Scope management can get a bad rap, but in this episode, we'll dive into why it's essential to every project. What's our scope management philosophy? What are the biggest misconceptions about scope management? Join Speak Creative's VPs for an off topic conversation about how we stay in scope, on budget, and on time.
Scope Management | Episode 11
David: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us once again. You are listening to A Little Off Topic, one agency's water cooler chat on digital marketing, business, and all the things that get in the way, presented by Speak Creative. Last time you heard us, we went all the way off topic with our power rankings world championship episode. If you didn't have a chance to listen to that one, I would highly recommend it. This week, however, we are back on topic with an episode dedicated to scope management. My name is David Caffey. I'm Speak's Digital Marketing Manager and the host of A Little Off Topic. I'm joined this week, and every week by Speak's VP leadership team. Kindra Svendsen is VP of Client Partnerships. The first of our duo of Matts is Matt Roberts, VP of Marketing and Sales finally with us again is the reigning power rankings world champion, Matt Ervin, VP of Creative Services.
David: Scope management is something that has come up frequently on our show before, but today we'll dive right in head. First, if you work at an agency or are involved in the project management world in some form or fashion, this will definitely be an episode worth checking out. We start off today talking about what scope management is and Speak's scope management philosophy. From there, we'll talk in depth about our processes as well as the elusive iron triangle. A very informative conversation today, so let's get right to it. As always, we thank you for taking the time to listen to our show today, and I hope you enjoy today's episode of A Little Off Topic.
David: Scope management. It's something that we have talked about before in several episodes, but today we are going to go full force and dive in. So this is a topic that we feel could be helpful for some other agencies, really anybody involved in project management, to understand Speak's of scope management philosophy and people that might want to understand what working with us is really like. So let's start off for those that aren't familiar with the concept of scope management. What is it? Let's lay out the foundation of what really makes scope management scope management.
Ervin: So scope management is really important in what we do. It's really critical. For a couple of reasons. One, obviously we want to do the amount of work that we agree to do. But two, if you let scope start to run away from you, you can get into this churn or spin where we're continually adding to a project and it'll never end, or we'll never do one thing very well. We'll just have a lot of stuff that we've done. So managing the scope is important for our business as the agency or the people that are doing the work, but it's also very important in leading the client and making sure that you're helping them solve their problems. You're helping them meet their goals, and then we're not really biting off more than we could chew.
Kindra: It might've been our first episode of the podcast, but we talked about setting expectations, and to me that's what scope is. It's the expectation of what is going to be delivered. So it is prescriptive and written now. We plan our process around that scope. It is what will be delivered and how it will be delivered.
Roberts: One thing that's important and related to scope management is not just the scope construct, but the actual management of the scope. The term scope management can feel restrictive. It can feel like you're trying to put somebody in a straight jacket, but really scope can be super flexible. We just have to understand what we've all agreed to do. If there's some new idea or suddenly something becomes more urgent, because there's national news coverage at stake or something, those are all parts of scope that can be managed well. We'll talk through how different parts of scope can be flexed around needs. I guess I want to start off the conversation by just interjecting that it's not something that's meant to be restrictive. It's meant to, like Kindra said, it's meant to set expectations. It's meant to ensure that what we've committed to deliver actually gets delivered. It's also to make sure that what a client is paying for is what they get in the end. There's lots of conversation that can happen throughout a project that might change what goes into or comes off of a project. But it's all done with a scope management philosophy in mind.
Kindra: Yeah. Thank goodness for project managers, that's all I can say. I use the metaphor that project managers are the conductor of a train. So if you think that the rails and the scenery are creative, and then you've got the strategy, which is the engine of the train. The project manager is the conductor. They're the ones that are moving all of the pieces, making them fall into place and to have proper scope management, you have to have that oversight. So project managers, we couldn't do it without you.
David: So I'm sure the philosophy of scope management is probably a little bit different in each project management organization. How would you guys see Speak's philosophy regarding scope management? How would you guys define that?
Roberts: Recently here at Speak, we've mentioned this on previous episodes, but we made some changes to our own process to better manage scope to create better client experiences. I wonder if the philosophy of what we do isn't best explained by talking through some strategic parts of our process that have changed. Then we can pull into the philosophy that fed into those changes.
Ervin: We have really revamped our process, and there are a couple of things that drove the revamping of it. One is that we were having trouble delivering on time and on budget within the deliverables that we were creating. So we needed some internal guides to do a better job making sure that we're building the right things and designing the right things and not overdesigning some things. So that was one of the changes we made, but another big piece of the change we made was to try to improve quality. We looked back at some of the projects that had gone well and some that hadn't gone well and asked ourselves what are some key things we can learn from? When I say that went well or not, even just looking at the outcome, not just the project experience itself.
Ervin: So one of the big changes that we made was to move content to the front of the project. The thought behind that was that if you're designing something and you don't exactly know what the content is going to be, then you're going to design a good looking container, but it might not be the right shape. It might not be the right size. It might not incorporate the right pieces for the content that you have. So the way that we look at it now is really that the website has got to tell your story in some way. It has to tell your story and then motivate the consumer of your story to some sort of action. So if we start with a story and understand what the story is, then we can do a much better job of defining a container that is custom tailor fit to that story.
Ervin: If we do strategy with the content up front as well, not only can we design something that visually contains everything well, but has strategy baked into it. Then it's testable, because we can say we put this here for this reason to accomplish this result. We can wait for two months and ask ourselves if it accomplishes that result, and if it didn't, we've got very solid reasons why we did it. Then we can go back and look at it and say, "Why did this not work? What did we do? What did we not understand correctly to get users to follow the path that we wanted them to follow?” So that was a real big change. Then the other one was more for scheduling purposes. Getting the parts of the process that take the most time spread out, so that everybody starts focusing on them early. If you've done a website project before, you know that content is the big beast that most people don't realize how tough it is or how all consuming it is. So the tendency is to say, let's get the let's design the website, then we'll load all the content. What you've done is gone through this design process that takes a while, you've gone through this process of making your design in the code, which also takes a while. Now you say “alright, we're going to throw the content in it.” Then six weeks later, you're still working on your content. So one of the things that we did was move content up front and said if we can get the stuff that is the meat and the bones of the story, that's great. We can use that to push the design forward, but the rest of the content process can run concurrently. So instead of taking 6 to 8 weeks at the end of the project that you didn't expect it to take, now, as you're looking at your designs and talking through the strategy with our strategists, you could also be working with your content. We'll have a place to put it where we can easily move it into the site. It made a ton of sense when we stopped and looked at it that way.
Kindra: Yeah, it benefits both the client and the team at that point. We're spending a lot less time in revision rounds. We're spending a lot less time going out of scope at the end of the project because we're front-loading it with the hard part. So then we're able to focus on design elements and things that are in scope towards the end. That helps keep momentum in the project too. You mentioned that you might add some weeks while you're waiting on content and that can really turn just the whole trajectory a different way. So if we can keep the excitement going throughout a project, that's better success for everyone.
Roberts: Our client can feel the next step of moving from imagining a new website and going through the process, so the natural tendency is to want to see something as soon as possible. We start with discovery, we go through a very intentional strategy phase. Out of that strategy phase, we begin to identify key content, then that key content allows us to get to that design piece. But it's a much better fit designed for that organization than it would have been if we had just said, "Okay, cool. Let's get to know you a little bit." Then start to design something from that point, because we've tried to jump into client expectations because they just want to see something. But what we're saying is essentially yes, we acknowledge that it's super exciting to get to that point, but we want for it to be as informed by strategy and the client's story as possible. So that the creative portion of the process is super effective.
Ervin: Yeah. It did feel a little counterintuitive to move the exciting part to the end or to the middle. Let's do the great part in the middle.
Kindra: Yeah, I'm biased because obviously I'm into content, but I just think it's exciting to be able to start your story and figure out what's important. Because a lot of times, when you have a template and you're putting content in, you're just transferring it over without thought of how it's going to work, what message it's sending, or what story it's telling. So luckily, we have some awesome brand strategists that really help parse the story out of the content and make it really natural and intuitive. To me, that becomes the exciting part when we do it smartly.
Ervin: We're right on the edge of releasing some new products or new pieces to the process that we can add in to help with that strategy, where we can test some of the things that we think will work. But now we can pretty easily have ways to test them and make sure that it actually makes sense and is going to push the website forward.
Kindra: Also, moving content forward helps us understand if scope needs to change sooner, because as we're going through and selecting what staff widgets and blogs and calendars and all this stuff that we need on the website — our scope might start to be redefined or change or grow. If you follow any project management theories, you have the iron triangle of project management that is on scope, on budget, on time. Something's got to give in that case. If we grow the scope, it's better to know what else has to happen to accommodate that change sooner rather than later.
Roberts: That's really great because, at that point we're not so far along in the process. If we're in a strategy or key content phase, there's been no creative spent on a scope that is changing, so for us to make a scope change at that point means we're not having to go back a step. We're not having to redo something we've already done. We get to have a very intentional conversation with a client that says as we've been talking, it's been super clear to us that you guys are really passionate about this thing that we didn't know about until two weeks ago when we started uncovering it in discovery and during the strategy phase, we've got some really great ideas for how we could bring that to life. What do you guys think? It might be that part of that conversation is letting them know how much it costs. The client could say "let's do it." Or it could also be one of those things where the client says, "man, our budget is super important and we can't really get away from this budget."
Kindra: We work with a lot of nonprofits and some of them are grant funded. Some of them have just set a specific budget line item where they say, this is all we can spend on this thing. But because we're still in the strategy and content phase, we say, okay cool. Well, let's look at the rest of your scope and see what we might be able to scale back in order to get this new thing in.
Roberts: So it gives a client the option to reassess some things as we dig in into the strategy and further into their story and into their key content. When I mentioned earlier about scope management and how we don't want it to feel like a straight jacket. We don't want you to feel confined by something like scope management. This is really a chance for us to illuminate what that looks like. If we have a new idea, it can cost more or we could just say, "okay, cool. Let's go back to our scope and see what else maybe we can change to make this thing fit in, if you guys are willing to adjust expectations." Like Kindra said with the iron triangle, with things that are in scope or what the schedule is or what the budget is, we can always have those conversations.
Kindra: Those are so much better to have at the beginning of a project than towards the end, where things are exhausted, scope's exhausted, budget is exhausted, time is exhausted, something's got to give. So if we can figure that out on the front end, we're much more successful on the back end.
Ervin: So if you're a project management nerd, you ought to be recognizing that this sounds a lot like the tenets behind the agile process, so it's true. Because with agile, one of the big driving principles is realizing that we don't know everything at the start of a project. With agile, you do iterations. So you start off and build the first thing that is going to solve the need, and we're going to get it in the hands of users. We're going to let them test it.They're going to tell us that it's great or bad. Then we're going to build the next thing. It's going to be iterative, because at some point we're going to put something out that the users are going to tell us that they don't actually need what we thought they did. It would be better if we had something else instead. So this is a very similar mindset to where we're saying, "let's get into the bits of the project that way let's look at the content. Let's look at the story we've got to tell." Then let's make sure that the things that we thought we had to design, the things that are deliverables in the proposal, actually do what we wanted them to do and solve the problem or meet the goals that we're trying to meet.
David: Why is it iron again?
Roberts: Kindra, why is the iron triangle iron again? Could you explain it to us one more time?
Kindra: Yes. I envision it as three iron bars. So if you think of a triangle, it can be, I don't know all my triangles, forgive me.
Ervin: Isosceles, scalene, and equilateral.
Kindra: Equilateral. Let's say we start with an equilateral triangle. Thank you. Thank you. It just means that when one shifts, the rest have to. You can't avoid minimizing or expanding time and budget if your scope changes. So let's say your timeline has gotten a lot shorter. So that angle narrows. Well, then you have an isosceles, is that right? Because some of your other angles start to expand. If we're going to shorten the timeline, we need to add scope so we can bring in other players. We need to add budget, so we can bring in other players. Everything else is dependent on that triangle maintaining its angle. If it changes, everything else has to change. So if you look at those three items, the push pull of it is imminent because something has to change, if we're going to change one of the others. That's why it's ironclad.
Roberts: Nice. That was good. I appreciate the explanation. The opposite of that is also a possibility, if you get a shortened timeline. We've certainly had clients who've been in the middle of a project, and I used the national exposure on TV as an example, but we've had clients in that position where they're suddenly realizing their current website is bad awful. They're already working on a new one, but now they're about to get all this traffic and they need some help. It may not be that they need more budget and more people, it may be that their scope has to change for what they need by 2 weeks from now. It's not that the total scope of the project changes, but suddenly this 600 page website that is going to take another two or three months for us to finish, but you need something up in two weeks. Let's adjust our vision here for what's actually accomplishable in the next two weeks. Again, it just speaks to the feeling of flexibility and hopefully empowerment of a client to understand that they are an active participant in the scope management process.
David: So I've gotten the sense as you guys have been talking that scope management is not one of those things that you put on your to do list and check it off and say, "Oh, the scope is now managed. Congratulations, we're done." It sounds like something you've got to come back to a lot and continuously look at it. Why is it important to, like I said, continuously look at scope and manage and make changes over time?
Ervin: Well, we started off with a scope to deliver an expectation or based on an expectation for delivery and for how it is to be delivered. In most cases, that expectation doesn't really change, so we've got to always refocus to make sure that we're staying on task, because it's really easy to chase rabbits. Hey, this is a great idea. That's a great idea over there. Wouldn't it be nice if we also had this on the website? And if we start going down all those roads even a little bit, then we're burning time and we're churning through valuable resources and not putting them to good use.
Kindra: We use the term internally, it's probably made its way out to clients, but shift happens. We expect our projects to grow. We expect new ideas to come into play. So we have to continuously monitor just to make sure that everything's feasible, profitable, and able to happen by the deadlines or by the boundaries that we've set.
Ervin: That's one of the things with the iron triangle that Matt has been alluding to a few times that we have to be careful with, is that it's designed to be flexible. But if the timeline needs to change, then we can figure out how to make a change. It just means that it's going to have an effect elsewhere. Part of the changes in our process were that we wanted to make sure the clients felt that scope management isn't a negative thing for them. It actually helped them continue to have a good experience.
David: So what would you guys say are some misconceptions about scope management? Either with folks outside of Speak, even within Speak?
Roberts: So I have one that immediately comes to mind, and I'll let Matt and Kindra say smart things after this, but one of the things that is certainly a misconception about scope, at least with us — is the idea that somebody would jump to a project with us and at the end when everything has gone well, we've executed, they're super happy, and you get an invoice at the end of a project that's much more than what they agreed to pay. This is mostly born out of maybe a bad experience with other agencies and probably misperceptions of how agencies tend to do business generally. But with us, that's a huge misconception. So anytime we talk about scope management in a process where we've got a project that we're working through or we've got a new idea. As soon as it's feasible, we'll surface that idea and have a conversation with a client about what its impact is. Going back to our example of earlier, we found this new thing that you're super passionate about, we've got some really great ideas for how we could bring it to the website. Here are those ideas. Here's how much they cost. Here's the impact on the timeline. The client has the opportunity to say, "Hey, that sounds great, but that's not something we're going to pursue right now." We're not gonna pull one over on the client and just add scope and cost without getting approval and bringing them into the conversation to help them understand exactly what they're saying yes to and ways that they can still make it happen within scope of possible or the budget, if possible.
Kindra: That's definitely a misconception, that it's all about making money or earning money. It really goes back to it's the expectation and the fulfillment, which is actually a customer service point. It's not just about being profitable, which of course we want to do as an agency. We also want to be really respectful of the budget that is given to us, but it's really about just making sure that we're fulfilling what we said we were going to do.
Roberts: You just made me think of something that I tell clients all the time. The easiest way for us to be great at what we do and to be a profitable and stable organization is for us to build great partnerships with our clients. That doesn't happen by us nickeling and dime-ing clients. It doesn't happen by surprise invoices. We help ourselves when we have a very transparent relationship with our clients and a very transparent partnership with our clients to tell them what we think is best for them. That's a valuable thing. If we get a client through a project and they feel a sense of accomplishment and they feel we captured everything that they wanted to capture as part of their goals for the website and they see the results that we talked about at the beginning, that client is super likely to come back to us and ask to do more business together as they have needs. So I guess, just to piggyback on what Kindra was saying, it's in our best interest to treat clients well. It's obviously in the client's interest as well. But we're looking to sustain our profitability and sustain our organization. The best way to do that is to treat people well and be a transparent partner.
Kindra: Shifting gears, but I would say a big misconception of scope management is as much as I gave them all the props earlier, that it's only the job for project management. Everyone in a project has the ability to manage scope.
Ervin: Has the responsibility.
Kindra: Yeah, absolutely. So if the designer has a really great creative idea, that's amazing. Let's talk about it first, or if the strategist has some super cool functions that maybe are out of scope, let's talk to creative and come up with ideas to collaborate. But it's everyone's duty, including the client, to be a part of the scope management.
Roberts: I'll use this opportunity to highlight that it is even the client's part. Simply because we can't get through a project without a client being engaged and communicating well and understanding what we're trying to do. Occasionally we'll have a client who needs to go dark for a few weeks or a month or two or whatever because things happen. For most clients that we work with, they've got lots and lots of other things happening as part of the organization, other than just what's being transacted through the website. So the website is super important, but things come up and sometimes they have to go dark. When we have a client contact, for instance, who will let us know ahead of time. As they say, "Hey look, we'd love to keep this moving, but we just had to shift priorities internally. We need to put things on hold for six weeks." That's super useful for us to know. Alternatively, we can have somebody just disappear for six weeks and we're just always in this reaching out stage wondering where they went. We're not getting the feedback that we need, we're not getting the next step that's gonna allow us to keep moving. We don't know that they're just in a crunch time of their own. So gears can slip and it can just feel a relational drop honestly, so it's just super important for clients to be engaged and just hopefully to the extent that we're able to be as transparent as we can be with a client, that they would be willing to be as transparent as they can be with us about all the things that are on their plate and how we can work together to keep the project moving forward at a pace that makes sense for both organizations.
David: So let's let's close out today with a little we're an association exercise. I guess you could call it manifesting some positive energy.
Kindra: Oh goodness.
David: This is a fill in the blank. I'm going to let you guys fill in the blank on this phone. You know a client relationship is going to be great when _____.
Ervin: There's a lot of good joke answers.
David: I'll accept those. Everything is on the table for this part.
Ervin: I should probably should hang onto those for a little while, they need some more internal vetting.
Ervin: Go first Kindra. No, no, please.
Kindra: I was going to say flexible. That might be interchangeable with reasonable. A client who understands that the project is going to grow is always the best client, because they understand that they might need to allocate more resources than they intended into the project, or they understand that if they can't, something might have to give in the future if a timeline decreases. So a client who just goes into the project understanding that it's made to evolve are typically the best relationships that we get into.
Ervin: I have a few things that to me, signal when a relationship is going to be good. Let's start off with the worst one. Probably when we mess up, they show grace. Recognizing that we messed up and to not do that again, but let's move forward with a whole relationship. You know you're dealing with quality folks at that point and right then, I can tell you that absolutely everybody on my team is going to go above and beyond for you every time. That's one. I would also say when a client has a moment of extreme candor. Whether that's telling you something that they probably would hold back from you if they felt your relationship wasn't as much of a partnership but was more adversarial, but when they give you that peek. They put their cards on the table because we're working together on this. Those are probably two big ones.Then anytime a client does something that illustrates that they know you're in a partnership together. When they come to the table with a great idea. When you see that they understand it's a mutually beneficial relationship. When you get that understanding or sign of partnership, to me is when you know a client relationship is going to be great.
Kindra: I add to that they meet their deadlines and that makes us able to meet ours. That two way communication or partnership really comes into play when there's a deadline that we're trying to reach.
Ervin: Or they tell you in advance, "Hey I know we got content due next week and we're not going to make it." That's great because that shows me that you recognize we've got a lot going on and we can shift stuff around and be productive elsewhere until you're ready. That just gives us planning ability and flexibility. It's that partnership.
Roberts: I think the the candor is a client who's willing to share everything in view of the fact that they understand that it's going to make the entire project go better, because we're going to have a clearer understanding of their expectations, a clearer understanding of the results that need to be created, a clearer understanding of a pain point that they might have that we can solve. We're not in a project process to have somebody affirm us the whole way through. We've all had situations over the years where you get towards the end of a project and there's some feedback that you sit there and think, "well, man, where's this coming from?" And you dig in a little bit deeper and you have say, "Hey this feedback is, is a little bit surprising given, given where we are in a project could we, could we hop on a phone call?" We've had conversations where they only on the phone call sheepishly tell you all "actually I've kinda been thinking this ever since the beginning. But I just didn't know if I should share it now that we're about to launch the website. I feel maybe I should have shared it sooner, but I've got to share it with you guys before the website launches, because we've got to change it.” I get that. Personally, I'm one of those people that doesn't love sharing negative feedback. But I understand the necessity of it. Just reinforcing that candor idea. You're not going to hurt our feelings. We're grown men and women who can hear somebody say, "Hey this looks great, but it's not for us." Or "you missed here." Definitely be willing to share that because it gives us the opportunity to course correct much sooner. It could be that we were building something based on a bad assumption. It gives us the opportunity to say, "Oh, we heard you say this in discovery and that's why we did this thing. But now that we hear you talk about it, we've got a better understanding of what it is that you're going for." Just again, that candor and open communication makes a huge difference.
Kindra: That candor creates comradery in the trenches. So we understand that it's just as important for them to find success when they tell us that tickets are really down and they're hoping this website is really going to solve that problem, or that they have to present this to their board and they need to look good. Even with that stuff, there's a little bit of skin in the game. We're on the same team and it really builds the relationship up to a great spot. So I agree, candor's a great answer.
Ervin: David, what about you?
David: I think the relationship with the client is going to be great if food's involved. If it's a client's website that's got pictures of sandwiches on it, I'm going to love working on that. It's just because we're recording this on Thursday afternoon. I'm a little hungry right now thinking about some of our great restaurant food service clients.
David: I'm in the mood for a big sandwich.
Ervin: Like a Publix sub?
David: Well, I don't know if they're our client.
Kindra: We have those in Nashville, I'm not sure if you knew.
Ervin: I can't remember. Do you guys have those [in Memphis]?
Roberts: But do you have an Ikea [in Nashville]?
David: We have low real estate prices [in Memphis]. That's what we have.
Roberts: We've got Swedish meatballs.
Ervin: They said they were gonna put an Ikea here, but we told them take your furniture that you screw together with Allen wrenches and just go somewhere else. It's not hipster enough.
Kindra: Man, sandwiches. I don't think we can get any better of a fill in the blank answer. Matt, can you bring us some more sandwich clients, please?
Roberts: You know what? I'll do what I can. Because you miss a hundred percent of the shots you don't take.
Kindra: You're right.
David: Well, that is it for today. Hope you guys enjoyed it. Tons of great insight from our leadership team today. That's the most time I've spent talking about triangles in quite some time. As always, if you have questions or feedback for today's episode, we'd love to hear from you. Speak is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, whichever social media platform you prefer. We are there. If you enjoyed the show, I ask you to please subscribe and leave a review on your podcast platform of choice. So from myself, our panel today, and all of us Speak, thanks for getting a little off topic with us.
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