gonna be project based, not relationship based. And this was horrible. I mean, we lost a lot of really good work, probably.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
But the idea was, we want the work to be as good as possible and we didn't realize you could do that with the client, right?

Dave Prior:
Yeah. 'Cause the client's the enemy.

Carl Smith:
We thought the client was the enemy.

Dave Prior:
Right. Yeah.

Carl Smith:
It's like, "Okay, nGen. I have 25,000 dollar deposit I'm gonna give you, and then I'm gonna try to screw it up." No, never.

Dave Prior:
Right.

Carl Smith:
They don't give you the money and then try to derail you.

Dave Prior:
Well, I don't think they're trying to derail you. I mean, there's two sides to it. I don't think they're trying to derail you, I think that one of the challenges is gonna be they're very accustomed to working in a way where they throw stuff over the wall. 

Carl Smith:
Right.

Dave Prior:
And that's gotta change. Like, that is one thing that has to be altered if you want to move to a more agile state. The other thing is, you know, you kind of brought this up earlier. Where they give you the money, and they're expecting three designs, and you're gonna throw two of them away. I think a lot of agencies on the design heavy side got to get away with the ... Well, you know, we know. We're the experts, you should trust us. And it was this bravado thing. That may be true, but I think the more you can educate the client and make them part of the decision-making process, the more likely it is that they'll get to an end state where, I don't know if they'll be happy, but they'll get what they need. I'm a big believer in not being responsible for happiness because that's impossible.

Carl Smith:
I wish you would talk to my wife. Oh, my god.

Dave Prior:
Well, I didn't say this stuff applies to marriage. I'm just talking about work.

Carl Smith:
Oh. Okay. I thought we were hacking marriage. That's not what we're doing here?

Dave Prior:
Well, it is iterative, right? If your wife came with acceptance criteria it would be much easier.

Carl Smith:
Oh, man. I'm so glad she doesn't listen to this show. So talking about agencies, and talking about this desire to have people on multiple projects.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
Now, there are shops that get away from that that wouldn't consider themselves agile. And I think it's because they know it's better for the project. They might have people on two projects at a time. One that's a fallback in case the first project stalls out.

Dave Prior:
Sure.

Carl Smith:
So when you go to, not even a pure agile, but let's say, you know, it's whatever this kind of hybrid is for a digital agency. Can you get away with having more than one project, or is one project a requirement?

Dave Prior:
I mean, there's going to have to be ways to do it. If this is gonna survive in a digital model, I just can't see how the economics would work out, you know? Unless everything was, all the projects, were so big and so full on that everybody could be fully dedicated.

Carl Smith:
Right.

Dave Prior:
But maybe you can get to stable teams. If you could have a team of people that, you know, this core stays together all the time.

Carl Smith:
Right.

Dave Prior:
And then the benefit you get there is the relationships, the understanding of their capacity for work, estimation gets better, the communication flows better, and they perform at a much higher level that would allow them to maybe take on more than one thing at a time. Because for them, it's just work. You know, a lot of companies want to do scrum. But in some situations, kanban is a much better fit for a lot of organizations.

Carl Smith:
Now, explain kanban for a second. 'Cause I am gonna out myself and say that I have no experience with it whatsoever.

Dave Prior:
So it comes out of manufacturing.

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Dave Prior:
And there's a lot of practices that have and I'll try to give a very simple explanation. At least how I look at it. So it looks a lot like scrum, but it's a little bit different. The idea is that you would have a queue. So everybody wants work, it all gets in line. So let's say you have a design department that's so small you can't have a design person on each team. So maybe the design group is working in kanban, and so there's this list that's growing all the time of new stuff people want. They take on thing at a time, move it across the board, and get it to done. And everybody is just kind of handled in the order in which they're in line.

You can build escalation paths in there, but the focus shifts a little bit in this type of approach in that, one, you're trying to limit the amount of work in process. So you're only gonna do a couple things at a time. Two, you can't move anything into a doing column until you move something out. So that's part of limiting your WIP. So if I want to bring in something new, I've gotta finish something first. And you're constantly delivering, so you don't have to wait for the end of the iteration. So that's one of the reasons a lot of people switch from scrum over to something like kanban, 'cause you can just ship all the time. 

What I found is that the way that you look at the work changes. So in scrum, you have a retrospective. And in kanban, you still have that too. But what you're measuring are things like queue time. So if I'm at, you know, position five waiting for my thing to move into doing, on average how long will it be 'til I get it out the other side? And you can start to find ways to try to manage efficiency in the work flow. So, you go into conversations about how do we work smarter and better? And that can be very beneficial. I think another probably big shift, kinda jumping away from your question, is that in this, in an agile approach, and this would apply to scrum or to kanban, everybody has a specialty. But they deliver as a team. So if I'm a coder, it doesn't mean that I'm not gonna do other types of stuff. I might do QA, I might write a little bit. Because the whole team has to become this unit that instead of ... Instead of being a group of individuals, is a collective eye.

Carl Smith:
And is that true in kanban as well as in agile? 

Dave Prior:
Yes. Yeah.

Carl Smith:
Okay. Do you find that digital agencies are more receptive of kanban? 

Dave Prior:
I think it's a better fit for a lot of them, just because the nature of, you know, you've got small groups. You might have a couple designers, a couple developers, and how they're gonna handle that work flow if they're still siloed. That can be one of the ways to start to understand how you could become more agile. So kanban is easier for a lot of people to switch to because it doesn't ask you to change the way scrum does. It just wants you to map out how you work. And if you're studying that, you might start to realize, "Well, you know, we've got these guys all separated. Maybe it would make more sense, or we should try and experiment, where we just put 'em together. And let them move stuff across the board together, and get things like better cross-functionality. Help them be better at self-organizing, things like that so they can take more ownership of the work." 

Carl Smith:
Now, do the people who believe in kanban also hold interventions, or is that just agile?

Dave Prior:
What do you mean interventions? You mean like the-

Carl Smith:
Where they sit you down, and get around you in a circle, and flog you until you agree?

Dave Prior:
Oh, no. I think that was just because of me. I was so waterfall-oriented. I mean, and I love water. I love that stuff. I got a masters degree in it. I mean, it's a really big deal to me and I love the order of it, but it just doesn't work with

Carl Smith:
It just doesn't work.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
So what would you say are the mandatories? 'Cause when we're talking about, you know, hacking agile so that it works more for a digital agency, what would you say are some of the mandatories that a digital agency is just gonna have to accept?

Dave Prior:
So I'm gonna have to start of by ... I work for a company called Leading Agile, and one of the big things that Mike Cottmeyer, the founder of the company, believes is that there's three things that are, you know, immovable. You have to have stable teams, you have to have a well-formed product backlog, and you have to be able to regularly deliver working tested software. If you don't have those, your ability to agile is really in a dangerous spot. Now, I think it's possible for agencies to get to a point where they have a really well-formed product backlog, and that they're able to deliver working test- You know, elements of work in a short cycle. 

The struggle is gonna be those stable teams, especially if you've got people spread across multiple projects or multiple clients. But that's where I would advocate for have a stable team. If they have to do 50 things, let's just start out there. So at least it's the same core people working together, and they can develop efficiencies in their interaction that will help them better manage the fact that they're working on, you know, however many different projects at once.

Carl Smith:
Now, would that also mean ... I know in a traditional agile, at least this is my understanding. I could be off on this. It could just be on pure team based. But the client has to be involved every day. Is that true?

Dave Prior:
We would like that. I think that's ideal. When I was doing agency work back in the day, when we called them web shops, I think I only had one project where that happened, where the client was showing up every day. And that was very challenging because the transparency becomes a bit of a concern. I mean, I was used to two different project schedules; the one that I gave to the customer, and the one that I used. 

Carl Smith:
Right.

Dave Prior:
So that can be tough. But if you can get client interaction at that level, that's great. If not, you're gonna have to have somebody on the agency side who knows the client well enough that they can advocate for them and made decisions for them on a regular basis.

Carl Smith:
Now, one of the things you mentioned as a requirement is a good backlog of work.

Dave Prior:
Yup.

Carl Smith:
And the ability to ship that work.

Dave Prior:
Yup.

Carl Smith:
To get it flowing. Now, for an agency or, I apologize, a shop. You know, we raised our rates. We couldn't be a shop anymore.

Dave Prior:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
When a digital agency is ready to make that move, they're gonna have to be ready for things to fall apart a little bit, I would imagine. Because you're gonna change who your clients are. If you've always had clients that stall out, and you've always had clients that you know the work shows up in a rush.

Dave Prior:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
And you have to throw people around. So, I guess that would be the thing. How do you prepare a digital agency when they're ready to make this shift?

Dave Prior:
I think that there's a slightly different question, maybe. And that is, you know ... Do they want agile so bad that they're willing to take on the role of having to re-educate the customer?

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Dave Prior:
Because that is a big rub in this spot, is that a lot of the clients, they don't understand agile. So if you want them to have that level of engagement when traditionally they've just thrown it over the wall and waited, that's pretty tough. Are you able to take that on? And if you can't have that, how are you gonna change the nature of the engagement so that you've got somebody getting the information you need so you can keep delivering. It's also important to remember that it doesn't mean you have to ship at the end of every iteration. Just the work has to be potentially shippable, meaning that there's nothing else we have to do to this except send it out the door. So it's fully designed, fully developed, fully tested, it's ready to go.

Carl Smith:
Now, do you actually engage with, say, a digital agency's clients at all? If that agency is making that shift, would you help consult and bring the agency and their clients together? 

Dave Prior:
I think that would be great, yeah. I mean, it's important for anybody who's switching to this type of work to understand that it does get you to a much better place, but not without a lot of pain and a lot of discomfort. And if you're gonna be talking to your customer, I would say, "Look. We're gonna make sure that we get you the most. You know, what you need. We're gonna deliver it to you in the order that you wanted. So not in the order that we want to develop it, but whatever is most valuable to you, we're gonna do that first." And you can change your mind all the time, and you can keep adding to the scope all the time.

But the trade off is you have to be engaged on a daily basis. You have to be involved with us at this level and become part of our team if you want that freedom. So they do get a big win, you know? There really is no scope. We're just here working for however long, for X amount of dollars, delivering whatever you need the most in the order you want it. And you can keep changing your mind, but the only way that works is if you're with us.

Carl Smith:
Right. Well, Dave, you've got me wanting to boot my shop back up and give this a go. Because, honestly, we have no clients right now so it's a perfect time to start.

Dave Prior:
There you go.

Carl Smith:
Well, thanks so much for being with us on the show today and I'm excited to sit in on your Hacking Agile workshop. And that's gonna be October 15th through 17th in Vegas at the Digital PM Summit, and we hope that you'll join us. Thanks again, Dave.

Dave Prior:
Cool. Thanks for having me, man.

Comment