Making Process Work for You (and Your Client)

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Process: The secret sauce which prospects can (explicitly or implicitly) expect you to bring to the table when discussing a project. Or maybe the client has a process—“We use agile,” or “We use waterfall” followed by, “Can you work with that?” Naturally, you nod along because you want the business, as you should. But once the project is running, something inevitably falls short—the process doesn’t quite jibe with the project, the culture, the business context, or some aspect of all three. Maybe approvals are taking longer than expected without explanation. Or the client’s attitude shifts and they suddenly seem curious about things a few steps down the line. Or maybe they precipitously want to wrap things up.

So how do you take an organized, process-oriented approach while still producing great creative work? Do you stick to the plan and power through, regardless of whether it’s working or not? Do you abandon process altogether and let the creatives run the show until they run out of time? As with so many things in life (work and play, chips and vegetables, exercise and Netflix binging), the key is balance. Which you can identify by, first, assessing the wants and needs of both your client and design team; second, being flexible with process but inflexible with your principles; and third, having a process toolkit, which allows you to improvise when a process isn’t working.

“Sure, Let’s Go With That–We’ll Just Change It All Later”

Processes aren’t successful because they’re particularly fast or slow, because they iterate or sprint—any process can fail the team or feel like it’s making it a struggle to get through the next review, whether a tech-inspired design sprint or a more traditional creative process. Then, too, winging it can be just as much a recipe for disaster.

Whether processes succeed or fail hinges on the level of client and agency team connection between the Gantt chart lines —that is, the degree to which client and agency team are on the same wavelength, not only in terms of goals, but the values underpinning them. These are often embedded within the process, between the deadlines.

Conservative clients, for example, want a steady, sure process so they don’t misstep. They may be less concerned about precisely hitting deadlines, preferring instead to avoid having to tell the higher-ups they made a mistake or have to ask for more budget. In contrast, growth-oriented clients chasing an innovative idea may mind less if they need to pivot during the project—provided they know there’s a better design option on the table.

When Clients Become Their Own Worst Enemies

John W. Bergman famously said, “There’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over.” Every team, whether on the agency or client side, can inadvertently self-sabotage. Maybe the teams aren’t internally aligned—maybe power dynamics or other contextual considerations are playing an unspoken role. We’ve all had the clients who withhold information (intentionally or not), can’t commit to a design direction, and give vague feedback–which can derail the project. Or the clients who let their power dynamics sabotage the project by initially easily approving designs–only to reverse course weeks later and ask for variations.

A good process can certainly help avoid some of these self-sabotaging tendencies—but only if they sufficiently account for the cultural context and values under which the team is operating. No matter your process approach, respecting the constraints within which teams operate is key to successfully seeing a project through–not just with fewer gray hairs, but with a joint sense of success and an inclination to work together in the future.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth”

Hence why assessing the client’s and the creative team’s wants and needs is the first step to navigating process within the real world—that is, within the context in which you’ll all be operating together. Agency teams and clients need to align; communicate in an unbiased, transparent, and honest fashion; and make decisions that not only make sense in the moment but that will hold up as the project inevitably takes on a life of its own. The challenge is that while practically all clients will say they want to be agile, transparent, openly communicative, etc., not all can truly handle that approach.

Agency teams must identify what they really want and need—which will require deep, active listening and checking your own biases at the door. Not everyone thinks the way you and your agency team do. Not everyone may be speaking up on the client side because of power dynamics. At the risk of getting too squishy here, you may have to put your therapist hat on for a while and really decipher what’s happening on the client side to set yourself and your team up for real success.

What does that look like in the real world? Consider: Has your team done this type of project before? How did it go? If this is new to the client, they will need more communication, more hand holding, and more time. How will this project impact you, your team, and your company? If their world is going to be different after this launches, change management is something you should consider. Give them the tools they need to socialize the work and scripts to present it when you aren’t in the room.

“Pivot!”

Next, you should strive for a flexible approach to process, but an inflexible approach to your values. The most effective agency teams have principles they value and find ways to weave through all of their work and client interactions. This is what makes them feel consistent and reliable to clients. But at the same time, they don’t have a rigid process diagram—and even those that do rarely follow them exactly. And with good reason: Plans have to change when you find out the client wants to launch a month sooner. You may need to reassess your process approach if it’s creating friction with your client. Which means putting the end goal and the people involved in the project above the process. But if all you know is double diamond–or agile or waterfall–you may not know how to accomplish this pivot.

Outcomes > Process

A better approach, then, is having working principles : values you take with you to every engagement that allow you to synch with your clients in ways that make them comfortable but subtly push them in ways that can work for you—and can ultimately protect the work, ensuring you’re giving space and importance to creating designs. This will likely require some give and take—trade-offs between what the client is familiar and comfortable with but that also get you what you need to deliver a successful outcome.

At each step, focus on outcomes—don’t blindly follow process. Maybe the stated deliverable is a sitemap—but maybe what’s really needed is collective alignment on a vision and direction for the website (which could manifest itself as a sitemap, a journey map, or a design strategy). If you understand the key is really the collective alignment, you’re likelier to guide your client to the right expression of the website design that resonates with them and answers their questions best than if you’re rigidly aiming for a hard deliverable (a sitemap) by a hard deadline.

This isn’t to say you should have no process—you can and should still plan for big chunks of activity and create a process everyone can look to that gets them to the finish line—and you should be well-versed in multiple approaches to process. But whatever path you choose should allow for the real (maybe unstated) goal of each step, not just provision of a deliverable. Focus on outcomes. Focus on what decisions you expect to make and the information you’ll need to gather to support those decisions.

Whether you use a double diamond approach, Google sprint, lean, agile, waterfall, or the next new thing, it’s important to know what each approach accomplishes for you. Think of these approaches—any new process, for that matter—as a new tool you can dissect and use as it fits your situation.

So rather than narrowly focusing on following a process and insistently hitting deadlines—while ignoring what may be going on in the background or between the lines—articulate your values, express your ability to work with a variety of process approaches, and then allow the conversations with your client and agency team to guide how you all work together, employing process ideas as they fit the particular need and goal. In our experience, this approach results in happier clients, happier agency teams, and elevated creative work—which should be everyone’s goal.