Agile contract negotiation

As our team grows and our agile practices deepen, I spend an increasing amount of my time reviewing and negotiating contracts for agile software development.

I believe agile development projects justify a fundamental rethink and extension of the core terms of a contract for services.


Ultimately, successful projects are born from transparency, trust and collaboration between people. Agile contract negotiation can and should trouble itself with establishing the high level operational process and delivery frameworks required for those people to deliver successful projects.  

Contracts can be viewed as simple expressions of very human hopes and fears, expressed through the offer of reward and backed up by the threat of punishment. It’s particularly easy for contractual negotiations to focus on the fear and punishment side. Yet, at the time of contracting, almost anyone will assure you their main goal in partying-up is to deliver a successful project. Why then, don’t we spend more time thinking about what it takes to deliver success, and less about how to deal with failures?

We are often asked to work under a traditional “Contract for Services” model, particularly one that “The Lawyers” are already comfortable with.


In all honesty, it can pretty much get the job done. With a little nip-tuck these contracts can even look agile on top (although often there is a “waterfall” heart beating just under the surface). Yet, falling back on a more traditional contractual model fails to capture many of the commercial benefits of agile execution (for both client and supplier). It also short-circuits what could  be a valuable discussion through which the contracting parties establish , in the context of their unique and specific needs, how they will collaborate to deliver a successful project.

I don’t want to beat up on “The Lawyers” too badly; the world of legal practice is a tricky one. Lawyers by training (and duty) spend much of their time focusing on protecting their client and the rest digging clients out of holes. This can lead to a disproportionate focus on promises, obligations, processes and penalties for resolving breakdowns of trust between contracting parties. Relatively less time is spent on how to maximise commercial benefit to the client.

When negotiating contracts it’s not unusual for significant time to be dedicated to such exciting areas as:

  • liability and limitations;
  • the extent of indemnifications;
  • representations; and
  • warranties

It can all too easily become a story about risk  allocation and management and the dangers of project failure.  

The beautiful thing about agile delivery is that through its very design, the process should incrementally reduce risk and exposure on both sides of the contract. Negotiating a truly agile contract should let us move far closer to the elusive win:win paradigm. We can and should worry less about liability and under delivery, about certainty of deliverables and price upfront or about termination and resource planning. The agile process, with its recurring opportunities for feedback, examination and course correction, fundamentally changes the commercial dynamics and risks.  Our experience suggests that client-side confidence generally builds as the delivery relationship becomes established. Practically speaking, that means how we work, price and communicate evolves over time.

The negotiation of an agile software-delivery contract certainly still involves careful and conscious consideration of the promises being made by each party and the obligations flowing from them – if only because delivery failure challenges trust and transparency between parties and undermines the functional relationships we’re reliant on.  Delivery failure greatly increases the chance of moral outrage guiding us down the unpleasant path toward contractual dispute.


Perhaps the trickiest thing is that the success of agile delivery does not rest solely on the supplier. A standard Contract for Services typically doesn’t provide for this level of mutuality and interdependence of parties, and it is difficult to retrofit.


Our clients must be an integral part of the development team, empowered to set requirements and priorities and to regularly assess and provide feedback on software as we deliver it.  Success depends on the client being ready and resourced to fill this role. If it becomes apparent during contract negotiation that this isn’t the case, no amount of contractual clarity will fix the issue; it’s safest to walk away.

At times, potential clients have a team who are experienced in agile delivery.


On other occasions we may have to guide or coach client teams to grow into their roles. Initial contract negotiation is the perfect moment to assess and respond to this readiness (both at an organisational and operational level), to set clear expectations, ensuring the client appreciates the extent of their contribution, and how important it is.

Ultimately I’m of the view that the most creative and meaningful result of our contract negotiation  is establishing (together with our client) a  structure for operational process and delivery that is specific to that client/project. In practice, establishing this  often takes the form of a schedule appended to the main terms of contract. It is where we set out such matters as:

  • How we propose to implement an agile methodology including who will fulfill which roles;
  • How to ensure continuous and effective lines of communication (and escalation);
  • How to retain flexibility to capture opportunities for learning and change to ensure we actually build the right thing;
  • How to ensure adequate resourcing;
  • How to balance the inevitable tension between backlog and budget;
  • Mutual obligations and expectations around when work will be tested, accepted, deployed and, ultimately, “done”.  


We aim to build long-term client relationships, based on successful delivery. We know that each project (or phase of a project), each delivery team (and the roles and skills of the individuals within it) will be different. We also know, that even if all else remained the same, those teams and individuals will grow and develop over time. Fundamentally, one size cannot fit all. We need to respond to that by expressly permitting the balance of roles and responsibilities at a project execution level to evolve over time.

Agile contract negotiation should be an open invitation to rethink our definition of success. Rather than negotiating to deliver a contract, I hope to continue a journey toward contracts that support the building of collaboration, transparency, and trust for successful delivery.


New office feels

Media Suite is officially moved in. The wallpaper is striking (and divisive), the kitchen is fancy, and the desks go up and down with buttons. Life is good.

The view from our desks out to the water.
The view from our desks out to the water.

Many of our clients and avid social media followers (mainly our mums – our fiercest fans) will know that we’ve been working on a new office space for . . . a very long time. Since October. The time has finally come and we all moved in! Ahead of time, I might add (smugly).

Our reception space near the front door.
Our reception space near the front door.

This post is just a quick look through the new space. More on how and why we designed it the way we did, some other time.

The move itself is no great distance. We’ve gone from one end of our building at 21 Humphreys Drive, to the other. The new space is much bigger, and better suited to our growing needs. It even has heatpumps, which I am especially excited about.

We have a TV in the kitchen for our weekly Learning Lunch sessions.
We have a TV in the kitchen for our weekly Learning Lunch sessions.

The new office features:

  • A proper reception space for clients with some lovely chairs and couches – painstakingly picked.
  • A slick conference room with grown up swively chairs that look like we should be engaged in tax accountancy or Matters of State.
  • A full kitchen with a proper pantry, a table that all staff can sit at at once, a tap that changes colour with the water temperature, and, most significantly, a corner specifically designed to house our beloved coffee machine.
  • Three smaller rooms for private phone calls and secret meetings. Well, the meetings aren’t super secret because the walls are made of glass, but with the right disguise and plenty of tape and newspaper, they could definitely be secret.
  • A second conference room, dubbed, the Green Room, for more informal video conferencing.
  • Two rows of full automation sit-stand desks.
  • Video conferencing technology to enhance our meetings with clients and remote employees.
The pine slats divide work space from public space.
The pine slats divide work space from public space.

Two of our greatest design achievements include the impressive and beautiful pine slat wall created by Foster Building Solutions (our main build contractor). The slats are made from dressed pine, and screwed into a half-height black wall.

They serve to provide privacy for staff working adjacent to the reception space, without compromising the beautiful view we have of the Ferrymead estuary. They also give some dimension to the larger space.

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The other would be the striking wallpaper, chosen by Creative Director Andrew Pitts and his artist wife, Sarah (who, incidentally, put considerable time and energy into making this space practical as well as aesthetically pleasing). The wallpaper has drawn some feedback, both pro and ‘yet to be pro’ the intensity of the design. However, with all the furniture in and the space full of people, the design team is confident it’s the right fit.

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The wallpaper is made by Scion, and we have the Axis geometric design in green and pink. Sourced from the UK (because it’s too expensive here), the wallpaper adds a much-needed pop of colour and interest to a huge space that can certainly take a bold hit.

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Of course there are numerous gains beyond the simple addition of space and pleasing design choices. All staff now work out of the same open plan area, with capacity for privacy where required. We now have space to grow, and take on more cool people without sitting two to a desk or figuring out some kind of bunking-while-working system. All sorts of red flags avoided.

The space now works for us, instead of us trying to fit ourselves into the space. We hope the new digs will inspire more creativity, collaboration and inspired thinking. What’s more, it’s just nice to go to work somewhere comfortable, and really, really, really good looking.

Special thanks to Sarah Pitts, Ken Little, Garth Reid, and our landlords Jude and John Hayward.

We’re looking forward to showing off Unit 1, 21 Humphreys Drive, to all our visiting clients, guests and courier drivers.

Better living everyone! 


P.S: If you’re interested, here’s a list of our chosen contractors and fittings suppliers:



We love caffeine

Coffee, well, caffeine of any form, plays a major role in the Media Suite day. I would say . . . integral. A central focus similar to the way a bank might focus on money, or a hipster might focus on the manscaping of their beard.

It’s essential.

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At the office, we have a proper commercial coffee machine. It’s deep red, and deeply loved. A post-quake rescue story, the coffee machine lived a former life in the hallowed halls of a central city cafe before being auctioned off online to the highest bidder. Media Suite nabbed it online, and the company coffee culture grew. It takes pride of place in the kitchen space, with its own little milk fridge, proper burr grinder and stainless milk jugs.

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When a new employee joins our ranks, their induction includes a tutorial – how to steam milk, how to extract a shot . . . how to clean up after yourself (this one’s a work in progress).

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It certainly gets a workout. Things kick off around 7.30am with the first coffees of the day. Some people (Mark Stuart) make multiple stops at the machine every day. Towards the middle of the afternoon, it’s become a treat to jazz up the remainder of the day with a cheeky affogato (made with espresso and ice cream, no booze). We like salted caramel ice cream! Unfortunately, the Countdown is within walking distance, so ice cream refills are a little too convenient.

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The coffee culture extends beyond espresso. George and Abi, our fearless Heads of State, recently brought us back a treat – coffee from Oman. Served in a huge teapot with rosewater and cardamom, you drink this in tiny cups with a fresh date on the side. To die for.

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We’ve also started working our way through cold brew options from around Christchurch. Cold brew is created by pouring cold water over beans and relying on gravity to extract the coffee. A lot of cafes are offering this cool treat (best served over ice) during the summer months. We like Coffee Embassy and C4 cold brew. More to come here.

I’d like to say we’re all big coffee drinkers. There are a few that aren’t, and a few that (inexplicably) enjoy an energy drink more (!). I even saw one person, who shall not be named (Ed), making a Spider (ice cream float) using energy drink . . .

I like to think that our appreciation of a good brew is a key part of our culture here at Media Suite. We all gather around the machine in the morning for a bit of banter. It’s a team effort lining up half a dozen affogatos, and to be honest, it’s a creative daily pursuit that makes a nice change from computer screen and code.

This week, we move into our new office, and the coffee machine takes pride of place in a custom-built corner of the kitchen.