The Danger of Line-Itemed Scope Agreements

We're not doing ourselves, or the client, any favors.
I talk to potential clients everyday about the problems they are facing and whether or not we are the best resource for them to hire to solve those problems. It’s my job, and I love it. I get to dig deep into how our client’s businesses work and find areas of opportunity for us to create real, tangible value for them. I find a lot of satisfaction in that moment when I know for a fact that our work can guarantee someone more success, and therefore greater ability for our clients to meet their goals and dreams.

It’s this goal, to create real value for our clients that solves actual problems, that also has created my philosophy for building proposals. Very often clients want detailed line items for exactly what they will get out of the engagement. And I get it. It makes sense at face-value. Everyone wants to know what’s inside the box of the thing they are purchasing. That’s why I try to help clients understand that what they are buying from us is not a set of deliverables. The deliverables are a means to an end, but what they are really buying from us is value, impact, results, and a desired future state for their business. That’s what’s in the box, not a button here and a feature there, but a real solution to a real business problem.
So why not both? Why not include both the problem you’re solving for the client and the detailed line items for how you’ll get there?

Because it’s impossible to know exactly how we’ll solve a problem before we know much more about that problem and a clients business. Guaranteed paths to success work for small, simple problems. How to grill a hamburger is a simple problem- follow these exact steps and you’ll have a perfectly cooked hamburger. And these problems are usually easy for clients to solve on their own. Don’t need a custom website with optimized messaging and flows? Just use Squarespace. Need to manage your simple marketing flow? Use Asana and Mailchimp. You don’t need an expert to provide an expert solution for small problems.

Large, complex, business-changing problems though? Those are wildly complex and impossible to forecast perfectly. “How do we increase conversion for this very niche demographic?” That’s an intricate problem. “How do we effectively reduce the amount of time it takes us to manage this part of our application?” That’s an important question to answer that will take time and expertise to solve. The path to success is not clear until much more information is gathered and potential solutions tested.

One recent example of this reality in practice was a project for a client where we were building them a new website for their national organization. They needed a simplified site with clearer messaging that increased sign ups to their service. Simple enough right? We bid out the project and convinced the client to focus on the problem we were solving and not the specific scope of work, which was a little uncomfortable for them at first. “What are we getting? Will “x” feature be covered that I think is important right now?” They even had an initial scope doc, with detailed line items included, that we largely threw out the door as we reprioritized our efforts around solving a problem rather than simply delivering a list of to-dos.

Turns out, our approach was right and we saved the client an enormous amount of money in the end. Through our discovery process we uncovered a number of inefficiencies in their internal processes for signing up new clients to their service that we could solve through the functionality of the site that the company hadn’t even considered before. Solving those problems for them fell right in line with the value we wanted to provide, and so we prioritized those efforts over other deliverable that were deemed less necessary. As a result the work was much more impactful for them and created enormous value they hadn’t even considered before approaching us.

You know what would have happened if we only had a line-itemed list of deliverables to focus on? Well first off, we would likely have never encountered the problems we could have solved for the client in the first place. We wouldn’t be focused on value in order which would have allowed us to look outside our myopic view of the engagement. But let’s say we got lucky and somehow discovered a way of optimizing their business that we hadn’t considered before. Now we’re back to square one with a change order, negotiating pricing and timing, and hopefully having open resources internally to extend the project before we have to move on to the next engagement. It’s a mess.

But since we didn’t give ourselves a cemented list of deliverables, that would force our brains out of creative problem solving and into delivering the bare minimum as fast as we possibly could, we asked the right questions upfront and provided creative solutions. You know, like a creative expert should. And because our list of deliverable was fluid, but the problem we wanted to solve solid, we were able to shift our focus without having to interrupt the work at all. No change order, no budget negotiations, no impact on timelines or resourcing, just agreement that we were confident that we were building the right thing for the client.

It can be difficult, I get it. It’s the difference between buying aspirin and going to the doctor. One will cost you very little and you know exactly what you’re getting, but may not actually solve the underlying issues you’re really facing. The other will probably cost more, sometimes a lot more, and you don’t know what the solution will be until the doctor asks you questions, reviews your medical history, maybe administers some tests and get’s a second opinion, but the end result is an expert diagnosis and solution that treats the heart of the issue and not just the symptoms. It’s a scary process sometimes, but sometimes it will absolutely save your life, or in this case, your business.