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Episode 032

 Andi Graham

Andi Graham

WATERFALL TO AGILE

with Andi Graham

When you run a content-focused digital agency, Agile (yes, with a capital A) can be a little hard to figure out. Most of us started with no real concept of how things would get done. But we understood the design process part of digital products. Then as we got traction, we realized we'd need other people to build the projects. Waterfall works really well with these types of hand-offs. But forecasting difficulties arise making it tough to know when you can take on more work. Well, you're welcome. Here is a conversation all about making the move to Agile when you're focused on the marketing side of digital development. Oh, and there's a whole lot of honesty too, courtesy of Andi Graham.

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Full Transcript


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 going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hey everybody and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing, it is Carl. With me today I have got Andy Graham who is the CMO and the managing partner at Big Sea. How's it going?

Andi Graham:
Hi there, I'm awesome.

Carl Smith:
It has been a while since we chatted. I was trying to remember, we first met, was it at Captiva, was that Owner Camp in Captiva Island?

Andi Graham:
I was there, yes, but I think you and I met at Frontend Design Conference probably prior to that. 

Carl Smith:
You're right, I think we did. What's going Andi, how's everything going at Big Sea?

Andi Graham:
Everything is great at Big Sea, we are growing and doing some really neat projects, and working with some really neat clients and having a good time.

Carl Smith:
How many people do you have other there now?

Andi Graham:
We have 21 right now, and we just actually just brought in somebody else so it'll be 22 in a few weeks.

Carl Smith:
There you go. You know the funny think is when you walk out and realize somebody's been hired and you didn't know them, that's when it gets weird.

Andi Graham:
I am not ready for that.

Carl Smith:
It's bizarre. When somebody shows up in your project system and you're like, "Ah, who is Franklin? Is he a turtle? I think he's a turtle." When we were chatting the other day and you mentioned the migration that you took Big Sea through going from Waterfall to Agile and I was like, "I want to understand this process." If you've got to release some angst or whatever, just let it go. Tell me about first of all the decision to make the shift.

Andi Graham:
Sure. I started Big Sea in 2005 and I started it having had very little to know agency experience, and so there was no predetermined path to how I was going to run things. Being that I did most of the design, and content, and frontend development myself, adding people into the mix became a nebulous at best process. So some things I would let go of and some things I wouldn't, and the process was really very much based around what I could or felt like doing on any given project which obviously is not very scalable.

As we grew and grew, it started getting a little out of hand, it started getting to the point where it was really hard to understand our resourcing, we had no idea if we could take on a project or when we could finish it. Things would lag, clients would reappear and we'd just try to jump on the work as best we could. It was clear for a number of years that we needed a better process and our project managers needed a better eye into how we were managing our day-to-day work, and how clients were getting thing delivered to them as well.

I should note that we don't do a lot of huge development projects so Agile is not something that would be uniquely suited to what we do, most of our projects are sort of marketing-oriented websites and we actually have about 70% of our businesses also marketing retainer contracts. We have much more of a traditional web design and development type of business, not app dev, it's not mobile dev, it's not stuff where you take technologists who are used to working in that environment.

I liked the process, I like the language around Agile, I like the philosophy of Agile, I like the freedom of, sort of flexibility that comes with Agile, and so I wanted to figure out how to make it work and how we could get a closer grasp of what we were working on everyday. I merged with another agency about a year and a half ago and we realized that as we were fighting for who's process was going to take over, we kind of realized that it was a perfect time to introduce something totally unfamiliar to any of us.

Carl Smith:
There you go.

Andi Graham:
That's what we did.

Carl Smith:
What was it about Agile that made you think it would solve those problems you were having?

Andi Graham:
Being that we are a marketing and content first organization, we really focus on the story. We like the idea of focusing on user stories. We like the idea of focusing on problems, of focusing on where we're trying to get with solutions. So when we talk form a marketing perspective, that's really easy, right? We're trying to grow awareness, we're trying to increase leads, we're trying to achieve these specific things and then we back up our tactics from there.

Using those as stories and as problems we were trying to solve made a lot of sense, but from the web design perspective, that's a very different sort of way of talking about websites but it's something we'd always tried to encourage our client to do. You know, you've sat in across the table from somebody who's come to you and said, "Oh, we want this functionality, it has to look like this or do this, or scroll like this, or flip like this, and we wanna slider here with three slides and yada yada."

When you take the Agile process or when you're sort of looking at things from an Agile philosophy perspective, we can back that up and say, "Well that's great that you wanna slider there, but what's- what's the actual problem that it's solving? What are we actually trying to do with that piece of functionality or piece of the website?" It sort of changed the language around how we write contracts, it changed the language around everything we do. 

When we talk about billing and things like that which I'm sure we'll get into, you can limit the time, you can limit the scope or you can limit the budget. There's this three boxes we can fit thing into. When you're building something digital, that limit of scope never works, it never. It just doesn't work. There is not a client in the universe who you build something and then they go, "This is perfect, let's call it done." No, they're saying, "Well you know what, maybe let's move this above this, or change this, or move this over here. I'm not really crazy about white, let's may it gray or whatever those things are."

When you limit scope you really limit those sort of changes and you punish people for having ideas at the wrong point of the process, so we wanted to change that.

Carl Smith:
How did you prepare yourself before you told the team? Because I can only imagine that there are going to be a lot of questions and you want to not necessarily have all the answers, but at least have a good fundamental basis to stand on. What did you do before you shared it with the team?

Andi Graham:
That's a good question. I think that most of my team had heard me talking about it for a very long time and mentioning it. I come back from conferences all the time and they call it hurricane Andi. I come in with a list of all kinds of changes, and ideas and things that I want people to start implementing or learning about right away. That stuff, it had been sort of in the hopper for a little bit but I wasn't sure how to do it. I didn't know how to change internally and how we could change our relationships with clients in a way that would make it effective.

We had to get everybody on board obviously and teach them about it. I write an email to the team every Monday morning and I usually write them on Sunday mornings, and I schedule it for 8 AM Monday morning. It's called making waves Monday. Sometimes it features a TED talk and then all kinds of research about something motivational or inspirational or things like that. I used my Monday emails to introduce the idea of Agile and all of the different parts and pieces of Agile, and how different people approach it, and what is a user story, and how are they used in marketing, and how are they used in content development. I introduced the Agile philosophy and its originis.

It's just a 10-minute read that my team do every Monday morning. After about six weeks of that I kind of formulated a plan of here's how we're going to approach it and here's the small changes we're going to make, and one of them was just setting up boards that were in the structure of how we wanted to plan things. We introduced sprint planning, and then we introduced the daily standup's, and we sort of introduced some of the rituals without any pressure to change internal process right away so that people could get used to the rituals that came with sprint planning, and with Scrum and with Agile. That worked.

Carl Smith:
You left the core process in place and then just started adding some of the Agile, I guess, what would you call it? I guess the agile techniques?

Andi Graham:
Yes, the methodology versus the philosophy.

Carl Smith:
On the current process.

Andi Graham:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
Was that fun for the team?

Andi Graham:
I think it was. We really only had one person who's a little bit grumbly about it. Our PMs really rose to the challenge and embraced it. We have one project manager who actually has been outstanding with embracing sort of the Scrum management of things, and so we've deemed her Scrum master and she runs two different teams here, so the division of teams was really easy in the way that that worked. We're small enough that it didn't have to be a huge issue. It wasn't like we were breaking up the designers and saying, "You know, you guys each go to your own team, now you can never work together again." There's seven producers on our design and dev team, so it's one team.

Carl Smith:
You put the methodology in place.

Andi Graham:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
How do you start to change the process itself?

Andi Graham:
There's the fun part. We had to change our proposals so it had to start form the sales funnel. What we did was move into weekly sprints, our design and dev team do weekly prints, our marketing do bimonthly sprints because we do marketing retainers based on months. The marketing team actually, that transition was fairly simple. We said we already planned your stuff in this way, we plan quarters and then we plan months. But now we are going to actually get you on the phone once a week for a phone call for 10 minutes, we're going to review everything we've done, we're going to talk about what we're doing next week, and we're going to change our ideas. 

Halfway through the month we have a full retro and review everything we've done and do. We make changes to what we've planned for them. Marketing actually was really easy and everybody's gotten on board really quickly and easily. The web design and dev team on the other hand, they'd meet weekly, they have sprint planning on Monday mornings, retros on Friday afternoons. 

We kind of just moved all the work into those planning sessions into the sprint, and then we started writing new proposals that time boxed everything. We said, "Here is how we're gonna approach your things, here's the overall goals that we wanna achieve." They are sort of a really general user stories which is our proposals. It's like one simple page. Then here is sort of your weekly timeline, here we're going to have the four-year kickoff meeting, we're going to have a really basic content strategy, maybe we'll have aware frame done. 

We actually come to the kickoff meeting with more than we ever did before we introduced a lot of pre-work that we push onto the client. We require all of the content be finalized before ... Which that stuff gets kind of pushed through my marketing team because our content team is a part of the marketing team. Once the content is finalized for the website then we push them into the sprints, and design and dev. They get basically four, or six or eight weeks, whatever they're paying for of us building their website. 

If by end of week one we've got the homepage fully developed, and responsive and QA'd, content loaded in. End of week two we've got maybe two or three internal page templates, content loaded in. End of week three or four we've got all of the page sort of content loaded in as best we can. Whatever this looks like, I'm thinking of like a fairly simple, low budget, WordPress website. Then we QA for another week or so and make changes, and updates and things like that, but you're limited into here's your six weeks that you paid for. If we want to extend that we can, but let's talk about it and how necessary it is.

The biggest piece of this is including the client, so the client's a part of the conversation and why things did or did not happen, or could or could not happen. Knowing that we are working these hours for you, we're here, we're doing our best, we couldn't get this done, how do you want us to handle it? Do you want us to leave it off the table or do you want us to move on to the next things that we are planning for next week.

Carl Smith:
Got you. What was the biggest hiccup with the team? Because figuring that they're used to a handoff mentality, and now they're in a more a free flow working together. What was the thing that stuck them up a little bit? 

Andi Graham:
It's still sticking them up. I think we're still stuck in the mentalities that surrounded Waterfall which is A, the clients don't get us what we need when we need it and so we don't understand how to sort of pull them out of our plan for the next week and move them forward. Whether that's an approval, or that somebody didn't see that was supposed to see it, or the content piece has been really tough, people don't understand how much work is involved in content. When we're writing about genetic testing for instance, we can't make it up so we need your input. That's been a hiccup.

The other thing is clients are so used to that Waterfall this, then this, then this, then this process that it's very hard to coach them out of that and to get them engaged. 

Carl Smith:
The other part I was thinking, I was thinking, okay, so the team is going to change but then the clients especially your legacy clients, and in the State of the Industry report that we just sent out, 75% of revenue is coming from existing clients for most bureau shops. You said you've got a lot of retainers as well. How did you prepare the clients, the existing clients? 

Andi Graham:
Actually my content director used lots of bits and pieces of the making waves emails I had sent to the team where I was pumping them up to get exited about Agile, and she crafted this really beautiful persuasive email that went out to all of our clients and said, "Here is what we're doing, here is how we're doing, here's why we're doing it, here's how it's going to benefit you." Most clients were very excited and ready to get onboard, a couple of them are like, "Ugh, weekly phone call, I don't know if I can put up with that."

I know you Carl, you've always done those weekly emails with the progress report and things, we've taken those off the table. Instead of the PM spending 20 minutes pulling numbers and writing this report, they just jump on a phone call, and in 10 minutes they talk about what they've done and they show their work and we all are in the same page again. It also helps strengthen client relationships in my opinion.

Especially when we have to deliver bad news, when they're able to say, "Hey, you know, we didn't get this done and we thought we were going to. I'm sorry, this was a little bit more difficult, they're technically challenging or the design was a little bit different than we expected."

Carl Smith:
How has your billing changed from Waterfall to Agile in terms of the way that you have estimate and the way that you invoice? 

Andi Graham:
Unfortunately, it hasn't changed in the way that we would like it to. We moved off hourly altogether and we still do very much value-based pricing, but we bill mostly in milestones. Upfront, week two, week four and we six, and we bill at the milestone whether or now we've hit ... The milestone is time-based or deliverable-based, and so it when we deliver designs or at week two, or when we deliver, and it's all based on that schedule that we set out. 

It kind of encourages clients to get a little butt kicking that they need to get us the stuff we're waiting on or to keep the process moving forward because they're going to be billed regardless. There are many instances where we've built 100% of a project but we're only maybe 50% finished with it because the clients disappeared or didn't get us what we needed, or whatever is going on.

Carl Smith:
That's really interesting, I like that idea. I'm curious, how often do you get the deliverable ... It's about delivering not deliverables. How often do you reach that milestone before the time-based milestone.

Andi Graham:
Never.

Carl Smith:
Never, okay. That's what I was going to ask. Really you're still kind of billing in a time increment.

Andi Graham:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
But I happen to get done faster, you've got this little nice safeguard where you can get paid early or on time.

Andi Graham:
Yes, on time, exactly. It hasn't been an issue, and our project managers do our invoicing and they have the freedom to you know, "Hey, they're waiting on this stuff" or "Our team couldn't do this" or whatever these issues are, or somebody got sick or went on vacation, or whatever it is so it pushed off this by two weeks. They can delay the invoice going out for a week, or two weeks or whatever it is. They can use their judgment on those things. 

Carl Smith:
How do you handle clients who say they like it better the old way?

Andi Graham:
We haven't had that happen yet thankfully.

Carl Smith:
Really?

Andi Graham:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
That's great. 

Andi Graham:
Our clients, they're so much forward progress when you tell them at the end of week one you're going to have a finished, completed, ready to go this. We have had so many clients, so the process that we use for our web dev perspective is we launch the site the minutes it's better than the old one whether it's complete or not. For many websites that means we still have six, or eight or 10 weeks of work to do and content to finish and all these other things. Our clients love that.

We're launching a site right now, the client currently has 200 and some pages on their site and we're launching with 12 at the end of next week.

Carl Smith:
I love that.

Andi Graham:
Yes. Most clients are really excited. Yes, let's hide this embarrassing stepchild that we've been trying to shove into the closet for the past year and a half. 

Carl Smith:
Two things, and you know this because you did it, I'm just listening to it. First of all, is it better than what we have now? Yes. Okay. That shows progress. As soon as you go live, the pressure on the client to deliver, they've now got a public facing communication that is not complete and so they had to better get off their ass, it's like time to go.

Andi Graham:
Yes, exactly. The other thing as we can then test. Our whole thing is from a marketing perspective, we want to watch analytics, and lead conversions and things like that, and we can actually alter later sprints and say, "Listen, we were talking about developing this entire section of your site, but we really wanna focus on changing the stuff we did" which happens, you know. We don't know. Every brand new website is at everyone's best guess. Of course it's based on all of our expertise and yada yada, but we won't know until we have data of whether or not we need to change those things. It gives us the freedom to sort of redefine goals or redefine sort of what the structure of the work looks like.

Carl Smith:
Agile is one of those terms that has a lot of different meanings to different people, right?

Andi Graham:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
Even people we've read the manifesto still have different concepts. Have you had a client come in who expected a different flavor of Agile?

Andi Graham:
No, not at all thankfully. The client we're working on right now that I keep talking about with genetic testing, that is the same client who is letting us launch with 12 pages on their website next week. He came from an agency world, a tech agency world where they worked in an Agile process. He's been really knowledgeable about the methodologies of Agile. He also knows that because we're a marketing agency and because we have content and design and things that don't fit usually neatly into the most of the Agile methodologies, he's really been interested in sort of how we approach those things. He's been 100% onboard with like however we want to do as long as we're getting the work done and it looks good. 

Carl Smith:
That's very fortunate to have. That's a new client?

Andi Graham:
We've been with them for about six months now, five months.

Carl Smith:
Did they go through a transition or you're already full Agile?

Andi Graham:
Yes, we were full Agile when we started working with them. We also see projects a lot of times now, we do the growth driven design. We'll sell a website project and break it up into 12 monthly payments, and then we get as much done as we can every month based on sort of what the budget looks like.

Carl Smith:
Have you had any clients come back and say, "You said you were gonna do it and you didn't do it. Why should I pay?"?

Andi Graham:
No, because they're always on weekly phone call and know exactly why something is or is not getting done. 

Carl Smith:
We are shattering the myths Andi, we're shattering them left and right. Stop your reasons why you can't do it. If there's somebody out there listening right now and they are majority Waterfall, right? Because we have different things that we tweak and do, what advice would you give them if they're ready to make the move to Agile?

Andi Graham:
For us it was really about reading as much as we could, I mean we absorbed every bit of information available to us. We read everybody's blog post about how they transformed, and what they looked at and who they used. We looked at bringing in experts to help us with the transition and we decided we needed it to be our own flavor, it needed to work within the way that we run our business in other ways as well. That was my biggest thing, is that we can do this without it having to fit into some prescribed box. That literally is philosophy of Agile, is that it's flexible and it's about the people involved and not about the process.

We approached the Agile implementation using an Agile approach. Keep it flexible and make it fit for what you need it to be and use it for its benefits. If something is not working then abandon it.

Carl Smith:
Andi, that's a great advice. I want to thank you for being with us today on the Bureau Briefing and congratulations on your transition, and also on the merger, it sounds like that went well.

Andi Graham:
Yes, it's been great, thank you.

Carl Smith:
I hope we get to see you again soon, it's been awhile.

Andi Graham:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
You're just a few hours south from me, I could just get my car and come down.

Andi Graham:
But it is a long few hours across a very boring stretch of Florida. 

Carl Smith:
It really is. Well everybody, thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.


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