Did you know that when McDonald’s started offering apples in their restaurants, they became America’s largest buyer and seller of the fruit practically overnight?
McDonald’s has mastered project management. It’s how they operate 36,000 locations, employ 420,000 people and run massive ad campaigns. Efficiency is something that most companies like to talk about, but hardly anyone takes as seriously as corporations like McDonald’s.
So, how do smaller businesses like agencies go about becoming more efficient?
The first move is often purchasing project management software. And while software can optimize an already-strong strategy, most companies use it as a crutch. McDonald’s didn’t master project management by purchasing software, but you can be sure they’ve used it to accelerate and automate every process possible.
If you’re struggling with inefficient workflows, missed deadlines and less-than-perfect team communication, it’s time to consider a new strategy.

Why agencies need a project management strategy

In a simpler world, teams could work sequentially. Also known as the waterfall model, sequential work is non-iterative. This is where most agency teams get tripped up since nearly all creative work is iterative.
To illustrate the difference, consider a tennis ball factory. The process is entirely sequential–no customer is poking their head around the factory asking why the balls are green and not blue. The process would fall apart if they did.
Without a deliberate strategy in place, creative work is scattered and stress levels are high. Luckily, there are plenty of people who take project management very seriously and have created methodologies we can borrow from. Once a strategy is in place, it’s easy to find a tool that facilitates good communication and efficient work.
Here are a few popular project management methodologies that can work well in both creative and development agencies.

The Waterfall Methodology

If your processes are as efficient as McDonald’s, it means your output is high and your margins are great. The challenge is that most teams are working sequentially long before they’re ready to. Sequential work can be the best or worst approach depending on how sound your processes are.
Waterfall workflows are easy to visualize. The logical order also makes it easy to understand how a project moves from start to finish. Here are the steps a project should go through:

  • Requirements: The scope of the project is decided, along with clear expectations for deliverables and timelines.
  • Design: The initial work begins by outlining, wire-framing or prototyping the project.
  • Implementation: The project is written, designed or coded.
  • Verification: The agency ensures that the work meets the specifications laid out in the Requirements phase.
  • Maintenance: The project is delivered to the client and revisions are made until the project is completed.

The first thing the customer sees is the finished product–there is generally no room for input before this.
There’s an important lesson here. If a customer won’t see your work until it’s done, setting clear expectations is paramount. This works great for tennis balls, and while it can sometimes work for agencies, it rarely does in practice.
The simplicity is desirable, but difficult to achieve. A more realistic approach for most agencies is one that follows the same principles, but embraces the reality of client work.

The Agile Methodology

Consultant Michael James describes the problem with the waterfall workflow well. In order to have a successful waterfall development, you need to have “a perfect understanding of the product requirements at the outset and minimal errors executing each phase.” You can’t make any mistakes.
There are just too many variables in agency projects for this work, which is why the agile framework has grown increasingly popular for creative teams.
There are 12 agile principles, but the basics can be outlined in three bullet points:

  • Change is welcome at any point in the process
  • Work is done in sprints that result in tangible deliverables
  • The goal is to maximize the amount of work not done

Each project phase has a clear beginning and end, and results in a “shippable” product. That could mean a draft, wireframe or mockup that can be reviewed internally and by a client. Feedback is built into the process to ensure that minimal work is done without feedback.
If you’re used to showing customers a finished product, it can feel uncomfortable to show them drafts. Agile coach Michael Hodgson suggests that before you go agile, you get very comfortable with continuous delivery. As long as expectations are set ahead of time, it’ll save both parties lots of time.
Agile isn’t perfect either and it generally requires project managers to be certified as Scrum Masters. If you’ve read about the waterfall and agile strategies, but fall somewhere in between, the next framework could be for you.

The Kanban Methodology

Established by Toyota in the 1950s to manage inventory, the Kanban strategy can be applied to all kinds of projects. Kanban limits the number of tasks in play to keep organizational overhead low. Tasks are grouped into distinct phases and follow a linear flow towards completion.
Kanban falls under the “agile” umbrella since it’s a framework for shipping and iterating quickly. While it’s less defined than the Waterfall Methodology, it’s also more flexible. Kanban can be applied as a layer to a waterfall or lean strategy.

Kanban relies on four key principles, explained here by Zapier’s Matthew Guay:

  • Cards (Kanban translates to “visual card”): Each task has a card that includes all relevant info about it; this makes sure everything to complete the tasks is always at hand.
  • Cap on work in progress: Limit how many cards are in play at once; this prevents teams from over-committing. 
  • Continuous flow: Move down the list of backlogs in order of importance, and make sure something’s always being worked on. 
  • Constant improvement (otherwise known as “kaizen”): Analyze the flow to determine how efficiently you’re working, and always strive to improve it.

Kanban might not be for everyone, but there is at least one takeaway that can help any agency workflow. Every agency has overcommitted to impress a client at least once. The stressful results can be curbed by limiting the amount of work being tackled at any given time. Kanban keeps the focus narrow so it’s easier to set realistic timelines and avoid burnout.

Strategy, then software

With a project management strategy in place, it’s time to choose a tool to help you manage projects, assign tasks and collaborate with your team. Teamwork Projects was designed to allow teams to collaborate better by increasing transparency across all projects and removing the dependence on email. Through our feedback channels we know that a lot of you want Kanban and we’ve added this feature to our development roadmap. If you’re keen to learn more about how to use Teamwork Projects and weekly sprints to get things done, check out this blog that our customers White Fuse wrote. They describe, step-by-step, how to they started using Teamwork Projects to adapt to their bespoke blend of agile and sprint methodologies.
No tool is a silver bullet. Whichever software you choose for project management, you’ll get more out of it with a good strategy in place.