068 – Agile project management with Ben Aston

Apple Podcast Google Podcasts RSS Badge

068 – Agile project management with Ben Aston

 
 
00:00 / 00:28:02
 
1X
 

Over budget, late delivery and scope creep. Three big swear words for digital agencies. Ben from The Digital Project Manager shares how we can avoid these. You’ll also learn about Agile project management and delivering work in sprints. 

Resources mentioned in the episode

Connect with Ben

About Ben

Ben brings over 15 years of experience in both strategic thinking and tactical implementation from a career at top digital agencies including FCV, Dare, Wunderman, DLKW Lowe and DDB. He’s been fortunate enough to work across verticals including transit, utilities, FMCG, consumer electronics, eCommerce, automotive, financial services, public sector, and retail brands.

Ben’s a Certified Scrum Master, PRINCE2 Practitioner and founder of the digital project management blog, The Digital Project Manager.

Transcription

James Rose
Hello, and welcome back to Agency Highway. This is Episode 68. And today we have Ben Aston from The Digital Project Manager joining us to talk about projects that have project management and process because as you may have noticed lately, we have been talking a lot about pricing and mindset around selling more and this kind of stuff, but not so much about the process. So I'm really excited for this episode. Ben, thank you so much for joining me

Ben Aston
Cheers. Thanks so much for having me.

James Rose
So, tell us a bit about you like your agency background like Yeah, yeah. Are you qualified to talk to us?

Ben Aston
So Good question. And yeah, I started off my career in advertising agencies in London in the UK. And, and that was back in the early 2000s. And, yeah, my career has been spent at different agencies. So I started off in above the line agencies doing TV radio press. And then I discovered the worlds of interactive. So I actually started out in Wunderman Interactive and spent my career

James Rose
Did you say

Ben Aston
Wunderman Interactive

James Rose
Wow, that's a that's a word. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker
It was part of the an agency called Harrison Troughton Wunderman. That was what HTW was what was really cool. But yeah, Wunderman Interactive was where I started. And it was a great place to start because I was working on the Land Rover account. And I was working with the above the line team. So the people who are doing the radio press, and TV ads, and we're all working together in this integrated agency environment. They were their own agency, y&r and we were wunderman interactive, and we're all working on the same campaigns and projects together. So that's kind of where I cut my teeth and got into the world of digital. And then yeah, then began to specialize working as a project manager. I made that transition from account manager to project manager When I kind of realized that, actually I knew how to build stuff. And that was really useful in managing other people who were trying to build stuff. So yeah, I spent the last 15 years in different agencies in, in London and in North America.

James Rose
Yeah, that's awesome. Man. I think that makes you uniquely qualified. Because I mean, a lot of the guests that come on this show are kind of running it's like, it's their own agency, but many of them don't actually have that big agency experience. And I think you can learn a lot like whether it's good or bad. I guess we'll dig into that. From from big agencies, there seems to be a mix of stories.

Ben Aston
Yeah,

James Rose
but yeah, like that having access to those big projects I imagined would teach you a hell of a lot.

Ben Aston
Yeah, I think you you make some.

Ben Aston
You know, if you make a mistake, it becomes very obvious very quickly, and there's enormous financial consequences. Of which Yeah, I was responsible for some of those and things went wrong, but at all finessing great successes and having a visibility everyone be able to see your work on billboards and on their phones and everywhere is a is a really cool thing.

James Rose
Yeah. So I imagine like in that time, then it you mentioned mistakes, is that is that result in projects sort of going over budget and getting delivered late, that kind of thing?

Ben Aston
Yeah, well, I think when I started out in particular, it was, you know, digital was new and exciting. And clients were beginning to throw a lot of money at it, because we can start proving results with our campaigns.

Ben Aston
But yeah, things went wrong. And, you know, the beginning of my career.

Ben Aston
I started out as a project manager and didn't really realize exactly what that meant. In fact, my role at the time was called I was called a producer. And I was, I was told it's kind of the same thing as account management. But it turns out it wasn't because I had to create estimates and I had to create timelines and statements of work and I've never done that before. And the first time I did that, I was really bad at it. And I was quite a long time. And yeah, there were some horrible things that happened as a result of that of that experience. And you know, that's why I started the digital project manager. A decade later. It was because when I started out in project management, it was really hard to get any real best practice. Everyone around me had kind of been doing it for a while. And I was just kind of thrown in at the deep end and found out that I didn't really know exactly what I was doing. So that was a resource I created to help other people develop best practice and I really a playbook for digital project management.

James Rose
Yeah, and that's awesome, man, because I haven't actually seen I don't know if I've seen anyone doing similar stuff to you. And it's a it's a needed skill, project management.

Ben Aston
Yeah, and I think I think it's something that in small agencies, I've been in some small agencies and built out project management teams. and project management is one of those roles that when an agency is small. The project management as you know, is often done by the CEO. Or maybe it's done by the tech lead. But it's kind of one of those things that when a team is small, everyone does it together, it's a collaborative kind of approach. But as the team gets bigger as the projects get more complicated, you really need someone to take hold of the vision, to run with it and to be accountable to take responsibility to cast that vision. And make sure that you know, the projects delivering value at the end, but the someone's got their eyes on managing controlling it so that people are beginning to realize when things are going off the rails before they go off the rails. And that requires some proper planning, upfront maintenance. So that can happen.

James Rose
So let's talk about that. What are some best practices that you know because obviously, so many projects are delivered over budget and late and so the thing and we'll start with a like, what why do you think that's the case?

Ben Aston
Yeah, I think usually the reason why things go over budget is because they haven't been defined well enough at the beginning. And, you know, it takes experience to know the kind of questions to ask in that estimating process yet and things normally go over budget because they weren't estimated correctly in the first place. And also because of scope creep. So whether or not that's gold plating internally, because the creative director wants to make something super special because they want to win an award whether that's because the client has also, uhh, is keen to make their mark on the project and add scope. And the client or the agency just bends over backwards and says, Okay, well, you know, just this one, so we'll make an exception. But ultimately, the reason that these internal gold plating all the scope came from the client happens because the projects not fully or well enough defined up front. So that's why I think the project planning process is so important, and that we we plan things and we Um, specify as much as we possibly can upfront. And we, we're cognizant of our planning horizon. So it might be at the beginning of the projects in that discovery phase, that discovery and planning phase, all we can really plan is that discovery and planning part of the project. And that's fine. And we just need to have a, an open conversation with a client, hey, I can't give you a price and a timeline for the entire project because we're in the discovery phase. So let's have a budget and a timeline for that. And I can give you I can give you a ballpark for the entire project. But until we get to the end of that initial phase, I can't give you a full budget. And I think we sometimes just fall into the trap of, you know, a client wants to know a number. And so we give them a number and we don't really define what's included in that number. And then we go over that number, but it's because it wasn't properly planned in the first place.

James Rose
Yeah, and another way, I guess, man, that that sort of affects as a business. It's not so much like going I just imagined someone's listening to this being like, you know, over budget and like, no, this is like stuff that big agencies and big companies use, but the way it sort of manifests in small agencies, it's just like, you use up all the money that you, you basically end up with a project to make zero dollars, right, which Yeah, you know, it just cost you a bunch of months or something.

Ben Aston
But, and that will never end, right. The other thing that happens when it's not well defined, it never really ends. And you end up supporting the client until eventually you fire them or until they leave to start working with someone else. So that definition of where the, yeah, where things start and where things and is, is really critical.

James Rose
Yeah. And I really liked what you mentioned there with, like this sort of discovery, like the paid discovery, and I guess we kind of ended up doing this without realizing it. I mean, just out of necessity, with our software development, right. So we build large scale complex web applications, right. And it sounds For a while, we would try to quote stuff and then it would just go to shit as it always does. And then we realized that by doing like a UX phase, that that's what we were calling it would actually do all the discovery is, I guess you would call it, learn about what the apps going to do. Put some designs, wire frames and designs in place and agree on all of that. And that's much easier to budget if that's like a $5,000 little UX project that makes the rest of like a 60 $70,000 project go the right way. It's totally worthwhile because it's got to be done anyway. And it helps you define everything so much better.

Ben Aston
Yeah. And at that point, you've got a much better idea of the level of complexity that is going to go into the project. So I think in the discovery phase, you can base you can do analogous estimating, and you can say, hey, this platform is kind of like that platform we did three months ago. We think that's probably going to require about, you know, maybe up to 10 wire frames, and up to 10 page designs, it's going to be no more than that. It's not going to be any more complex than that. But then the functionality within those pages Well, we don't really know yet. So let's do that UX and design. And then let's estimate for development, rather than just saying, hey, yeah, sure. 100 k for the whole thing that's unfair. And they say, No, it's too expensive. And you say, Okay, well, how about 80 grand? And then you're like, Okay, yeah, deal. That's where things start falling apart.

James Rose
Yeah. So what, like, where do we go then? Like, let's say, we've planned out a project like, I guess, actually, let's stay on planning. So how, like, how detailed Do you go in planning like a use of every little feature every little page?

Ben Aston
Yeah, well, I'm trying to do is just blocking the canvas. So I'm trying to kind of like I gave that example of up to 10 pages. I'm trying to imagine the I guess almost like the worst case scenario. So if I think it's going to be seven pages probably and I've, you know, in my head or even sketched out on paper, that I A, that information architecture and that tree to show Okay, there's seven pages, and then we've got three others just in case. And so I'm trying to block in the canvas and thing, okay, well, it's probably no more than 10. So let's decide 10; 10 wireframe. There's what we're going to include within the planning phase. And then Okay, if there's 10 wireframe, there's going to be 10 page designs to do. And so I'm trying to, I'm trying to think back to other projects and think about how much work this is likely to be. But put a number next to things and say, Okay, up to 10, or no more than five. Because it's when is when you have it vague, like hey, in this discovery and planning phase, we're going to do the page designs, well, how many page designs? So the other thing I'd be trying to to limit is how many rounds of revision are we including so is this one or two rounds of consolidated feedback in a men's…..

Ben Aston
How can we how can we put numbers against things to, to block them in. And I think the other thing to think about is I mean that there's assumptions we make around the what we're going to deliver. So we're trying to find the deliverables as clearly as possible the output of this will be a PDF that contain 10 wire frames, and then it's worth that negative scope. So we will not be providing wire frames for the other thing that we talked about will not be doing any development work. We will not be doing this. So yeah, anything… anything that you spoke about in the business development phase that they could possibly have misunderstood, including as negative scope.

James Rose
Absolutely. And yeah, I've This is something we've learned the hard way that we have to do as well. So yeah, like if you just in passing talk about something else, that's like, you know, could be way down the track. It could be like talking about an MVP or something right. Like, in their minds, they could have locked that in as something that you're doing as part of this phase. So yeah, that is very, very important. So yeah, good communication.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah. And get it written down. Yeah.

James Rose
So I know another big thing you an advocate of is agile. Is that correct? agile project management?

Ben Aston
Well, what does that mean? But

James Rose
Yeah, well, I think I just was gonna say that, like, that's what we try to get our clients into now is like, running sprints. And then like having in each sprint, having certain features or things were developing, and each one of those when it's accepted, has a cost. Right? So that might be a specific page, and that we actually get paid at the end of month or something for the number of features in quotes that have been completed and accepted by the client and each, yeah, so yeah, let's talk about I jumped like, how do you define it…

Ben Aston
Well, yeah, I think Agile Project Management, I think the the misunderstood kind of classic misunderstanding that happens is that it's a another word to use for Scrum. And I think because Scrum has been become such a popular framework, and the reason I think it's become so popular is that you can do a two day course, spend $1,000 and become certified as a, you can become a certified Scrum Master of which I am one. But you can do this two day course and you become certified and then everyone thinks, okay, what agile is Scrum or Scrum is a way to apply agile but it's not the it's not the only way to do it. And I think agile is a much more generous in its approach. It doesn't define that's not a framework that defines our particular process. It just says, hey, there's there's a better way of doing the things and I think what we in agencies can do is think about those agile themes and principles and think about how we can apply them to our projects. So example; The idea of yet collaborating with clients rather than relying on documentation and hat making it a battle in a binary battle where someone wins and someone loses, that actually, the whole process can be more collaborative. So one thing that I'm really excited about is engagement models where clients pay on a per sprint basis, rather than on a deliverables basis. So if the trust really is there between the client and the agency, if the if the client truly believes that the agency will deliver value, that they're the best people for the job, and really, what you're… what you're doing for the client is helping them to prioritize and helping them to architect what the solution is, and then building it out. That agile engagement model where you can say, hey, well, I think this is going to be, yeah, 12 sprints… 12 two weeks sprints for this project. But maybe it's maybe it's more, maybe it's less, but making sure the client can afford that and that they're happy with that approach. And then you go in to it together as a team. And it's not this battle between Okay, well, I'm paying you $80,000. And I want to get as much as I possibly can and the agency thinking, well, you're paying us $80,000. And we want to spend as little of it as we can. So having that slightly different approach around contracts. And I think, you

James Rose
know, I like to circle back to this, but just quickly in case some people for people that are listening to, you know, what a sprint is, for example, I use I shouldn't have used that word before without defining at first let's just quickly talk about what a sprint is.

Ben Aston
Yeah, so a sprint is, I mean, in Scrum, they describe it as something that's, you know, two to three weeks long. And in a sprint, what you're doing is trying to deliver some incremental value. So all the teams working together on some work, and at the end of the sprint or end of the two to three week period, you're done. delivering some value. And the idea is what we're trying to do with trying to create shippable increments of work. So for example, what we do is we have a backlog of items. One of them, you know, in our backlog might be three different things and we prioritize with the clients. What the most important thing is. So in our sprint, we have a sprint goal which say is to deliver a new homepage. And and in that two week period, what we're trying to do is collaborate together as a team, everyone working at the same time on delivering this homepage, that's our shippable increment. And at the end of the sprint, what we'll have is a sprint review, and we'll review all the work done in the clients as whether or not they like it and it can be shipped or not. And that's kind of what our sprint is. It's just an increment of time. It's time boxing work to try and increase the throughput.

James Rose
Yep, awesome. I love that definition did a much better job than I could have done because I mean, we do this, but more like a feature level. So like, we're actually about to switch to this for content snare, because we've for a long time have been, I guess, refining our sprint process with client, these really large client projects and not applying it to content snare yet, but we're ready to go on very soon. And it'll be like, I don't know, a new feature might be like add, commenting or something. And that might be depending on how many developers we've got going at one time. That could be everyone's working on that. Or it could be just one developer's working on that. And then the other developers working on their little piece. Yeah. So I'd like to talk a bit about how to get clients onto this model. Because this is something we've like, partly struggled with, but I feel like it's kind of easy to explain to clients like in the past we've just said like, we can go ahead and quote this entire thing. Like we can give you a quote for everything that you have put down, everything we've discussed, we can put it all in a quote. And we're going to give you a fixed price. But, that means that everything that's like not in this and I guarantee you're going to come up with new things throughout this process, like things are going to change. It always does, it does every time like, you know, we might build the homepage, and then you realize that we forgot like this other thing that you need or some new page or jog your memory and you remember, and then we'll have to go and add to the quote put in like a variation, and it just becomes a shit show. So that's kind of the description of that process is how I've sold clients on the benefits of Agile and, and Sprint's before just being like, look, it's much better for everybody if we just do it this way. We still got to find packages, we can just add new packages in to get done on the next sprint or whatever. Yeah, and that seems to go down fairly well. Do you have any advice on this?

Ben Aston
Yeah, I think

Ben Aston
Yeah, I just want to touch on the alternative to that approach briefly. If people are thinking, hey, well, there's no way my client is ever going to go for this, because I think it is rare that clients go for it. I think it's rare because they're worried it's their money. They they're worried that at the end of the six weeks, or whatever it might be, you're like, “Okay, well, I've done we've done our sprints”. And they're like, “But hold on, where's my website gone”? And you say, “Well, that's not done yet. Kind of in a tough spot. So the way that we can manage that is, the alternative alternate way of doing it is to have a change budget, and include that within the budget and just say,” Hey look, we know typically that things change on projects. Why don't we include 20% of that of the budget of 30% for change, and then we can just dip into that and then it gives us a bit of flexibility”. So that's an alternative way of thinking about

James Rose
Good way to call it… a good thing to call it too. When I was an engineer, they used to just call that fudge factor and rolling without the client knowing.

Ben Aston
Well, yeah, there's I mean, there's two If the client won't pay for it, then you have to build fat into the into the estimate itself. But I think it's much better if you can be transparent. And then right from the start, you say to the client, hey, there's a pot of money in here, and we put this pot of money in, because we know how hard it is for you to get more funds. So let's account for it right at the beginning, we all know change is going to happen. And we haven't got all the requirements. So let's allow for change and it, you know, allow us give us room to pivot. And that's another way to be agile within the constraints of a… what might look like a more typical engagement model.

James Rose
Hmmm… I like that.

Ben Aston
Yeah, so there's different ways. There's different ways of applying it. And I think, yeah, we can sell sprints, but we can also sell more flexibility within the you know, traditional estimate approach as well. Hmm.

James Rose
Love it. So.

James Rose
I mean, how do you help people like what's the digital digital project manager all about? How do you help people do exactly all this stuff?

Ben Aston
Yes. So, yeah, like I said, we I started the digital project manager, it was back in 2012. And at the time, there wasn't really much out there. And to be honest, I don't mean this still is much out there. There's talking about how we put theory into practice. And there's some great project management training out there, like the Project Management Institute, who recently rebranded to become funky and cool. They've got lots of great content, and they have their project management book of knowledge with the PMP, which is, you know, trying to get people to come project management professionals. My issue with that was that it's very hard to apply to the fast and loose kind of wild west world that we live in, in the agency world. And so I wanted to build a platform of best practice, and together with other project managers create this playbook for digital project management, so that we can, you know, work out how it is that we can do For better projects in a digital world, so we've got training, we've got a slack team that's got 3000 Digital project managers in it. We've got a membership that contains all kinds of templates, you need a monthly workshops, and our mastering digital project management school, which is a seven-week course where we take you through the whole project lifecycle from initiation through to delivery, to really teach people who lead and manage projects who might not be project managers themselves. But how it is that you can deliver projects more effectively.

James Rose
Nice. Do you help people that are just starting out and project management as well?

Ben Aston
Yeah, so our, our membership and our training for both those kind of use cases. So in our membership, you'll find all kinds of resources actually, we're running a workshop just this month on you know, your project manager career. And that's what everything from my how'd you get into digital project management in the first place through to how do I get promoted? Yeah, then there's then there's the training itself, our mastering digital project management school where we teach you Okay, here's how you do the hard skills of estimating and project planning, of creating statements of work that are flexible and robust. And that will get bought by the client. How do you manage and control projects. So that complete spectrum of hard skills and then what we're doing is we're messing that in with the soft skills that you need to learn as well and giving you pointers on where to go with them because the soft skills are something that we can continue to develop throughout our career.

James Rose
That's awesome. Now I imagine this would be a really good fit for likes small agencies who are thinking about hiring someone like I know this would have been super helpful for me, like our I guess hiring water went like one developer to developers, and I put on like a third and I was like, I can't manage this anymore as well as like be the business side all so that's something we had a project manager and we kind of just move like winging it the whole way. So I kept being able to teach her a whole bunch of stuff like, would have been helpful. So I can see this being very useful for agencies in that position.

Ben Aston
Yeah. And I think it can be useful as well. Because we're going through the project lifecycle from initiation through to delivery, where we go through the planning process and the managing controlling parts of projects. It brings up conversations that you probably need to have like, how are we estimating? How Yeah, just as we've been talking about, are we going to sell this in sprints? Are we going to sell this as a retainer? What's our What's our engagement model? What are we defining in terms of deliverables? How do we make assumptions? How do we what's the documentation we use as a team, so even just getting your process kind of aligned within the organization I could think is a really valuable thing to go through. So what we often have, you know, a CEO will do the course with maybe one or two of their team members. And through that process, they build out their own best practice and define their

Ben Aston
approach for their agency.

James Rose
That's awesome. I just had your website open here as well. And I realized that you have a whole bunch of tool guides, which is going to keep me busy for a while. That's where I kind of lose myself. And I see this the 10 best project management software of 2019. And it is a beautiful article with like, funky little animated graphs of like, user interface ratings for all these different tools. I love that. I mean, I might I might even link this up in the notes just because I like that one. But of course, if you're listening to this, go over to the digital project. manager.com I believe digitalprojectmanager.com also redirects there. But we will have will have everything linked up at agencyhighway.com/68. Ben, anything else you want to cover before we wrap this up?

Ben Aston
No? It's been great talking about all things project management. Thanks for having me with you.

James Rose
No worries… thanks again then.