BL&T No. 179: Downsizing to Discovery: Reflecting on Barrel through Insights from 'Same As Ever'

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.

Borrowed & Learned

A few weeks ago, I shared some takeaways from "Same As Ever" by Morgan Housel, a book I read with the Barrel partners last quarter. In preparation for our discussion, we chose two concepts from the book and wrote about our experience with them during our time at Barrel.

Here are the two concepts I chose to write about:

#1—Clarity & growth in downsizing

In the days leading up to our first round of layoffs at Barrel, I remember the delicate balance between helpful stress and crippling disaster. As Morgan Housel writes in "Same as Ever," "There’s a delicate balance between helpful stress and crippling disaster. The latter prevents innovation as resources are sapped and people turn their attention from getting out of a crisis to merely surviving it." This was our reality. We had been in a period where everything seemed great, clients were happy, and our work “on the business” felt like it would yield significant returns. But as we zeroed in on team utilization and project health, the real picture became clear, all while new deals we hoped to land dried up. Our situation shifted dramatically.

During this time, stress became a powerful catalyst for clarity and action. Housel’s insight that "Stress focuses your attention in ways good times can’t. It kills procrastination and indecision..." resonates deeply with me when I think about how we took steps forward.

We were no longer in a position to be complacent; we had to act decisively. Downsizing the team, though a difficult decision, forced us to revisit our vision and focus. We narrowed our focus, critically evaluated our processes, and sought meaningful improvements for both our business and our clients. This period of intense stress led us to a balance in how we involve ourselves with the team, allowing them to take ownership while still providing guidance and support.

However, the challenge we faced was not just in making tough decisions but also in maintaining the team's optimism about the future.

We did our best to give our team more insight into the business, hoping to foster a sense of transparency and understanding. Yet, as Housel notes, "A common trait of human behavior is the burning desire for certainty despite living in an uncertain and probabilistic world.” No matter how much information we shared, the unpredictability of the future was real, for us and the team. We leaned on providing clarity and direction, but being unable to offer certainty was difficult.

Housel captures it well, “It’s normal to want to rid yourself of the painful reality of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Someone who tells you there’s a 60 percent chance of a recession happening doesn’t do much to ease that pain. They might be adding to it. But someone who says “There is going to be a recession this year” offers something to grab on to with both hands, something that feels like taking control of your future.”

Looking back, I see this as a period of significant learning and growth, shaping us into a stronger, more resilient team. It hasn’t been a smooth ride since, but I feel that we’re better equipped to face future challenges having managed through this together.

#2—"We’ve never done this before."

Over the years at Barrel, I've seen the phrase “we’ve never done this before” become a source of apprehension rather than excitement—posed as a hurdle, a flag that we’re heading into uncharted territory and should expect project overages and bloat.

I appreciated Housel’s insight into this idea: "When you are keenly aware of your own struggles but blind to those of others, it’s easy to assume you’re missing some skill or secret that others have." The “we’ve never done this before” didn't inspire us, it held us back. We'd turn to seemingly successful teams or individuals, wondering if we lack some crucial, unknown element that they have. The mountain grew taller.

However, I'm proud of how we've learned to shift this mindset. Instead of viewing new challenges as impossible barriers, we view them as opportunities to grow and learn.

"Things you don’t understand create a mystique around people who do," Housel writes. Recognizing this, we’ve been better about demystifying the unknown, understanding that it's not about possessing a secret skill but about having the courage to try, learn, and adapt.

Albeit gradual, I’ve found this mindset shift to be powerful. We've tackled many new areas to drive results for our clients, not because we had some secret skills but because we put in the work to succeed. We learned through action, growing more skilled and confident with each step. It comes down to believing in our capabilities, recognizing that learning is an investment, and embracing the challenge head-on. This will be pivotal as a focus for us as we grow and invest in building our team.


In what situation could I better leverage stress and uncertainty for clarity and action?Where have I let the fear of 'We’ve never done this before' hold me back from embracing new opportunities?

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