BL&T No. 044: Achieving Vision Through Structural Change

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"Without a frequent shopper program, which Mackey [CEO, Whole Foods Market] refused to implement, it knew next to nothing about even its most loyal customers. A decentralized operating structure limited the company’s dexterity at precisely the time when it needed to evolve quickly to meet changing tastes, as well as to introduce home delivery and new digital payment methods."

From "Amazon Unbound" by Brad Stone [Book]


It was the first day of my first job out of college. I made my way to the desk in the back corner of the office, the same space I had interviewed in just a month before. There was a note from the person who hired me letting me know they were out of the office for the day. I spent the rest of the day exploring the files on the server, eager to get to work.

I was the only person in my role. There was no structure in place for my work and no articulated vision for how I could contribute. Within a couple of months, I started creating projects for myself and attempted to put structure in place for how our team collaborated with others, but it was challenging to build momentum. I could never get clarity on expectations of my role or where my supervisor saw the company going.

As time went on, I began working more closely with the team of our parent company. One of my responsibilities was to oversee and facilitate the design of 100+ page specifications documents. The parent company had been around for decades, so they had a way of working and strict process in place, a stark contrast to my earlier experience.

After putting in several late nights alongside the team to complete my first 120-some page specifications document, I saw opportunities to make the process more efficient. Every page of these documents was a separate Photoshop PSD file. This approach meant that to make large-scale edits, you'd have to open every file and update the identical text. When completed, you'd have to export each page before compiling them all into one PDF.

I may have put in some late nights, but my co-workers were always working later, and at this point, it was commonplace. I was excited about a future where we were free to create without the weight of a clumsy process. I designed a template in InDesign and demonstrated how much time it would save to manage slides in a single document.

Despite the team welcoming my consolidated approach, they returned to their old ways with the subsequent project. When I asked what happened, they told me that the senior leaders on the team were comfortable in Photoshop and weren't interested in trying anything new.

Structure and Vision

I was looking back on this experience over the weekend after writing about my takeaways from The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz. Fritz details how the underlying structures of our lives govern our behavior. Regardless of what we want, we follow the path of least resistance, whether or not it's leading us to what we want.

I'm intrigued by how this concept applies within an organization. When I started at my first job, there was no structure or vision. It was hard to make progress because we weren't clear on what we wanted to create. Efforts to design structures and processes were hopeless. There was no vision to guide us or make it feel meaningful.

Working with the parent company was entirely different, but the same forces were at play. There was structure, but nobody stopped to think about what they truly wanted. Instead, the senior leaders were only interested in following the path that felt easy, regardless if that meant sleeping at the office some nights and regularly losing talented employees to burnout.

Looking Ahead

As we continue to develop our offerings at Barrel and grow the team, these couple of lessons are top of mind for me.

Lesson one? Start with a vision.

Identify the areas in your team where structure and process are lacking. Don't fret and rush to filling the void with the "perfect" way of working. Take the time to realize the vision, understand what you really want, and align with everyone involved. Without vision, building structure can feel like throwing darts while blindfolded, unaware of where to point and whether or not you hit the target.

Some potential scenarios to avoid:

  • Building an org chart for a new team without articulating why the team exists and how they'll add value.
  • Mapping out a "more efficient" process for making websites without aligning on the results you're looking to achieve.
  • Designing a team-wide workshop without articulating the experience you want the team to have and what you hope they get out of the time together.

Vision shows you what you're aiming for and lets you know whether or not you're hitting the mark, helping build momentum for future work.

Lesson two? Notice when structure no longer serves vision.

The more you work, the more you learn, and along the way, the vision you set originally out toward may change. That's okay, as long as everything else evolves, too. With outdated structures and a clearer picture of what you want, progress can be challenging.

Some potential scenarios:

  • Hiring a freelancer to bring their expertise to a project, then asking them to use your internal template for the work, only to be frustrated when they don't deliver anything new. Suggestion: guide them, but let them do their thing.
  • Re-stating the importance of performance reviews when the team doesn't prioritize them or give them the appropriate energy. Suggestion: Acknowledge the time performance reviews require and revisit the process to be more energizing and effortless.

There's comfort in having structures in place, but nothing changes if nothing changes. Whether you're charting new territory for a team, hiring an experienced employee, or rolling out new services, don't be afraid to disrupt what's become second nature. Unite others behind the vision, solicit feedback, and take action on making change.

Thought Starter

Where am I expecting change without making structural change?

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