I’ve lamented in numerous Agency Journey episodes about how client project delays at Barrel have been absolutely killers in terms of profitability. This happens primarily with fixed-fee, fixed-scope projects. These projects typically come with a detailed outline of requirements, specs, activities, and other deliverables along with tentative timelines for delivery. Anything not captured in the contract could be considered “out of scope” although this will depend on the specificity of the original statement of work and how well you handle conversations with the client throughout the project.
Quick Aside: Fixed Fee vs. Time-Based Projects
Many problems can be solved by avoiding fixed-fee projects in the first place.
Sticking to time & materials (T&M) or some other kind of time-based work (hourly, weekly, day-rate, FTE, etc.) is the most obvious way to mitigate risk. Some clients are open to this and others are adamantly opposed to it. One could argue that incentives are misaligned: the agency, being paid by time spent, will, consciously or subconsciously, push for and advocate processes and solutions that eat up large chunks of time to capture billable hours.
Some clients, in order to protect their own downside, may audit and require justification for every hour spent, creating a lot of overhead work for the agency. The other drawback is that time-based projects are limited in their profit potential and prevent the agency from capturing the full value of a project. Say a client is easily willing to pay $10,000 for a quick turnaround solution that only requires 10 hours, but with a T&M arrangement, you might only be able to charge $2,000 (using a $200/hour rate), leaving $8,000 on the table.
My takeaway between fixed-fee and time-based approach is this:
- Where risk is extremely low–assuming we have very effective ways of gauging risk and we have a proven process to get the work done efficiently–fixed-fee, fixed-scope projects can be a great way to generate profits.
- Where risk is higher and where there is uncertainty in timing as well as fluidity in scope, some kind of time-based engagement can provide downside protection while allowing for profits.
What Causes Client Project Delays
I’ve witnessed up close and been an active participant in hundreds of client projects over the years. Most of these have been with some kind of website build or branding project. I’ve been able to distill a lot of different observations into 8 underlying causes that lead to project delays. They are:
- Misalignment on project scope between client and agency
- Misunderstanding of project scope within the agency’s project team
- New stakeholders
- Scope creep
- Resource mismanagement
- Misestimation of the work
- Client-side delays
- Employee turnover
Below, I’ve detailed each cause along with some ways to prevent or mitigate them.
1. Misalignment on project scope between client and agency
Even with a signed contract that, from the agency’s perspective, clearly outlines the requirements and deliverables for the project, there’s always the chance that the client has a slightly different interpretation. It really depends on how thorough and tight the process was from sales to contract negotiations to project kickoff.
The client might be under the impression that certain things “discussed during the sales process” are included in the scope, even though there is no mention of it in the contract. It’s possible that the primary stakeholder on the client side hardly looked at the contract and passed it on to their in-house counsel without comment.
Misalignment on project scope typically plays out in uncomfortable ways. In a best-case scenario, the client will come around and be okay with the agency’s interpretation of the scope and play ball, but not until after a few tense conversations. In a worst-case scenario, the client may call the misalignment a dealbreaker and threaten to call off the project unless their demands are met. In such a situation, the agency can either void the contract and walk away or suck it up and accommodate the client’s scope demands. If the agency chooses the latter option, be forewarned that it’s a very slippery slope that can lead to further scope change demands throughout the project.
Whether it’s a best-case, worst-case, or somewhere-in-between scenario, the misalignment issue will slow down the project as both sides work things out. It’s possible to lose days, weeks, and even months if the project scope becomes a moving target.
One way to protect against these situations is to require the primary stakeholder(s) to be involved beyond the sales process through the contract negotiations and the initial kickoff. These can be opportunities to reiterate and reaffirm the full extent of the project scope and to make the point that anything outside of what’s been specified in the contract will be “out of scope” and subject to a change order or new statement of work.
As a baseline, it’s important to strive for contracts that are as detailed and specific about what’s included and what’s not included in the project. We’ve been burned too many times for being vague about things like integrations with 3rd party software or for complex features like subscriptions and customer dashboards. Taking more time upfront to specify the steps and exact work that’ll be done for all the items can be powerful protection later on.
2. Misunderstanding of project scope within the agency’s project team
A surefire way to delay a project is for the project’s team members to misunderstand what they are supposed to deliver. The misunderstanding can happen if the team isn’t properly briefed on the project and if there hasn’t been effective coordination and collaboration to talk through the project’s goals, requirements, and deliverables.
Another component of this issue is when the project team makes certain assumptions about unclear aspects of the project and starts down the path of working on the wrong things only to realize later that they will need to reverse course and redo parts of the work.
The antidote to this cause of delay is more cultural than anything: a willingness on the part of every project team member to do their part in fully understanding what’s required for the project’s success, of going out of their way to clear up any uncertainties or confusion, and taking full responsibility for knowing the ins and outs of the project scope.
This level of personal accountability can start with a strong project lead, which could be an agency principal, a senior account lead, a seasoned project manager, or some department head, who takes ownership of the project team’s success and models the behavior that signals proactivity and a relentless craving for specificity.
Once project leadership is set, certain practices can help further mitigate risk:
- A detailed project brief written together by the sales lead and project lead and, optionally, verified by the client
- An internal kickoff where team members can review the brief together while surfacing questions and risks together
- Weekly project team check-ins to share progress on the project and to ensure the work is mapping to the overall goals
When the project team is lock-step on project scope and know exactly what to do and how quickly, delays are much less likely to happen.
3. New stakeholders
When a project has already kicked off and in full swing, one of the more unpredictable challenges is the addition of a new client stakeholder to the project, especially someone in a senior, decision-making position who has been brought in to take a leading role.
In a best-case scenario, a new stakeholder can actually be a net positive for the project. This person may bring much-needed support on the client side that makes the agency’s life easier. They may also have more technical knowledge and skills that benefit the overall project. They may also infuse energy and overall pleasantness to the project with their attitude and personality. I’ve seen many instances where this has been the case and a new stakeholder becomes our new best friend. And in such cases, the project, rather than suffering any delays, may actually speed up.
On the flip side, a worst-case scenario is a stakeholder who is looking to make their mark while also coming in with a high degree of skepticism and mistrust of the agency. I’ve been in situations where I knew from day 1 that the relationship was finished and that this new stakeholder would look for any and all reasons to discontinue our engagement, shifting the relationship to a more familiar agency from their previous role. This is just part of the business, but it’s frustrating nonetheless, and it tends to cause project delays because the stakeholder is likely to second-guess decisions, to suggest revisions to the scope, and to require processes that were previously not there.
The combination of stakeholder-led project delays and the prospect of losing the client relationship for good is not a great feeling. But rather than sitting idle, it’s best to be proactive. Here are some of my recommendations:
- Set up time early on to have multiple meetings with the stakeholder to review the project scope and approach and to ask questions like:
- What are your expectations for a highly productive relationship with an agency?
- What are things we need to understand about working with you, such as your preferred communication style and pace?
- Are there any aspects of this current project that you think should be different?
- If there is a sense that the stakeholder is not giving the agency a fair chance and is most likely looking to make a change, perhaps even mid-project, have an honest conversation and ask the stakeholder for their honest answer. Some will flatly deny any intent to make the switch, regardless of whether or not it’s true, and some will tell a straight answer, as in, “Yes, I have a team that I’d like to bring in to replace you.” If it’s the latter answer, this is an opportunity to get out of a project early instead of letting it drag on painfully.
- If you’d like to be even bolder, just ask the stakeholder flatly: “Would you like us to resign from this account and end the project?” If you decide to go down this path, be sure to have read the contract to understand the financial implications and what the steps will be to wind down the project and client relationship.
4. Scope creep
The larger and more complex a project, the more opportunities there are for small asks and slight alterations to accumulate and turn into sizable costs for the agency. This is how scope “creeps” up and becomes larger, or more bloated, than what was agreed to with the client.
Scope creep leads to project delays through a thousand cuts–it’s hard to see and feel any one activity causing the delay, but over time, the days or weeks you thought you had to get everything done seem to slowly vanish.
Policing scope creep is easier said than done. Most project teams are eager to please the client and therefore, “taking care” of a few small asks here and there becomes an afterthought. I personally think giving some freebie help to the client is healthy and natural behavior–we want to be accommodating where possible. The mistake that often gets made is when small requests are automatically processed and acted upon without any discussion of the added “out of scope” effort or the impact to the timeline.
My view is that it’s better to over-communicate to the client that we are doing them a favor and taking time out to get something done for free. Once you get in the habit of verbalizing the effort, it’s much easier to start drawing the line when the requests start to add up or get big enough to have material impact. The client will have been conditioned to understand that their requests have been out of scope and that it’s time to pay up for some of these asks. Just make sure that you can calibrate between an overzealous “everything is out of scope” project manager type and a “yes, you can have anything” pushover account type. What you want is the right amount of firmness and finesse. If that’s too hard to find, perhaps a well choreographed good cop/bad cop routine is the answer where you put on a show for the client and ultimately give a little while pushing back on things as well.
In addition to these conversations, having a shared “change/request log” spreadsheet or document with the client is another way to make clear that every new request or alteration has real impact and to track the volume of such items throughout the project. This doc can be paired with some kind of policy that is shared with the client along the lines of: “We’ll take care of up to 10 hours of out-of-scope requests throughout the project, but beyond that, we will need to issue a change order for additional scope and budget as well as impact to timeline.” This way, there are clear boundaries set and protections in place against scope creep.
5. Resource mismanagement (team member availability + skills & experience)
When it comes to staffing project teams, there are two primary types of risks that cause project delays:
- Resourcing people who aren’t fully available to give the project the necessary time
- Resourcing people who lack the skills and experience for their assigned roles on the project
When it comes to the first problem, there are a few reasons why a team member might not have availability:
- The system tracking and showing their availability is inaccurate and not up-to-date
- Another project this person is staffed on has been “unexpectedly” delayed, so what looked like an opening has actually just disappeared
- The person is out on extended leave or PTO during large stretches of the project
The surefire way to avoid availability issues is to have accurate information, even if that means chasing down staffing plans and schedules of other projects and having conversations with other people. On a more macro level, avoiding project delays across the board will alleviate many resourcing headaches. And be sure to look out ahead and check with team members about their PTOs to account for any expected time off that may impact project timelines.
The second resource management problem is about having a clear understanding of your team’s capabilities. When a project team is staffed with inexperienced team members or people who don’t have the required skills to get the work done efficiently, there’s bound to be project delay risk. One way to mitigate is to buffer in some additional time for the inexperienced team members to figure things out, but this depends largely on a timeline that’s acceptable to the client. Another option is to staff someone to provide “oversight” on the project, but that introduces additional cost and another resource to ensure proper availability for.
We’ve had our fair share of resource mismanagement over the years, some we caused knowingly because we were short-staffed and trying to make the best of the situations and others we caused without knowing and only found out later when what we believed to be someone’s level of experience and competence wasn’t borne out in the project. The latter problem is something that can only truly be solved by having a strong team structure where managers know the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and are continually monitoring their growth in terms of skills, experience, and leadership abilities. This means investing in solid department leads, creating space for departments to share knowledge and solidify processes, and having a robust people operations process that includes recruitment of talented individuals, performance management, and ongoing professional development.
A “short cut” to avoiding the skills & experience problem is to have an extensive network of experienced freelancers. Tapping into the network and hiring freelancers for key roles can be a huge help, especially with more technical areas where having someone who has “done this before” can save countless hours and headaches. In some cases, the freelancer doesn’t need to be involved for the entirety of the project but more as a consultant who comes in to give the lesser experienced project team member some pointers and provides oversight.
6. Misestimation of the work
Inexperience and lack of relevant skills–part of the cause mentioned in the previous section–can lead to misestimation because “you don’t know what you don’t know” and this can end up leading to a timeline that underestimates the true depth of the work required.
I’ve also seen misestimation happen with even the most experienced and skilled team members. They get too optimistic or clever about an approach and discount risks like more extensive QA testing or the reliability of 3rd party vendors. They may also be enamored with reusing components from previous projects and thinking it’ll be “quick” to implement. The worst-case scenario is that the timeline we promised to the client ends up being way too short, and we either need to ask for an extension (a delay) or have to increase our costs by adding extra resources to hopefully make the original deadline.
Getting more accurate estimates is often a never-ending struggle for agency businesses. Those that tend to focus on a narrower set of project types and have a strong process in place can benefit from looking at past data and getting a sense of how much effort a typical project takes and what variables impact project costs. These historical numbers can be guardrails and a starting point for the team to come up with their estimates.
The other important factor is that estimating needs to be an interdisciplinary team sport. Rather than tasking a single person to estimate their particular involvement and adding things up at the end, there may be benefits to reviewing each project component as a group and then talking through the implications of getting the work done. For example, a particular feature may require additional project management time to coordinate certain details with the client, time for the designer to consider the UX and visual interface elements, for the engineer to code out the piece, and for the QA analyst to properly test everything. Everyone may have different ideas about their involvement and what may have initially been written off as “a couple hours for design, a couple hours for dev” may actually end up becoming a much more involved effort. Do this enough times and you begin to see how misestimating can be so easy.
Related: Check out this article on the Shopify Partners blog by AgencyAgile founder and CEO Jack Skeels where I share my experience on how we’ve implemented AgencyAgile methods into our scoping process.
7. Client-side delays
My bet is that seasoned agency folks will agree with me that most project delays happen because of client-side delays. By this, I mainly mean delays in providing feedback and sign-off at key junctures of the project.
These delays usually happen because the stakeholders involved are busy and often have competing priorities. They may have set out to make the project with the agency their top priority, but things can pop up along the way and derail their attention and focus. This might mean that what initially started as a promise to provide “aggregated, detailed feedback” or “approval on all creative” by next week could be pushed out by a few days or even a few weeks. In other cases, having multiple layers of decision-makers can muck up the process and slow things down. You may have an easy time with your direct day-to-day contacts but they may need to “find the right time” to show the “final decision-makers” the deliverables to get their sign-off. This wait for the right time has caused more delays throughout my career than I can count.
The most important thing to do in these situations is to ensure that delays in feedback or sign-off get reflected in the overall project schedule and that the client is aware and in agreement that milestones have to shift. Forgetting to do this can turn into a real problem, especially if the client assumes that their delays should not have any impact on the timeline–make sure they never get to make that assumption.
In extreme cases, where sign-off is so elusive and is taking weeks on the verge of months, it may be worthwhile to discuss some kind of a pause. Some agencies adopt a “pause clause” in their contracts allowing them to put projects on hold and to release resources to other projects. The client can opt to “restart” a project, often for an additional fee and with the understanding that there may be some kind of ramp up time to get things going again.
Other client-side delays include work with other agencies. For example, in our case, clients often have delays in wrapping their work up with branding agencies, so what we took as the start date can sometimes be pushed out as many as a few months. Delays can also come from internal departments on the client side. IT, legal, marketing, communications, finance, or anyone else may “drag their feet” or just operate at a different pace and hold up key pieces of a project.
Client-side delays can be frustrating especially if you’ve been completely buttoned up and delivering on your end. However, you can only control what you can control, and most delays are best dealt with patience, adjusted timelines, perhaps discussions of additional budget (if set up correctly), and continual communication to surface any other potential delays in the future.
8. Employee turnover
This last cause is related to resource management but more about the direct impact on projects when key team members leave.
The biggest risk to an agency employee leaving a project is the knowledge they take with them, especially of any special context or approach that’s critical to the project’s success. I’ve lived through some nightmare cases where gaping holes were left after an employee’s departure and it felt like searching in the dark to figure out what was already done and what was left. These holes can cause all kinds of project delays or even total project failure.
Most employee turnover can be mitigated with good documentation and a thorough transition plan. Overlapping the replacement team member with the outgoing employee, even if for a week, can help. This is why every employee departure needs to be treated with intense scrutiny and care in order to ensure the health of the project.
Overcoming employee turnover effectively goes back to having a good agency infrastructure to support the team: department managers to ensure there is depth at each of the roles so team members can step in to vacated project spots and a people ops system that can replenish lost talent in the long run.
Fighting Project Delays Boils Down to These Three Things
In reviewing the eight ways projects get delayed, I see three themes that run through most of them and are essential to avoiding them:
1. Upfront work
Whether it’s project planning, careful estimation with the team, having early alignment conversations with the client, staffing the team with the right people, or writing out super-detailed statement of work documents, much of the project’s potential delays can be eliminated by doing more work upfront. In other words, measure many, many times so you don’t have to cut too many times later on.
In this context, I’m thinking of “culture” as what the organization views as its ways of working and what it holds as its standards. You find this by looking at things like the clarity of the team structure, whether or not managers care about the growth of their respective teams, and if there’s infrastructure that supports hiring, training, and holding accountable each team member to a certain level of performance. You also see it in the way each team member conducts themselves and whether or not they opt to be proactive or would rather play “not it” when it comes to taking responsibility. A strong and cohesive culture means projects get done fast and delays are rare.
You could argue that communication also belongs under culture. Here, I’m talking about the ongoing communication both internally and externally with clients. Project delays get averted when communications are effective.
How clear, candid, and quick is the communication? Effective communication means project team leaders can have difficult and thorny conversations with clients immediately, before anything becomes a real problem. It means changes to project timelines are updated and quickly shared, with written confirmation actively sought out. It also means the project team is aptly using emails, project management tools, and other communication apps to ensure information is centrally organized, easy to reference, and presents the project scope and status in clear and understandable terms both internally and with the client.
Working with other human beings to complete complex, interdependent tasks is never easy. But then again, one could argue that we’ve evolved to precisely do this: coordinate with other humans to do things much bigger and greater than anything we can do on our own–it’s what’s made us the dominant species on Earth. Project delays are impossible to completely avoid, but it’s comforting to know that things don’t have to turn into worst-case scenarios and that there are behaviors and actions within our control to keep projects on track as much as possible.