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Scoping Is Broken. Here’s How One Agency Fixed It


“Like so many shops, we would get caught in the scoping trap… Basically, we would practice traditional scoping, clients would dictate the budget, and then we’d try to hit that or come under. That means the statement of work would get signed, and only then would the team find out what’s at stake. That’s when you hear reactions like, ‘Whoa, this is not how we would go about it. It's missing a lot of details. The timeline is all off. You're gonna need a lot more budget. And hey, we still have a couple of dozen questions to clarify.’”

These are the words of Peter Kang, co-founder and CEO at Barrel, an agency that works closely with clients of Shopify Plus, helping build and expand their ecommerce presence. In our interview in December 2021, he described some of the challenges that his agency had been facing.

The team at Barrel came to question many widely-held assumptions regarding project scope, the role of the customer in the creative process, and the way teams, managers, and clients interact in high-pressure projects.

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Our relationship with scope: It’s complicated

“The work we do for Shopify Plus clients varies,” Kang says. “Sometimes they are not huge builds, but they are ongoing projects, and they all involve many roles, designers, developers, content folks, all with different levels of involvement, depending on the project. It’s vital to be flexible when you’re working with Shopify Plus customers because that’s a big piece of the puzzle of being in this ecosystem. It’s all about their fast-growing businesses. They have a lot of evolving needs, and our job is to cater to them, whether it’s on a retainer basis or project by project. But even with our best clients, scope is always the hardest part to manage.” 

It’s not for lack of trying, Kang explains, but rather, some broken assumptions about what scope really means. With traditional scoping, there is a person somewhere who figures it out—one singular person, often a sales lead or a project manager. The general belief is that just this one person is needed to understand the scope. But usually, they are not the ones who will be doing the work. Regardless of how well-informed this individual is, it’s a setup for failure, because even if you are that person, the scope is not going to be what you think it is

If you look back at any completed project, you’ll see that the end product was a collaboration between multiple roles and the client’s often-changing needs and feedback; whether you like it or not, scope is a team sport. Scope has to be what everybody, together, thinks it is. And that seems like an impossibly chaotic idea. When confronted with this, a project lead is going to say, “I will own the scope and tell everyone else what it is.” But that’s the fundamental problem. When one person somehow claims, “I own the scope”, then it means that nobody else does. 

The reality is that scope is not defined until everyone understands it in the same way. And this demands that first, everyone on the team, including the leads, should be involved in fully mapping out what that work is going to be. Then, to make it truly complete, you must involve the customer, too. Customers are generally the ones with the greatest vested interest in the project but traditionally the least insight into the scope’s many implications and details.

Kang admits that like many Shopify shops, his agency was not really enjoying success in terms of being in control of their projects. There was a lot of disconnection that they weren’t even aware of, especially disconnects between the creative and technical people who were building the sites and the principals who were talking with the clients and then doing the scoping. Sometimes they, the principals, might loop in a couple of team members to ask specific questions about how a particular thing was done, but for everything else, they would simply ballpark the estimate or refer to older projects and timelines and use them to construct a good guess. 

With frustration rather than inspiration being top of mind, Kang and his team reached out to AgencyAgile for an experienced, outside perspective.

Project Scoping: It’s all about the behaviors

“What we never realized,” Kang says, “is that these scope problems are really rooted in behavioral assumptions.” And what his team needed was someone to help them question their assumptions.

Let’s take a look at the key lessons that Kang and his team walked away with after engaging with AgencyAgile:

  • “More people” is actually better. Previously, Barrel’s leadership thought it was a burden to their team members to bring them all in early on projects to estimate the work and gain an understanding of scope. But they learned that it is essential that they understand scope better than anyone else; as the success of the project, along with the team’s satisfaction and client’s happiness, lies in involving them early on in critical scope conversations.
  • Every discipline counts. Clients hire Shopify Plus agencies like Barrel for their expertise and unparalleled understanding of the platform. Agencies help them reach their goals by bringing together a diverse set of talent that is stronger when working together than it could ever be in silos. So a collaborative approach to scoping meant that the execution is richer—and that’s what clients are paying for. 
  • Teams estimate better. The people who do the work have a much better understanding of what it takes to complete it than do the principals who traditionally manage the process and the client. Barrel has become more accurate in their estimation by having the team fully involved in the scoping process. As an added benefit, the team loves being part of this process rather than simply being told how much time they can spend on something. The additional involvement and engagement pays off in having happier members, which in turn results in stronger products delivered to clients. 
  • Clients can handle the truth. The assumption has always been that clients will never fully understand the process that they are investing in because it’s too far removed from their day-to-day activities. This is incorrect. It’s the job of agencies to educate them on their process, and Barrel has found that clients do appreciate a transparent approach to talking about scope, even when there are difficult conversations to be had.

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Change is always hardest for managers

Prior to adopting this new way of working, the team at Barrel was in agreement that although their established approach was far from perfect, it had still been their way, and the prospect of letting go of that brought a great deal of apprehension. There was further anxiety around whether the team would buy into it long-term because for some people, change is not welcome. They will go through the training and give it the lip service required but will have every intention of going back to their old ways, just because.

Kang states that one of the most fascinating parts of the experience was when they learned they had to invite a client in for some of the exercises. This was a direct, unrestrained opportunity to work with a real client, prioritizing together, defining the scope, and incidentally coming up with ideas that no one would have come up with independently.

“I was also impressed by the unique way that the session redistributed roles and involvement, including the client’s senior management levels, all the way through to our own creative team’s youngest and newest members,” Kang said. This made them all work differently to support the project’s goals as well as the client’s satisfaction and included the novel idea of involving team members in running self-managed meetings.

project scope checklist

Fast forward two years—Barrel is a better partner

Two years later, Kang can attest that there are behaviors from the session with AgencyAgile that the leadership team still carries a torch for and that the creatives have embraced as the new culture. There were quite a few key takeaways that have had lasting impacts. They learned, as a group, that the group’s core behavior must keep a hold on the project, and they enjoyed the experience of moving from being vendors to being partners. 

“Bringing the clients into the conversation was such a revelation for us,” Kang says. “Once we had learned a better approach to internal roadmapping, we were able to show the clients the whole process that went into the design of the websites. They were able to see and understand all of the thinking and consideration that we as the creative team were putting into these websites. For many of them, it was the first time they had been given such an opportunity to see the value in the work that we did.” 

  • This helped the team sharpen their skills in, and understanding of, project management and expectation management. Project management is about planning and running a project in a pragmatic way, trying to avoid the long nights and the scope creep that tends to cause damage, especially with those firm deadlines and instead estimate, build, and then communicate a realistic timeline. 
  • Being able to reveal the scope of the project to the clients themselves led directly to more realistic pricing. “Often the client had a price in mind for the website, perhaps even suggested by our own sales team during their initial calls, and consequently we felt locked into that. But now, with the project open in full view to the client, we were able to say, “Hey, actually, there’s a ton of things that go into this project. We would like to invite you to see all of these things, and also for you to give us your input on them, because that's going to help us be more accurate in our estimations and not to miss out on things that might be critical to your business.”
  • The interactions were instrumental in gaining and building clients’ trust. This is something that sometimes goes underdeveloped when a project is seen simply as a transactional process. But like many creative productions, the end product might look very simple—like a single web page, or a thirty-second TV commercial, but the road to get to that perfect, short, finished state is very long and twisted, and there’s a good deal of debris that is jettisoned along the way. When clients were included to a point where they could experience the reality of the production process, they were more willing to approve a healthier budget and a larger, more appropriate timeline, quite simply because they were now more able to trust the agency to do the right thing.

Adapting to COVID-19

“Like everyone else, we struggled during the early days of COVID-19,” Kang remembers. “We needed to figure out how to still work as a team when everyone was fully remote. We found that the briefings were more difficult, because, frankly, people weren’t paying attention on Zoom. We discovered that the opposite of undivided attention is definitely divided attention. If they’re not talking, as in being part of the onscreen conversation, then they're not listening either.” 

With some tweaking, Barrel quickly adapted the methods for their remote operations model. Rather than delivering all the briefing facts in a Zoom meeting, they went asynchronous and flipped the model: First the client filled out a client product questionnaire, then the team members were instructed to read the answers independently. Zoom meetings were used only to deal with issues that the team members had questions about, rather than going through the in-person agenda. 

Kang points out that efforts that were put into the training just prior to the pandemic paired well with the efforts needed to work through remote technologies like Zoom in helping reinforce a key principle: communication is a vital team skill, and when some people are cut out of the loop the project becomes weaker for it. 

Identifying the beating heart of the project

“Scoping got promoted from a rudimentary element of project management to something that exists as the heart of the project,” Kang says. “Once everyone got involved and connected with it, including the client, it became a much easier and much more rewarding experience. It made us a better partner to our people and our clients. The workshop allowed us to connect some dots we hadn’t even seen before, such as dealing with client expectations, reinforcing team dynamics, establishing more realistic—and frankly more helpful—pricing, and probably most important of all, building trust around the elements of project value. The client was able to see just how much thinking and work goes into a project, and we were more able to appreciate their emotional connection to the outcome.”

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This article originally appeared on the Shopify Web Design and Development blog and is made available here to educate and cast a wider net of discovery.
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