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Post #1271

Week 240

A brand new studio, but it feels really quiet. Nick is on holiday for the week. Matt Jones was in New York participating in the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium earlier this week, which focussed on “city as platform.” He’s currently in San Francisco with Jack, who is also on the road, working with Bonnier and Kicker on the next stage of Mag+. That’ll start ramping up more for us next week. Jack was in the studio on Monday putting up shelves. There’s a lot to do to settle into a new space, but wow it’s such a treat. I feel like I can stretch out here. There’s three times the space, it’s warmer, and it’s bright.

Tom is in the studio this week. He’s working on Ashdown, our UK schools project with Channel 4/4iP. He’s been extracting grades from tens of thousands of school inspections so we can start displaying a measure of pupil well-being, among other things.

Matt B is also here, sitting a couple of desks to my right, just outside the room we call “New Statham” (don’t even ask). He’s working on Kendrick, and the idea there is to learn from our on-phone prototype to completely map out the every screen and final visual designs of the beta version of the app. (Kendrick is a collection of iPhone apps for language learning, and the core team on that is Nick and Matt.) There are some features we’re leaving out of the beta – such as the first-run experience – but otherwise it’s about beauty and polish. It’s looking lovely, but there’s a risk of some screens being a bit too polished in a Bang & Olufsen stand-offish kind of way. More popular and approachable, with maximum beauty!

And it was Kari Stewart’s first day as studio manager on Tuesday! She’s making an enormous difference already. There’s a lot of admin she’s picking up, and the big thing we’re tackling together is how to a. provide a view of capacity and activity of the studio coming up; and, b. track projects so that we can build up a record of how we’ve done on each — frankly how much each project costs.

So I’m wanting to focus on project accounting and management accounts in the next couple of months. Are long consultancy jobs really profitable, given they mean principals are out of the studio and unavailable for even ambient involvement in other projects during that time? Are we good at estimating? It’s a concern of mine that, as BERG grows and the number of concurrent projects increases, we could accidentally paint ourselves into a cash-flow corner. Management accounts are about building ways to make these things visible. The financial accounts, projections, weekly catch-ups and ad hoc notes have previously been more than enough… but not so much now, and definitely not in another 3 months. There’s one or two larger projects I want in, so we need to de-risk growth.

My sister works at a medium-sized civil engineering firm, and they grade their projects (A, B, or C) in three ways: how profitable it was; how easy the client was to work with and how much they enjoyed the project; its strategic importance. I’d like to be able to do something similar.

And how can all of this be done with the minimum of overhead, and without distorting or risking what is a super pleasant working environment? I’m not keen on rules or explicit processes. I believe this kind of structure has to be thought of ecologically — how can it be included such that supporting it is still the easiest way to work, and that it naturally encourages good decisions without being an imposition, in the ecology of the studio itself?

A simple example, previously, has been putting the new work pipeline on the wall, and updating it every week. I’ve not pasted it up in the new studio yet, and that’s a problem. But just its presence kept us thinking about keeping the pipeline healthy and moving. So that’s the sort of thing I mean. But this is potentially a lot more heavy-weight, so I need to move with consideration.

I’m still learning what kind of tools are good for these needs, and really still figuring out what our needs are. But that’s the big picture of what Kari and I will be working on, in addition to the day-to-day studio life-support systems. Given that, I’m really curious to know what other people use for planning and tracking, so I’ve been asking around, and spotting other people’s work practices is one of the reasons I like reading weeknotes. Your own comments and thoughts are very welcome!

So that’s my week, in a nut-shell. I’ve been able to be much more involved with Tom and Ashdown, and Matt B and Kendrick, and I’ve really enjoyed that, and there’s a whole bunch of meetings and talking on the phone. I get to show off the new space and recent work, so it’s all good stuff.

6 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Emil Ovemar said on 14 January 2010...

    Any pictures from the new studio coming up?


  • 2. Matt Webb said on 14 January 2010...

    Hi Emil! We don’t have many photos online… Matt J posted some on Flickr when we moved in

    but it’s not much is it? You’re right, I should def take some. I’ll try to remember my camera from home.

  • 3. Matt Carey said on 15 January 2010...

    Currently we use Basecamp for project tracking. everyone should (but they often don’t) log their hours against the project they are working on. Then at the end we look at the quote and the actual hours spent. It is more a guide to back-up a gut feeling and we need to get more scientific about it.

    For new work we tried Highrise for a while but that didn’t give us much. Daylite (for the mac) looks to have a good pipeline tool but I’ve not tried it yet.

    Activecollab is something I want to look at but its perhaps too big and has too many features.

    Be sure to post what you end up going for…

  • 4. Matt Webb said on 15 January 2010...

    Matt, so tracking is one half of it. I think we need to track to the half day resolution. When we’ve tried voluntary logging at the end of each week (to a group mailing list) it doesn’t seem to last too long. Maybe Basecamp would work better. But my current feeling is that a spreadsheet might do, if it was a single person’s job to nudge everyone else to log their numbers…

    The other side of it all is capacity planning. Do you have any systems for that currently? tbh a simple Omniplan doc exported to Google Calendar might do the job, but the way it exports makes it almost impossible to read.

    Daylite looks insane. I may have to try it out.

  • 5. Matt Carey said on 15 January 2010...

    I’ve always found the difficulty is getting people to log their time. If you can get over that hurdle then it doesn’t really matter what tool is used to log the time.

    I visited friends at a studio last year and was interested to see how they handled this. The studio (Atelier Works) used A3 sheets containing a matrix. The matrix had days of the week across with the day split vertically. Each person wrote in what they had worked on and for how long. I have seen this type of thing before in other ‘traditional’ studios. It echoes your spreadsheet idea.

    Completing the timesheet was so ingrained as a practice in the studio that everyone did it without thinking.

    Capacity planning is something I’m still trying to find the ‘right’ solution for after 6 years of running my studio! The best solution we found for short term planning was the dreaded whiteboard on the wall. A cliche but it did work. We had everyones names vertically and the days of the week (2 weeks to view) across. On Monday (or the previous Friday if the person was organised enough) each person wrote in what they were doing each day. At the end of the day they crossed out what they had done, and reshuffled the tasks if not completed. For me, it gave a very good, and quick, overview of what was on and especially who had too much on. This only works for the short term (2 weeks at a go) and I’l still looking at how best to deal with a 6 month overview.

    Sorry to waffle on! do post back how you get on as this is an area I find really interesting too.

  • 6. Rod McLaren said on 17 January 2010...

    Matt (and Matt),

    For tracking progress and effort at the project level, you may like the one of the agile practices like scrum or kanban, which came from software development and lean manufacturing respectively. That kind of tracking is exposed fairly naturally by both (rather than the unnatural burden of timesheeting etc), and is often simple: the progression of tasks or stories as postit notes across a whiteboard. Both practices have a focus on capacity over time, scrum by fitting estimated tasks inside timeboxed iterations (and by feeding forward the tracked time spent into future estimation to improve its accuracy), and kanban by rendering visible a team’s natural capacity (again the metaphor of the pipeline, which I think might fit Berg better).

    Caveats: they work best where the work is easily broken down into tasks of about a day or less, and compared to having no process either would feel highly ritualised because they’re “methodologies”, albeit lightweight. Scrum works well for us at the moment, but I suspect we’re a kanban organisation deep down!

    If learning/efficiency/getting better isn’t a sufficient reason to do that kind of tracking, then project P&L will be. Elsewhere on the management side, cashflow first: monthly burn rate, future and outstanding invoicing, cash collection. All the boring stuff!

    At the next level up, getting whatever mix of project work that meets your strategic and financial goals is the thing. Eg the mix of lower-margin quicker-cash consulting and higher-margin slower-cash product. I still find cashflow (or cashflow trends) useful here for setting a financial “capacity”. The marketing/strategic metrics are hard to make visible, but the other finance metrics are usually the obvious ones: revenue, gross margins.

    “As BERG grows and the number of concurrent projects increases, we could accidentally paint ourselves into a cash-flow corner” – all else being equal, 9 times out of 10 I’d rather maintain size/capacity by turning project work away or offering a discount for slower delivery than risk the longer-term pain by growing too fast; but that reflects our plan and market…

    An easy to manage/measure alternative approach is simply assigning a team on the tactical cash-generating projects, and another on the longer-term projects, perhaps rotating teams periodically. Having a clear corporate aim drives all of that.

    But yes, successful measurement needs to be simple, understandable/believable and easy to perform consistently, else it’s just friction.


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