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Six steps to choosing the right partners for your digital project

Outsourcing digital projects or application development isn’t easy. These initiatives typically have a lot riding on them, so it’s vital you pick the right partner for the journey.

When you dip into the market, you’re presented with an almost bewildering amount of choice: countless businesses large and small making compelling but all slightly different promises on their websites. Unless you’ve got a personal recommendation or have worked with someone before, how do you sift through the many suppliers to find the right one?

We’ve put together six things to think about as you choose a partner for your next digital project.

  1. Meet their people

You and your colleagues are going to be working with a variety of people in this organisation on a regular basis, and trusting them to be part of your important initiative.

So before you select a digital partner, get to know their employees and the company’s ethos when it comes to recruitment and retention. Because as well as affecting continuity on your project, high staff turnover could be an indicator of low morale and poor engagement, which can be reflected in people’s work.

Where does the business recruit from? What is its attitude to continuous improvement, mentoring and career development? What is its employee retention rate? How happy do its people seem?

To help answer these questions, pay a visit to their offices and ask to meet the most junior and senior team members. Bring the right people from your business along at appropriate times – different individuals will notice different things.

  1. Does the partner understand what you’re trying to achieve?

It’s important to test how well the partner understands the purpose and overarching goals of your project. Do they ‘get’ where this piece fits in your bigger puzzle?

For example, the new application you want may be key to a wider drive to better communicate a highly complex message with a knowledgeable audience. Does the partner genuinely understand this need and the nuances it brings, or is this ‘just another identikit web app’ to them?

If the partner understands what you’re trying to do at a high level, drill down to find out how they’ll gather requirements and translate these into estimates and actionable chunks of work. User epics and stories are a great way of doing this, because they can be reviewed by your non-technical stakeholders.

  1. Have they got the technical expertise?

Some digital projects require deeper technical expertise than others. If you’re building a relatively straightforward website, for example, most digital agencies will have the capabilities and experience to do this. But be aware that even seemingly simple projects can have technical complexities. And if you’re doing something more sophisticated, or indeed, breaking new ground in any way, you’re likely to need more specialised digital engineering skills and experience, which a generalist agency may not have.

  1. Are their processes flexible?

As your digital project progresses, needs and understandings can evolve, new technologies emerge and, let’s face it, things don’t always go to plan. You need to be working with an organisation that offers the flexibility to innovate and deal confidently with changes, risks and uncertainty.

Does your partner have a flexible and reliable process for incorporating changes, without compromising the overarching purpose? Do their people have the knowledge, experience and authority to know when and how to apply this process?

  1. How will they communicate?

Closely linked to the previous point is how the partner will communicate with you during delivery. How will they report current status? How do they manage dependencies? Will they stay on the front foot by proactively notifying you of issues, risks and challenges?

One size doesn’t fit all, so be clear about what’s important for you and your colleagues to see and hear.

Be sceptical of a partner who isn’t transparent, or wants to force a very rigid process on you. You’re the customer, and it’s important you get the information you need, when you need it.

  1. Are they commercially flexible?

Lastly, there’s the question of how you’ll pay the partner for their efforts. The obvious options are fixed-price or time and materials (T&M). There are also hybrids, such as ‘price per point’, where you assign each feature a points score based on the relative effort required to deliver it. This makes it easy to see where time is being spent, and is a huge help when it comes to prioritising features in an informed way.

Talk to the business about how they’ll measure success – some will be genuinely committed to delivering business value for you, where others may see getting paid as their number one aim. The former are likely to be more flexible, which is incredibly important, given things are likely to evolve as the project progresses. You want a commercial setup that allows for this. Be wary of inflexibility, because this is likely to harden if the project runs into difficulties.

Take the time to get it right

Put together, these things will give you a good idea of whether the organisation you’re talking to is going to be a good fit for your needs.

If the first few organisations you speak to don’t feel like the right match, keep looking. The importance of what you’re doing means it’s best to take a bit of time now to find the right partner. It will almost invariably result in a quicker and/or more pleasant digital journey.

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