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Forget "Us and Them", think "Us"

Written on: April 1, 2015

On the train today I read an interesting article by Mike Stopforth, in which he describes what it's like to work for a typical advertising agency. His description reads like a script for Mad Men: desperate employees working ridiculously long hours, doing free work for pitches they often don't win, and clients calling all the shots in an "us and them" relationship.

Think Us

It's easy to scoff at this way of running a business - but is the software development industry much better? Let's consider the traditional (and still very common) approach to a software development project: a Fixed Price (for fixed scope) contract and Waterfall project management methodology. 

  • Free work for pitches? Check - the supplier needs to conceive and price up a solution before they submit their proposal. This usually takes a lot of (unpaid for) time - and let's put aside the fact that their solution can't possibly be anything like optimal, being based on limited, static information.
  • Desperate employees working ridiculously long hours?  Check - developers are handed someone else's solution and are encouraged to implement it as quickly as possible so they don't exceed the estimate (produced by someone else) on which the Fixed Price was based. The estimates will turn out to be wrong - after all, they're estimates! The result - pressure to put in long hours in order to meet someone else's commitment. I can't think of much less motivating than this, and the bad news for companies based on this exploitative model is that people will eventually leave (usually the best people first) and it probably isn't helping your productivity anyway. 
  • An "us and them" relationship? Check - Fixed Price/Fixed Scope is often a zero-sum game. Once a project starts the supplier is usually trying to do the minimum work possible to fulfil their contractual obligations. Or, if they prioritise client satisfaction and quality over profitability they might be happy to run the project at a loss - which might sound ideal for the client but it's hardly a good start to a sustainable relationship. Ever wonder why a supplier doesn't seem to enjoy working with you, or seems reluctant to discuss new work?

We solved these problems years ago by switching to an Agile approach when developing software. Agile is inherently efficient - it avoids the waste of developing features that might never be used (estimated to be as much as 50% of a typical software application). It is also has the concept of collaboration at its heart - the client and supplier are part of the same team.

This approach (think Win-Win in the language of Stephen R Covey) requires a fundamental shift in thinking for both clients and suppliers. I like to suggest to prospective clients that they think of it like this:

You have your idea for a great website or application. Imagine you could now recruit the very best, most experienced people to form your perfect project team to start development. These people work for you, they are part of your team, they are the best at what they do - you trust them. You work together with common goals to build the best possible solution for the money and time you have available. In reality it will be almost impossible to recruit such people at short notice, and even if you could they wouldn't be used to working together. But you don't need to! I just described a typical Agile project team found in an enlightened web development company (like Bright Interactive!)

This works - we have fantastic relationships with our clients. Our collaborative, Agile approach produces some of the most creative, motivated project teams I have ever seen. And the message goes down well with prospects - the premise that most clients want an "us and them" relationship is just not true (at least until we get to contract negotiations with big company lawyers - there's an industry based on zero-sum game mentality if ever I saw one, but that's for another day).

Pink Floyd got it wrong when they said we're only ordinary men. We're all extraordinary men and women - so let's collaborate! 

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