Agile From The Start

“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
-Douglas Adams

An entire project can be made or broken by a good or bad start. Creative projects, whether designing the Universe or a website, often get off to the wrong start, and are bogged down throughout the life of the project because of a lack of project parameters that prevent agility and rapid development. Creatives often blame clients, but it’s the responsiblity of the Designer, Art Director, Creative Director or Project Manager to set the right parameters for agile development. Agile project management by definition requires flexibility and interactivity between team members and clients.

julian_working2However, without definition and without parameters, projects can quickly get bogged down, and creative projects require some specific considerations that are somewhat different from other types of projects. This is due to two things: the first has to do with the peculiarities of the creative process and how designers think and work; and the second has to do with non-creative interested parties and team members lacking knowledge of that process. Defining the parameters of a project, and the working relationship between creatives and non-creatives are essential to making agile project management work.

The first step in any project is defining the project, or making what project managers call a Project Charter. In this document you define things like the goals of the project, critical constraints such as time or cost constraints, etc. If you are a self-employed creative you’ll be your own project manager, sitting down with the client to figure out what they want, how they want it and when they want it. If you’re a creative professional in an organization you may have to do this for external or internal clients on behalf of your team. In either case, it’s probable that the client will it understand then creative process, what information is critical, or even heat questions to ask.

Here’s an example. A friend of mine who is a graphic designer recently took on a project to design a website.  The client said “Do whatever you like, I’m sure we’ll love it.” Don’t ever believe this if a client says this to you, it’s a trap! What unfolded, and this has happened to me countless times, is that he client didn’t like any of the designs that the designer proposed. The problem is that many clients don’t know how to describe what they want, which is understandable because they didn’t go to design school and they don’t have the professional training in design language and visual literacy. However, clients always know what they don’t like.

Here’s how to avoid this trap: at the very beginning of the project, when you’re writing the project charter, you need to hold the hand of the client and define not only the goals of ex project (i.e. design a website) but also what information is needed in order to start the project, risks of things that could go wrong and delay or derail the project (i.e. the client changes their mind constantly) and what deliverables are needed to consider the project complete. Make sure the client signs off on the Project Charter before you begin, as this will save a lot of headaches later.

Going more specifically into the scenario I outlined above with the client who wanted a website, it is necessary with such clients to have a brainstorming session with them, not only to generate ideas and extract more detailed information, but to also educate the client about how the process works. Creatives certainly don’t want clients standing over their shoulder directing them what to do in PhotoShop (this has happened to me), but involving the client in the planning stage, and later in review stages, helps them to understand why the creatives are making what they are making, and helps to extract from the client what they want even when they don’t have the language to describe it.

Here are some critical questions that need to be answered in a Creative Project Charter:

  • Goal of the project (i.e. make a website for my business).
  • Critical constraints (time, money, people).
  • What is considered “complete”? (finished website and associate graphics files).
  • What’s the budget?
  • What people are needed? (graphic/web designer)
  • Key milestones in the project (i.e. mock ups of website are agreed upon by client).
  • Risk assessment: What could go wrong? (client asks for more than ten changes, etc.)
  • What is needed to start the project? (creative direction for website from client, including mood, style, examples of other websites the client likes, etc.)

This last point is critical, but following an agile management strategy all of these questions and the whole Project Charter can be completed in one meeting. If this is agreed upon and executed at the Project Charter stage before the project actually “begins,” it saves headaches down the road, most of the time will help to avoid endless change requests from the client, and will help the client understand the creative process. Each time the client wants a major change, another meeting is required to change the Project Charter, which will have a domino effect on cost, resources and schedule. This forces the client to think carefully about major changes, and can keep the project on track.

Agile project management is iterative and collaborative, but can quickly unravel.  Do not let your client stand behind you and tell you to move pixels around in PhotoShop. Do not begin projects without a clear Project Charter.  Do involve the client in brainstorming and project planning. Do discuss the Project Charter and agree upon the parameters before proceeding. And do be a teacher of the creative process. Doing so will gain you more respect and smoother sailing.