Agency operations is all about the numbers and processes that drive success. But it’s hard to run a profitable business if your team’s overworked or your clients are unhappy.
That’s where project management comes in.
In this episode of Time Limit, Brett talks with Sparkbox VP Rob Harr—who heads up operations—about what it takes to make a digital agency profitable and how operations and project management work together to deliver project success.
Listen to their conversation to learn:
Rob Harr is a developer and software consultant who found his way into running a web business. He is a co-founder and Vice President of Sparkbox, a web design and development studio in Dayton, OH that focuses on long-term partnerships with clients and creating a better Web through education.
Before Sparkbox, Rob always enjoyed the people side of technology problems while he worked and consulted for enterprise software companies. This allowed him to run projects and communicate effectively with stakeholders from early on in his career—and with great success. In his current role as Vice President, Rob is responsible for Sparkbox’s operations and financials. This has led him to speak frequently about pricing, operations and other business topics. His personal commitment to brutal honesty and plain speaking about what he has learned and the struggles of growing a business have struck a chord with audiences. Also, while at Sparkbox, Rob led the design of the apprenticeship program which allows the company to develop web talent in Dayton.
Over the years, Rob has worked with clients big and small—always finding a way to add value to their businesses. Rob loves the idea that relationships (with clients, partners and employees) should be mutually edifying. He is passionate about growing the business of Sparkbox and helping others in their quest to do the same for their businesses.
Brett Harned: Hey, welcome to Time Limit, the podcast all about leadership, project management and productivity. My name is Brett Harned and I'm your host. I'm also the director of education at TeamGantt. I also happen to be a very lucky guy because I get to talk to so many amazing people on this podcast. This week was a lot of fun for me because they had the opportunity to catch up with an old friend, Rob Harr. Rob's the Vice President of Sparkbox, a digital agency based in Dayton, Ohio. In his role, Rob heads up operations. I thought it'd be fun to pick his brain about agency operations and how project managers play a role in that. Check it out.
Hey, Rob Harr, thank you so much for joining me on Time Limit today. How are you?
Rob Harr: I'm doing really well, Brett, how are you?
Brett Harned: Good. It's really good to talk to you. It's been a while. I think our listeners should probably know that we know each other pretty well. I guess we met through the Bureau of Digital. You've spoken at the Digital PM Summit several times. We've done workshops in tandem, like Digital PM and operations workshops. We've been to events together all over the place. I feel like I've told my wife that you're my event buddy. We always hang out and end up doing something fun and low key while we're at events. I'm glad to have you on the show. I feel like this is a good time to just catch up and talk about work, and really, I really want to dig into agency operations, which is your world. I know that gets you all excited. You're ready to go.
Rob Harr: It does. This is what I do. I love talking about this stuff.
Brett Harned: Well, why don't we start at the top? Because our listeners come from project management backgrounds from every really corner of industry. We're going to talk specifically about agency operations, which I think applies to operations and a lot of different places. But maybe you can just kick it off and tell us, what is agency operations, or what's your definition of it?
Rob Harr: Yeah. When I think about operations, just in general, I really think about the how, and specifically the how between sales and profit. It's the how we get things done in an efficient manner while delivering great value to our partners or our clients, or whoever's on the receiving end of what the work that's being done.
Brett Harned: I like that. The how. Before we get into that how, because I have a bunch of questions that I want to dig in on in specific areas within ops, but you're the co-founder and co-owner of Sparkbox. How did you end up in the operations role?
Rob Harr: That's a great question. I think by accident. My background is software. Went to school, computer science, graduated, worked in big enterprise software kind of shops. That was my career path, was doing architecture and all that fun stuff. Then, when I got involved in Sparkbox, me and my business partners at that point, we were all people who were in the disciplines. We had a designer and a branding person and two web people. I was one of those web developers, for lack of a better way to put it. What we found is somebody had to figure out the business side of things, how it all worked. I had a pretty good head for numbers and spreadsheets, and took it upon to figure all that stuff out.
Because we weren't running a profitable agency at that point. The risk when the costs were too high to keep doing it the way we were doing it and not do it well.
Brett Harned: Right. So, it's really, at the core of your role, is the how. I think you even said spreadsheets and numbers. Would you say that's core to operations in most places?
Rob Harr: I would say so. It's having a handle on being able to break things down and understand the how things are working. Really, all these things are systems, right? Putting basic systems in place. I don't think that they have to be that complex, but just because they're simple, doesn't make them easy, and I think that's the core part of operations is the discipline to do things in a consistent manner, on a repeatable patterns so that people know what to expect and the results can actually be measured.
Brett Harned: Absolutely. That's core to any operations role. I think the distinction in your role is that you're in an agency setting. In a digital agency, where your team is building websites and apps and designing and coding things, and you're working for external paying clients. That's probably the biggest distinction. But otherwise, operations is really very much about how things are getting done, how you're measuring performance, how you're determining success, and it even extends down to your team and culture and all of the moving parts that make the bigger picture work. I think the world of operations can be huge, especially when you're talking about the agency world, because so many agencies are running in different ways, different kinds of structures, just different operations overall.
But I was thinking for this conversation, it might be good to focus in on metrics, how you're measuring things, obviously, staffing and your team, and how those metrics play into staffing. Or if some people say resourcing, but we both know that's a bad word, and then culture. How does operations play a role in culture? My sense is that it's pretty big. Does that sound good to you?
Rob Harr: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think that you're right on the mark with operations has a huge impact on culture. I think that humans have to be in the center of everything that we do. I think that, just to make that point just a little clear, I think that we have process for people. I think that that has to be the foundational thing when we think about systems, if you're a project manager, if you're an ops person, no matter what you're doing, you design process for people, the software, the websites, the designs, the branding, whatever you're into producing. They don't care how they get built. They don't have feelings, but we design process for people. If that's not at the center of it, you're going to make lots of mistakes.
Brett Harned: Absolutely. I say that all the time, just even about planning your projects, you have to put people first when you're planning projects, because essentially, you can't create this line by line plan, or even spell out a process without figuring out how the people play into that. We're not dealing with video game characters here. We're dealing with real life humans who have feelings and opinions about the way things work. If you do that work that sets an expectation for how they work in a vacuum, without them, things are not going to work out the way that you had planned.
Rob Harr: That's right.
Brett Harned: I want to start it off. I think people, there's going to be a thread here for sure, as it should be. Everything that we do in operations and project management is people related for sure. But at the end of the day, in operations, it really does come down to profitability when you're in an agency, and measuring that profitability. In an agency, you're basically selling projects based on estimates of time that it'll take to get a project done or to get work done. Is that how you're working at Sparkbox?
Rob Harr: Yeah, it is in a way. I think that all agencies that I've ever worked with or talk to, go through this model, where they start out by selling the promise of work. There's some estimate. They say like, "Hey client, give us X number of dollars and this much time, and we'll deliver back finished product." The meet's following scope. There's a bunch of places, different studios get to for us. We are more in the business of partnering with our clients and making available teams to them. It's not promised scope because that's really hard in the software world. The more in-depth you get with software, and the further you get from producing the same thing over and over again, the more variability and the harder it is to estimate things, right?
One, because we're optimistic. Two, because our clients are really bad at explaining what they need instead of what they want, and things change over time. Business needs change over time and you can't predict the future. When we get into a game of promising scope at a later date, we're assuming we have a lot more things in our control than we actually do. What we try to sell anymore, what we do sell is availability from a team, working towards some goal that we've agreed to with the client. Depending on the decisions they make and the priorities they set, that can take a lot of different directions during that time block.
Brett Harned: Yeah. But operationally, that sounds like the dream, because if you're selling availability, then you've got a staffing plan that you can fall back on that's based specifically on numbers that you've committed to, to a client, rather than saying, "Hey, we kind of developed this estimate for a project we could be on or off by up to 20% or more." Not knowing how that's going to impact your staffing. By selling availability, then you're offering a team who's free to get creative and create whatever they think is suitable in partnership with a client. Is that how [crosstalk].
Rob Harr: You're absolutely right. Yeah, you've nailed it. One of the things that ... We both have run, managed a lot of projects over our years. You probably know more than me. But one of the things that happens when you sell scope is you put yourself in a position to say no, all the time, or produce change orders. This doesn't match what we agreed to upfront. What that does is that eliminates the ability to have learnings during a project. That's assuming that the best knowledge available to you while you make decisions is known before you start the project.
Which we both know is crazy. We want to lean into learning. We'll know more tomorrow than we will the day, and let's embrace that every single day. I think, by selling availability, but still having accountability to deliver, that has to be part of the equation. You get to say yes to so much more. Say yes to the unknown, and yes to the learnings, and yes to directions and roads that haven't exposed themselves yet.
Brett Harned: Would you say that gets your team more excited about that client work too, because they're working under less constraints?
Rob Harr: Yeah. I would that absolutely happens. It gives the team that's working on it the ability to have better ideas.
Brett Harned: Yeah, absolutely.
Rob Harr: How many times have we worked on teams where there's a fixed scope, where they weren't even part of the problem solving upfront, and they don't feel invested in committed to the delivery of things, right?
Brett Harned: Right. Absolutely.
Rob Harr: But if we set a North Star, here's the goal for this, this is why the client's coming to us to engage with us, let's rally around that basic idea and iterate with them together to get someplace cool that helps solve their problems.
Brett Harned: It's far more exciting.
Rob Harr: It's far more exciting.
Brett Harned: It's far more motivating too, isn't it?
Rob Harr: Yeah.
Brett Harned: Here's my question then. Within that sort of structure, how are you measuring efficiency? Because at the core, you are selling availability, so you still have some estimate of time. I imagine that your project managers still have to work with the team to make sure that what they're committing to within that structure, there's still enough time to get it done. How are you managing that, or how are your team's managing that?
Rob Harr: Yeah, so we do everything based on points. All of the tasks in our backlogs, or collection of things to do get a point estimate to them. Then we're able to go through and work that, and those move through the pipelines of in process, to review, to done. Sometimes there's more categories in that, but I'm making this very simple. Then that establishes a velocity. In a velocity, what happens is, over a course of usually a couple sprints or a couple of weeks, that stabilizes. Then we're able to use that velocity, a team is established, and then use that number, that average, and look at the number of points in the backlog and say like, well, here's how far you're going to get over this period of time.
You really let the work dictate how far you're going to get. Then it becomes a really simple math equation. Oh, you need to get there faster, we can add more people. Increase the velocity. Or all those other things. I think what that does is it sets us up really well to partner with our clients a little bit, to where we're exposing these metrics and this data to them as velocity, and being able to let them make those decisions. If they want to get someplace quicker, they can prioritize certain different things.
Brett Harned: I really like the way that you're talking about that, and really the way that you're talking about partnership with clients. I think a lot of agencies miss the mark in terms of working with clients and really educating their clients and bringing them into the project and not having them sit around the project to approve things, but really having them embedded in decisions and prioritization. Really, I assume that you're keeping goals first. Every decision that's being made, a project manager will make sure that goals are being met, that everyone's on board and you can just execute, which sounds again, pretty dreamy as a project manager.
But I have to guess that there are times where the team will lose sight of the business needs, or even times where that staffing schedule might go off a little bit, just because ... I've worked with creative teams where a big idea will happen. Everybody wants to make it work and there just isn't enough time, and then you stretch yourself then to make it work. Then other work falls off for one reason or another. Do you have any challenges around staffing and making sure that project needs are being met, teams are fully staffed, and really working at an efficient pace? Are there any challenges around that?
Rob Harr: Of course, these are all ideas, and there is realities that set in to all of this, right? There is the unexpected problems that come up. There are challenges, there are vacations, there are all this stuff that happens. I think that a lot of times we can mitigate some of that by setting up our projects and our engagements to meet the needs of our studio. When you work in a way that you're delivering, just to be clear we bill by the hour, even though we do things by points and by sprints and commitments, and we still build by the hours. That means that utilization is a huge part of our overall metric that we watch on our team. We make decisions about how we design engagements to keep the numbers that we need high.
What that means in this particular case is, we staff projects with either whole or half people. What that allows us to do is it makes the staffing part of it a whole lot easier. I've talked to studios and all of that who are parsing people out, well, five hours on this, six hours on that, seven hours on that for a week. They go up and they add all those up. If you add up all the ideal hours to 40, they get to what they want to do, or whatever number they're trying to hit. But what really happens is that ignores the context switching and the efficiency loss for the individual to go from one task to another or one project to another, and really rebuild the house of cards that exist in their brains around the problems with dedicated teams, that are either assigned 50% or wholly to one problem space, they're able to stay focused a lot more.
I don't have that cost, because either that cost is going to be paid by one of three people. The clients, they're going to bill those hours anyway, and they're going to be less efficient, and they're going to have their clients paying an inefficiency cost. The studio's going to pay that inefficiency cost by not getting the billable hours they need, and you're going to eat that, or you're going to ask the employee to take that efficiency cost and still hit their hours. Really, to hit 40 spread across six projects, they may have to actually work 50 hours to do that.
Brett Harned: Yeah. I think that's a huge conversation that people are not having. People talk about context switching and how difficult it can be, but I've seen very few agencies who actually pay attention to that and really put their employees in a position where they can focus. I have to think that you see an uptick in efficiency and morale, even just by giving people more focus.
Rob Harr: Absolutely. I think that, that all comes down to expectations and be able to clearly communicate what you want. Brene Brown always talks about clarity is kindness. You can help communicate what is really valuable and how their individual actions move the business forward and how we actually set ourselves up the best for success for our client partners. It doesn't have to be ... So much of this conversation can end up with a thing where we talk about what the studio needs and the employees, or clients talk about what they need, like it's adversarial. That's not it.
If we design efficient processes that help our clients get to where they want to be, that will actually give them value, then those two things can absolutely be the same. I say all the time to our potential prospects that we're talking to, new clients, that this is the most efficient, best way to engage with us. It took a lot of work to get to that place and it took a lot of effort to get to a place where I know what that is, but we actually say no to a lot of things that aren't that anymore, because I want to only take projects and do engagements, where I can win and add a lot of value, because that's what's going to keep them wanting to work with us and have good experiences.
If I say, this is the way we work best, this is what ... We're the experts. Our clients, they may do one web project a year at most. This is all we do. We should be the experts. Let's define the rules of engagement and how we work best and say, this is how you should come to us and this is the best way to interact with us because we've done this before.
Brett Harned: Yeah, and you set that expectation very early in your sales process and by inviting them into the estimate so that they understand exactly what your team's doing.
Rob Harr: That's right. Yeah.
Brett Harned: Totally makes sense.
Rob Harr: Yeah. We talk a lot about our process and a lot of those things, and talk about estimates aren't promises, and all of those other pieces that go into here. We want to lean into learning, all that stuff. Your setting of expectations starts in that first conversation you have with somebody. Actually, if they're reading your thought leadership or anything you've done, it starts then. That's when they start having expectations of you. I feel really bad for when I hear project managers ask me questions about, well, how do I reset expectations when I start the project? I'm like, "Okay, you're late to the game by a lot."
Brett Harned: Yeah. Well, so on that note, at what point are your project managers involved with a new client or a new project?
Rob Harr: Yeah, that's a good question. Our director of delivery, who manages the PM team, is involved very early. Usually, not in the first phone call, but definitely second or third phone call. We start the vast majority of our engagements with doing discovery work. Our project managers are definitely involved in that discovery work because they need to be there. We use the kind of talk. They need to imprint on the client. We need the client to trust them and to be part of the process, and for them to trust them with their questions. Even if there is a lot of other people involved in the discovery, they are the ones that are shepherding it.
Brett Harned: Okay. That makes sense. Well, out of that conversation, I'm sure is, which PM gets assigned to a new project? That's a question that I get a lot that is a really hard one to answer. I'm on 20 projects, is that too many? To me, it's like, well, are those 20 projects really big in scope? Are they week long projects? There's a lot of question in there, but I'm wondering what your philosophy is at Sparkbox in terms of project management staffing and what feels right for you guys.
Rob Harr: Yeah. We estimate all of our PM time to be about 15% of the project load. From there, we can do some simple math. Which means, if you get five or six people on a single engagement, that project may need a dedicated project manager. Right?
Brett Harned: Right. Definitely.
Rob Harr: There is this a little bit of math, depending on the size of the engagement and how much is going on. We've had engagements in the past that actually have two project teams on them, and we've had two different project managers on them. One running an engagement A, one running engagement B, depending on how similar they were or different they are. But typically, our project managers may have anywhere between one and four active projects at a time, depending on workload and how many team members that is and all of that, but we watch that pretty close. But I think that, that feels about right.
When we think about billable capacity, we think of most of our developers and designers and UXers have the ability to bill 32 to 34 hours a week on average on projects. We try to fill up those buckets for them, because it's a capacity game in some ways. But for our PMs, I have a different philosophy, is I don't think that PMs can effectively bill more than 25 hours, but I don't try to fill it up. I look at that as the high water mark. I just accept the fact that PM is not going to bill as many hours because of the context switching, because of the kind of work it is, because of the relationship they're building, because of the other things that are going on in their life and triaging emails and all that other stuff that we look to, as a warning sign, when they start billing more than about 25 hours a week.
Not as a bucket to fill, but as a, hey, don't get near this because bad things happen.
Brett Harned: General watermark.
Rob Harr: Yeah, bad things happen if I cross over it.
Brett Harned: Yeah. I've seen that firsthand. I've seen PMs with the context switching thing, in particular, have three or four clients, maybe two of them have the same first name, and that person confuses the two people and starts talking about a different project to the wrong client, and things just go completely off the rails. You lose all the trust that you built, client gets upset. There's a lot that you have to deal with when you are managing projects with paying clients. It's a little different from dealing with internal stakeholders, though the politics are a little different.
Rob Harr: It totally is. I would rather have our project managers be cool customers and always feeling like they could do a little bit more than ever getting near the mark of, I'm at capacity. I can't handle one more thing. Because I wish every project went perfectly and there was never a problem and there was never something to react to, but it doesn't work that way.
Brett Harned: That's not real life.
Rob Harr: It's software, it's humans. There's going to be emergencies. I want every one of our PMs, and our directors actually, to have that ability to jump on something, to give that extra 20% that's needed for a given week without having to let other balls fall.
Brett Harned: Yeah. That makes sense. On the topic of your project managers, what are the things that they do that help you to keep operations running smoothly? It sounds like an obvious question, but I think it's one of those things that's nuanced. It's different in every place because project managers are doing different things in every place.
Rob Harr: Yeah. A couple of the things I think they can do is making sure they're being really communicative with the clients. The biggest breakdown we see when projects go off the rails is we've stopped communicating and stop putting decisions and good data in our client's hands, right?
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Rob Harr: There is, the best time for bad news is now, no matter what. Bad news does not age well, it never gets better. Let's get that in front of them. Let's be honest with it, because when we start playing games or doing the, well, it'll be better next week. I'll wait a week and see if things are better and then report. It just never works out. I have this whole analogy that I talk about all the time, which is, my dad taught me how to like build things when I was a kid. Your things don't get more square. They don't get more right as you go on when you add things and build out.
I think the same thing is true about our projects, is they are in the best possible state on day one. They are never going to be better as far as budget and timeline and scope and all of those things, and everything else we do is just a mere fact of not letting it fall into the yellow, because it's so hard to recover. It's so hard to make things right later. How do we keep things from going off the rails ever?
Brett Harned: Yeah. There's so much in that. Project managers tend to think that they can just fix things and that they can give them time. I'm going to butcher this quote because I always do, but Nancy Lyons said something to the effect of, deliver bad news at the same velocity as good news. Keeping information out in the open, not feeling like you can sweep things under the rug and grab them later and fix them is the worst way that you can operate as a PM on so many levels. It destroys everything that you and your team worked to create at the beginning of the project before you even sign a contract.
It ruins everything that they did when they established a plan and talked to clients about how they were going to get things done and share information openly. But then I think it also impacts culture and morale. I think, to me, I wanted to talk a little bit about culture, but I think that a project manager can really, in an agency in particular, can really help you to support and grow and cultivate that culture. Would you agree with that?
Rob Harr: Absolutely. I think all of our team members become ... They're all ambassadors of our culture, but you're talking about somebody who is managing the relationship with a client that ... We don't hide our team members from clients. That is such a huge piece of what a developer, or designer, or UXers day-to-day life is, is how is this project going? When I was a developer and I see it and I hear it is like, there is nothing more frustrating than being in a demo or showing off your work to a client, and then realize that there's something under the covers that is bubbling and they're not excited and they're frustrated.
Because that's the work. You just put your effort and your time and your investment into that thing. What you really want is them to be excited and to see it and to be appreciative of it. I think that the PM has to be upfront in dealing with these things that are ... They're going to come up. They just are. If they're not dealing with those, the team can feel those things. That will sour somebody's perception of either a PM or a client, or a project, or a company in a hurry.
Brett Harned: Right. Yeah. When we talk about culture, it's not just about making the team feel good and motivated and everyone has a good time. It's also not about we work at an agency and there's a ping pong table and beer in the fridge. It's very much about, how we're open and ... Or not how we're open, but how we communicate what we value, how we get things done. I think process and everything that we've talked about is really a part of that conversation. I think if a PM handles it in an open, honest, trusting, and friendly kind of way, the team sees that and they feel more comfortable and motivated, and the clients see that and they're more inclined to trust and to be open on their end with their communications. Because let's be honest, they're the ones who cause more problems. Right?
Rob Harr: They can, absolutely. No, I mean, they absolutely can. But it's humans. One of the things that I've realized just recently is ... I run a business, I have a couple other side gigs that I'm involved with, things like that, but the most valuable commodity that I deal with is trust on a day-to-day basis and how important that is. It's one of those commodities that take so long to establish, but it's so easy to tear down.
Brett Harned: So easy.
Rob Harr: We have to remember that. It's the whole thing of, there's this whole other side of how people feel. I think that the biggest indicator of client or project success is client happiness, and happiness is a feeling that is hard to get your hands around. There's this basic idea that people will sometimes forget what you did, but they will never ever forget how you made them feel.
Brett Harned: It's very true.
Rob Harr: This gets back to the human side of all of this.
Brett Harned: I firmly believe that a project management role, just like any other management role, is 95% communications. You have tools that anyone can learn and use to your advantage at your fingertips, to help you handle the more technical aspects of the job. But if you're not focused on the people, and not just communicating out messages to people, but also checking in with people and genuinely caring about them, if you're not doing that part of the job, then you're not doing a good job at all. Or I would even argue you're not really just doing the job.
This is where I get on my soap box, and I promise I won't take too long here, but I do think that is part of why people have a bad perception of project management. They think it's all spreadsheets and numbers and plans, and things that are just highly technical and maybe a little bit too complicated. But I think the good PMs prove that those things just support really great project management.
Rob Harr: I completely agree. Those things are table stakes when you start dealing with paying customers.
Brett Harned: Right. Then that leads me to a question for you. We're talking about people a lot and we're in agreement there. Do you think that operations is almost a kind of natural progression or next step in a project manager's career?
Rob Harr: I think it can be. I think that a lot of PMs look at it that way. When you talk about ... Especially at a studio or an agency, that's absolutely how it looks. I think there are some things that PMs have to realize that there are some big differences between managing a single project or a small collection of projects and managing a portfolio of projects and how all of that works. I don't think it's a gap that they can't get to at all. It's not super complicated, but the amount of moving pieces that one has to be able to manage, and there's some financial literacy that comes into being able to do operations.
There's an understanding of how long sales cycles work and how financials work and all those other pieces that have to be ... you have to put your toe into, even if you're not the one running them. I think you have to make up that piece.
Brett Harned: This is a little bit of a curve ball I'm sure, but do you know of any resources or places we can point people to, to get that primer in operations?
Rob Harr: I have a workshop that I teach, that I've taught at with you, that is that goal, that goes through and talks about operations for project managers trying to fill those holes that I see exist in the studio world.
Brett Harned: We're going to do that in 2021 as well, so we'll be sure to share that link when people are out there. They can also reach out. If we think of any other links, we can throw them in the show notes, but I want to wrap up because I don't want to take too much of your time. The last question that I always ask on the podcast relates back to the show title, which is time limit. Some pretty obvious distinctions we can draw from the title to practical use. But as an agency owner, as an operations person, you take on a lot.
I'm sure there's days where you feel like there's just not enough time in your day to get everything done, but with your operations hat on, what are the things that you must focus on, and how do you make sure that you don't let those things slip?
Rob Harr: Yeah, that's a great question. I think it's a couple things. One, the people, and I know we've said that a lot, but you can't let the people slip. I think it's really important to make sure that you're, as an ops person, or a person in leadership at all to be available. Sometimes what that means, if somebody sends me a note, and you don't have time to respond, it's to just simply say like, "Hey, that's a great question. I'm going to put some time on my calendar for a couple of days. We can talk about that in depth."
You have to acknowledge people and not let them be ghosted. If that's the worst feeling in the world, is sending a note, that's the easiest way to break trust, is just to pretend you don't care. Even if that's very good reasons while you're busy, or there's something else on fire, and if they just understood ... Well, people are understanding, explain it to them. The simple note can take care of that. But I think the other things are, is, for me, from an ops perspective, to make sure the business is healthy, is constantly knowing where we are with our capacity and our utilization and how that projects into the future.
The biggest risk for most studios, I think, is not having the right amount of work at the right time, because every day at midnight, your entire inventory of unsold hours expires and is now worthless. What you have to do is make the most of those hours when you can, and know what those things are and to take things. I think that one of the big differences between PMs and ops people is, is looking at that as a portfolio and knowing that you want any ... Sometimes, any paying work is better than averaging zeros, and it's okay to break even on some things, because it allows you to make money on other things.
I think it's that perspective and not the project focus, but taking a look at the whole business and all of the things going on that really separates the people who can do that project management really well versus look at the whole problem and be like, "Okay, I don't have control over any of this specifically, but I'm sitting at the chess board moving the pieces around."
Brett Harned: Right. Yeah. The funny thing is, is that, that comes back to your first point, that it's really about the people. So, if you're not focused on the people and you're seeing things fall apart in other areas of the business, then you've got to bring it back to the people to get to a point where you're comfortable again. It's the cycle where you've got to really lean on the people who are there doing the work and really making a break in the business in some ways.
Rob Harr: Yeah, they're the stars. We talk about this a lot in our business that, I'm in the talent business. I sell the promise of a team availability from really talented individuals that can solve your problem and add value. I think that if we make that simple change from resources, which is a word that we both hate, to talent, it influences a lot of how we think about things.
Brett Harned: Oh yeah. Just that word makes you think of the person, or people you're referring to in a much different way, right?
Rob Harr: Yeah.
Brett Harned: Talent on its own just makes you realize, oh, there's value there. That's an interesting point. Well, Rob, this has been really awesome, and I can't wait until we can be at a conference and have these conversations again. Hopefully, that's coming soon-ish, but thanks for joining me for today. It's been really good. Thank you.
Rob Harr: Thanks Brett. It's been a lot of fun.
Brett Harned: Have a good one.
All right, folks, that's it for this episode. I'm not going to lie, Rob and I hung on for about another 30 minutes just catching up and talking shop. I think Rob's always got great insight to share, and I really do enjoy his perspective, and I hope that you enjoyed it too. If you want to learn more about Rob and Sparkbox, check out the show notes over at teamGantt.com/podcast, and keep an eye out for our upcoming project management and operations workshop that we're going to host in February of 2021 through the Bureau of Digital.
Until then, check out more episodes of Time Limit, and feel free to like and subscribe. Oh, and check out our TeamGantt YouTube channel, where you can find my new short video series called Coffee with Brett. I'm sharing my perspective and tips on project management in short 10-minute bursts. I hope you'll like it. All right, folks, have a good one. Thank you.