Here’s a common situation that might sound familiar. Contracts are rolling in, the team is busy, projects are chronically late, your clients are impatient and although the creative is solid, clients at times end up less than impressed.

 

It’s time to focus on Operations.

 

“Operations” means how you do your work. When a project comes in the door – ops is comprised of organizing the activities that occur internally before being pushed out the other end completed, live and in your clients’ hands.

 

Considering that these processes result in projects that represent your brand, fill your day to day workflow, impact team satisfaction (and your sanity), fulfill your clients’ needs, and ensure future referrals; these processes receive a shocking lack of focus industry wide. We want to change that and empower studios to find their operations “flow”.

 

A typical situation:

12 projects in studio workflow

Average: 48% complete – some more complete, some less but average work in process of 48%

Average: 92% budget spent – team time at the studio rate + contractors + printing, travel, etc

Difference: 44% (should aim to have no difference)

 

In our experience at Measure, we see this often with our new clients. Don’t let this be your normal. The problem with this scenario:

–          Damn hard to even think about Utopia – just keeping your head above water

–          Team satisfaction – overworking people

–          Your bank balance will stay flat – not making money on your projects

 

Your design business can’t survive with chronic project overages for long. You’ll burn out trying to keep up or worse, loose too much money to stay afloat. If you want to make the biggest impact on your Ops, focus on your project start. The right start is the single best way to improve project success: completion on time, on budget and on brief.

 

PROJECT SCOPE:

Get the right start

 

One of the main reasons client projects go awry is related to poor starts. We get it…you’re busy. It’s tempting to throw the newly landed project right into the workflow – after ignoring it for too long until its panic mode to get it completed.  This becomes a cycle, because if you’re behind a few projects it’s highly unlikely that you can just grab the next one and spend a bunch of time upfront. You’re just keeping your head above water.

Break this cycle. Take the next new project, invest time upfront and get ahead of your workflow. Below are recommendations for getting the right start:

 

STEP 1: BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT:

A tempting first opportunity to throw project success under the bus is in the first conversations with a potential new client. If the communication isn’t tight at this early stage, it’ll be hard to recover.

 

Scope Starts with Business Development:

A few suggestions:

–          Always ask for a budget. Don’t just throw an estimate out there – build your estimate/scope on a client budget. They have one even if they say they don’t.

–          Match potential solutions to the budget. Don’t just look at the potential perfect solution…look at the best solution within the budget constraint.

–          Before “sure ya, we can do that” is your response – put some heavy thought into what you’re specific niche and skill is and look for projects that are a fit. If you take a project that you’re not well suited for, you’ll lose money trying to compensate for the lack of knowledge either through heavy freelancer use or internal trial and error.

–          Base your estimate on previous actual projects – learn to produce accurate estimates over time.

–          Stand by your value & price. If your client wants it cheaper or the budget doesn’t make sense – maybe concede they are not a fit. If you’re cutting down project cost at their request, match this will decreased project scope rather than a simple “sure we can drop the price 10%”. Also, avoid the “this is a low budget but I’m sure we can bang this out in a few hours” mentality – it rarely happens like that in reality.  Further, these tighter budget clients are usually the most demanding.

–          Be very careful about the “passion projects” that studios are often willing to do at any price. The concept that they can be good for a portfolio or good for culture needs to be balanced by the need to produce paying work efficiently to stay sane and profitable. These projects often take way more time and cost than expected and the passion element can wear off quickly.

 

More People, Earlier & More Often:

In line with the suggestions above, the more people involved in the business development process the better. Have your strategy, creative and project management team members all involved in a new client needs meeting or RFP process.

 

STEP 2: DIAL IN THE RIGHT SCOPE:

Once a client signs a contract – have all potential team members, freelancers, suppliers involved the in the scope process. Everyone who will touch the project should be consulted.

 

Invest Time Up Front:

The most important element to getting the right start is time: to think, plan, discuss, collaborate, challenge, research and document; what is often called the project scope phase. Without time, none of the above is possible. This investment will pay off: saving time, cost, frustration and client dissatisfaction through the rest of the project. As a rule, never shortcut the project scope phase.

 

Accountability:

Client owns Product Scope, Studio owns Project Scope

 

Accountability is key to ensuring project success. It’s not as simple as throwing accountability on your project manager…there are too many elements beyond their control. Let’s look at a few roles:

–          Client: Accountability on the client’s shoulders needs to be clear and communicated upfront. They should own the “Product Scope” and must provide a clear explanation of what needs to be delivered.

–          Project Manager: The studio must own the “Project Scope” –how the product will be created. The project manager should be the ambassador of the project scope accountability and own the production process.

–          Execution Team: A member (ideally 1) of the execution team should hold accountability to stay within the project scope. To provide solid insight and feedback during the project scope phase and to do everything possible to provide awesome creative within the budget of time and cost.

 

Scope Feedback:

A project manager must be objective during the project scope phase – don’t turn this into your baby (yet). Test, vet and criticize the scope before locking in your plan. Let the team challenge certain aspects of the plan, time to complete, etc. Invite people to poke holes – there are sure to be a few.

 

Communication:

Every recommendation we’ve made above requires great communication and collaboration. A few specific touch points not to be missed:

–          Biz Dev: Team collaboration on client needs and assessing fit

–          Project Estimate: feedback / criticism

–          Project Scope: Input from all involved team members, feedback on scope, and a detailed project plan meeting once locked in

 

STEP 3: LOCK IN THE PROJECT PLAN:

Lock it in:

If you have walked through the above steps with the necessary collaboration, communication, process and time – this is a solid enough plan to “lock in”. Once locked in, clearly communicate the project plan with your team and project scope with your client.

 

This “locking in” allows for one of 2 things down the road necessary for project success:

–          Project scope change: request from team to increase project scope, collaborate on why the need for scope change, if it is acceptable for the project, and learn for future scope phases.

–          Product Scope change: provide client an estimate for scope increase thus protecting the project profit margin.

 

GET SMARTER OVER TIME:

 

Each time you start a new project scope phase, think about a previous similar project – learn from past mistakes and success. Project outcome success and estimate accuracy takes practice, time and intention.  Have patience and treat each new project as an opportunity to learn and improve.

 

Reaching your Utopia surely involves having a “flow” at your studio: enjoying your day-to-day, being in control of your projects, ensuring successful outcomes, keeping clients happy, removing conflict, avoiding an overextended team and doing awesome work.  All of this is operations. Get the right start on your next project to grab control of the flow in your work.