BL&T No. 065: Taking A Wider View


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.


"But as anyone who has ever put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) knows, the act of writing is not simply a matter of producing a written version of the script that is running in your head. It is not merely recording thinking. It’s a way to examine your thinking and figure out exactly what you do think."

From "An Everyone Culture" by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey [Book]


A co-worker and I were chatting last week about how busy it gets around this time of year. It's a perfect mess of folks out of the office on holiday and clients squeezing the last dollars out of their budgets for a final push into the season of gift-giving.

We're just entering the first full week of December, and I can already feel the energy. I don't play video games, but if running an agency was one, December would be the level to beat. Unfortunately, there are no cheat codes.

I've been doing my best to balance work on long-term initiatives with getting into the weeds with the team on the day-to-day work. As important as the long-term initiatives are, clients and projects come first. If my direct involvement can help turn a project around or prevent future headaches, it's more than worth it. After all, there is no business without clients.

With this balancing act in mind, I've been thinking about the structure of this newsletter. Every week, I do my best to highlight a single lesson, often editing out other exciting developments in the process. This week, I'd like to try something different and spotlight the week's themes as a whole. I see it as an opportunity to reflect on progress, pose questions without pressure for answers, and merely sit with the week's action for a little while.

Thanks for joining me on this ride as I continue to explore how I use this space and what value it can bring.

Daily Updates

Last Monday, inspired by my thoughts in Edition No. 063, I started dropping daily updates to all of the team leaders in Slack. They focus on key highlights from my morning standup with my direct reports, who each manage a team. I realized that we covered topics that might be helpful for others to know, and in some cases, prevent multiple people from working tirelessly on the same initiatives without knowing.

So far, so good. I'm not yet sure how helpful these updates have been, but then again, they're more like a sort of insurance. The idea is not to create an immediate result; it's to prevent any later gaps.

My conclusion is that, sometimes, we don't know what will be relevant to others. A good example might be that the design team is experimenting with a new tool for a client. Separately, our Business Development team is pitching to a potential client who requests that we use that same tool for their project. Connecting these dots could be the difference between winning and losing the work.

By the end of the week, it was cool to see other team leaders take it upon themselves to jump on board and share their version of a daily update.

Slack & Comms

My team mentioned how difficult it is to keep up with Slack messages. You have one person in a meeting or deep in work, not checking Slack. Meanwhile, someone else patiently waits for an answer from them they needed two hours ago.

This week wasn't the first time I've heard this concern, but it's not an overnight solve. For now, I plan to help guide my team to change behavior. Instead of commenting on how challenging it is, I asked - what can we do to make it better? Some ideas we landed on:

  • Keep less-urgent, lengthy communications to email.
  • Comment on project-related issues in Asana (or other tools, like Pitch) on the relevant task.
  • Direct all other chatter to Slack and if it's that urgent, pick up the phone and call or text.

My aim is for these efforts to help clear the noise, then down the line, some version of this becomes status quo.

Growth Trajectory Maps

I often remind myself to pause and acknowledge the small wins rather than waiting for the final "hooray" after achieving a big goal. This Thursday was one of those small wins worth celebrating.

As part of our weekly Barrel Management Forum session, each manager came prepared to share the first draft of a Growth Trajectory Map for their team. The Growth Trajectory Map establishes a pathway for every role within a team. In this case, making the map meant brainstorming potential new roles then outlining how existing ones flow into them.

Establishing more structure across the team has been a long-time coming. As we evolve and hire new folks, it is more important than ever for agency growth and employee retention. Last week was an incremental step, but I can't tell you how good it felt to see this conversation in full throttle.

For more on team structure and our management practice, check out "Building Teams with TLC" and "BL&T No. 058: Building a Management Training Practice"

Resourcing: The Saga Continues

I can't say that I've met anyone in the agency world who can claim, with total confidence, that resourcing is easy. And yet, it's hard to pin what makes it so mind-boggling.

In August, we hired a Resourcing Manager, Cat, for the first time in Barrel history. It has been incredible to have Cat on the team and own all-things resourcing. That said, few things are as easy as bringing on new talent.

One of the challenges over the last few weeks has been getting a view of our team's capacity. Part of it is keeping hours up-to-date and accurate in Forecast, our resourcing tool. Easier said than done. The other part is understanding how projects can shift to accommodate the roles on the team.

In this way, capacity has everything to do with who we have on the team and their assignments. Let's say we land a new project suited for a senior designer. The senior designer is mid-way through a different project, so according to Forecast, they're off the table. The only availability is with a junior designer. If we only look at availability and hours, we may come up with the following options:

  1. Say no to the project or push it out. We don't have any available Senior Designers.
  2. Hire a senior-level freelancer.
  3. Staff a Junior Designer with support.

While options 2 and 3 could work, none of these are optimal. When you take a closer look, you find the senior designer's current project tasks are a better fit for a junior designer. With that, the senior designer onboards the junior and gets started on the new project. No need to hire outside talent. No need to risk putting a junior on senior-level work.

This approach was a point of discussion with Cat last week. I'm looking forward to supporting her in keeping an eye out for these potential changes and providing helpful tips so she can make these calls in the future. I'll admit, shuffling the team can create some momentary headaches. But, in the long run, the impact is beyond worth it.

On the flip side, there are a few projects that we've deemed need outside support. We're also taking on new work that could benefit from another perspective and expertise. With many of our freelancers taking full-time gigs, it hasn't been easy to find help. I'm encouraged to get back into outreach mode more regularly. The fact is that we can't wait to bring on support when the need arises. We need to be building our network all the time, so we have talent when we need it.

Thought Starter

What roadblocks on my team am I not seeing?

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