Re-imagining how we schedule and tackle work at Hines Digital

One of the reasons I started my own business was because I believed there had to be a better way to work: remotely, asynchronously, and with some semblance of work/life balance. As as result, we’re constantly re-evaluating how we approach our work at Hines Digital in an attempt to achieve that goal.
This is where we’re at today…

Some background

I’ve found that working in client services can make it difficult to keep control of your schedule. When the clients call and say “can you do this by _____?” you want to say “yes.” Before long, you’ve lost all sense of pace and balance in your workload. You’re always behind schedule, and that’s no way to do great work.

At Hines Digital, we often work with clients whose stakes are high and timelines short. If we’re not available when they need us, we’ll lose the business. That leaves us vulnerable to overbooking.

The flip side of that is that constantly working on short timelines leads to burnout. That’s why we’ve been working to a way to avoid over-scheduling.

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We’re going to start breaking our calendar up into discrete, six-week cycles. Here’s why…

Last month, I read (and re-read, and re-read) Jason Fried’s post about how Basecamp works on projects internally. Their approach to breaking the year up into six-week “cycles” really resonated with me. I’ve decided to try it at Hines Digital as well.

Why’d it connect with me so strongly? A few reasons:

Consulting often feels like a treadmill

We’re always working on a range of projects at different stages, and as soon as one ends another begins. But people aren’t made to operate in a permanent sprint; life naturally tends towards cycles (the sleep cycle, the seasons, etc.). Approaching our project calendar in six-week cycles feels—to me—like a natural way to work. It will give our work a rhythm.

On the other hand, without clear project cycles our project calendar can start to feel like a game of whack-a-mole: we’re always working, but never finishing. Over time that leads to fatigue, exhaustion, and burn-out.

Better allocating staff time, pricing projects, and dedicating resources

By carving our project calendar into more manageable chunks, we think it’ll be easier to allocate resources around them.

We don’t track hours at Hines Digital, so budgeting time and staff resources around work to be done can be difficult. Now, instead of a series of ongoing, rolling projects, I’ll have a sequence of six-week cycles.

Within each cycle, I’ll know exactly how much bandwidth I have to allocate and exactly how much revenue I need to realize in order to stay profitable. That simplicity and bite-sized focus will—I hope—help keep things clear.

What will we do in each six-week cycle?

In each six-week cycle, we will tackle two sorts of work: stock & flow.

  • Stock: The bigger, more substantive projects—like branding, website design, or digital strategy development. These are our bread & butter. They draw in clients and lay the groundwork for our future. Each cycle has 1–3 of these projects.
  • Flow: The ongoing, day-to-day work—like digital advertising and online fundraising—to maintain and leverage our work on past “stock” projects. Flow projects reduce client churn, win campaigns, and build long-term relationships. These projects are ongoing commitments and re-evaluating our bandwidth every six-week helps us forecast hiring needs.

After more than three years doing this sort of work, I’m pretty confident that the scope of any project in Hines Digital’s wheelhouse can be crafted so that it’s achievable in a six-week timeline.

Our ongoing business development process continues throughout each cycle. As we’re pitching new “stock” projects (website design, etc.), we allocate them to the next upcoming cycle until it’s filled. This will help us avoid over-booking, and allow us to focus on taking on projects where we’ll have the lead time required to do our best work.

What about projects that can’t wait for a six-week cycle? Sometimes timelines are too short?

For nearly every campaign or cause, a 6 week lead time to develop a website and digital strategy is totally reasonable. Planning a run for office, or launching an advocacy organization, is not usually a spur of the moment decision.

I’ve met people who’ve been plotting their run for office for as much as two years; contracting with a digital agency ought not be something you do at the last minute. After your General Consultant, your digital team ought to be your first hire.

That said, there are two situations where a campaign or cause might not have sufficient lead time, resulting in a true “hurry-up” project:

  1. You’re running for office in a Special Election (or by-election in Commonwealth countries) stemming from an unexpected vacancy, and you’ve got to move quickly; or
  2. You’re launching an advocacy effort in response to current events, don’t already have a digital agency on retainer, and need to move quickly.

Both of those situations are real, common, and understandable. In those cases, we’ll take on the projects on a case-by-case basis, charge a “rush” fee, and—typically—shortcut the full creative process and fall back on tried and true approaches.

Put another way: rush jobs are “flow,” not “stock.”

I honestly have no idea if this will work. And that’s okay with me. We’ll figure it out.

One of the great things about running a small business is that you get to decide how it’s run. There isn’t a “right way” to do these things: there’s only the way that works best for you, and you get to figure out what that is for yourself.

I don’t know if this new approach will work well for us. It might not, and that’s okay. If it turns out to be a bad idea, we’ll pivot quickly; we’re a small team, and we can do that. Lack of certainty, however, is no reason not to try.

What I do know is that Hines Digital can’t be a volume-over-quality agency. I’d rather us take on fewer projects and have our work be consistently high-quality than the opposite. This is an effort to help us focus on not overbooking so we can achieve that goal, and if there’s even a chance it’ll work then we should try it.

Hi. I’m Ian Hines, CEO of Hines Digital. We are the world’s leading digital strategy & technology provider to conservative campaigns and causes.

We’re focused on the permanent things: great client services, measurable, meaningful results, and promises kept. To us, service is sacred. We know that great clients are hard to find, and we aim to keep them.

If you’re running a campaign or cause and want to get the most out of your digital strategy, drop us a line at hello@hines.digital. We’d love to chat.

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