Is Your Agency a Bus Ride, or a Traffic Jam ?

The fastest route at first is not the smartest choice.

Disclaimer : This will be a complete metaphor about cars to illustrate the point. It doesn’t matter if you are not that much into cars. You will get it.

As a young business or agency manager, you make choices everyday. At first, they are not really based on any deep reflexions. You move fast because you are excited and feel like moving. Every client, every customer, every problem is an instant priority and you channel all your energy towards managing them. You show up everyday to prove how dedicated and driven you are, and it works. Clients appreciate your work and soon enough, it will be rewarding. Every time someone enters a market, promising it can produce faster, cheaper, and with more dedication, some clients will show interest.

You are off to a good start. Good job : you need to hire. You choose people like you to join the ship. Passionate individuals pushing as hard as they can to create a better team. They may not be experts or seniors, but their motivation compensates for their possible lack of experience. They trust you and you trust them. So you give them a lot of freedom. Everybody is accountable for his part of the work, manage his own schedule and establish individuals priorities.

That makes sense. Your weapons are your ease of management, reactivity and the individuals forming your squadron. So everybody should be allowed to go as fast as they want and make the turns they consider necessary, as long as they go in the right way. Because you built a good team at first, you will all be driving towards the same destination, following your own routes, listening to your own music, eating your own snacks, at your own speed and things should end up fine. So fine in fact, that you will be hiring again soon enough.

Enters a new breed of employees.

You are having different needs now. It’s not so much about decision-making, but more about execution. You need focused specialists to help give life to your original squadron’s ideas. You look for some, and find some. But in the process, you realize that you are now working with something new. Those employees are more about hard skills than soft skills. Your business is young so let’s assume that you can’t afford a full-senior team.

Now joining your squadron is a group of juniors enrolled in a mission far more precise than yours. Their task is not to run the show, they just do the lightings. They are good, motivated and a good fit in the team. They just show less initiative and need to be guided. Totally normal. After all, leaders are already in place, and there is a limit to the number of leaders you should have around a conference table.

You give roadmaps and put people behind the wheel.

Everything seems to be working fine, because you will be hiring more of those employees throughout the year. But even though you are still going forward, you will start to realize the cost of this independence-based system : it’s not every driver that gets the map. Even more ; some have never drove alone before. So the more people you put on the road, the more you need to stop and give indications. Sometimes, you are able to give guidance before teammates are lost, but not always. Some will get stuck in dead-ends, some will go the wrong way. Some will simply put the brakes, blocking everybody following them. You may even see an employee going in reverse on the highway that is your productive team. The thing called “HR” that you swept under the carpet since the start is hard to avoid now. Maybe it’s safer to slow down and impose a little more control before the inevitable crash.

You are everybody’s copilot.

Your crucial employees are now spending half of their week supervising the work of the new arrivals. The superficial workload they have makes it harder for them to focus and give their 100% on really important issues. You are watching above everybody’s shoulder and losing sight of the destination you pointed at first. You know that you need to delegate, but in a way, you still think that it would be easier to do things by yourself. More and more hours are spent on management non-billable hours and you feel the pressure. Somewhere along the line, the quality of your work diminished. You thought you could let everything naturally flows like in the beginning, but really you can’t. Maybe it’s time to think about getting everybody out of his car and getting all on board.

Enters the “Bus Model”.

It’s all about controlling when and where your people should be independent, giving clear incentives and metrics when they do and mostly, choosing and judging employees that will need less management.

  1. A lot of decisions should only concern the bus driver.

You started a business for a reason : you have a vision. Stay with it.

You will not always be right. But it’s way better to have a driver ready to try a thousand different routes before finding the right one than no driver at all. Ask for feedback and be ready to take responsibility if you are wrong, but you do not have time to make every decision a democratic election.

2. Even though they don’t drive, everybody should know the destination and why they need to reach it.

One way or another, your business is about reaching a destination [X$] as fast as possible [DD:MM:YYYY] without breaking any speed limits [-$$$]. But do your team knows where you are headed ? What is considered “fast” ? And what are the “limits” not to break ? There is a pretty good chance that they came in for their weekly salary and that’s THEIR destination. If you want them to put in the extra mile, they should understand why reaching YOUR goal will help them reach theirs. And if there’s no advantage for them, think about one now. With clear context and incentives, there is no need for constraints and constant management. Share the roadmap, build dashboards, identify clear goals and let them do their thing.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

3. Do not evaluate them on the hours spent on the road but on what they did with that time.

You are probably tracking your team’s time sheets. “Hours” are the main variable for your business. Employees need to do [X] and they should not take more than [Y] because you need to bill [Z]. While that makes sense from an outside point-of-view (client management), it is useless on the inside (team management).

Is it really about hours ? What if someone spent 40h in your office this week, looking extra busy but really doing nothing ? What’s that worth for you ? The thing you are really looking for is their ability to output great work at a regular pace. Let’s say you consider 10 tasks or projects per week to be a good ratio. Do you care if they need 25 or 50 hours to achieve them ? No, you don’t. Once again, it’s about knowing when you should and should not frame things. In the end, talent is about tangible outputs, not looking like you are trying hard. If they truly are onboard, they will deliver what they need to.

Sustained B-Level performance, despite “A for effort”, generates a generous severance package, with respect. Sustained A-Level performance, despite minimal effort, is rewarded with more responsibility and great pay.

— Netflix Culture Guide

4. Accept that you will not catch every discussion in the bus, and respect that.

Let things go. Your time is important. It’s hard to admit at first, but it’s impossible to manage everything. Let your teammates take decisions, even important ones. How can they grow if they never face real challenges ? Maybe they will be right, or maybe they will fail. Maybe they will fail so hard that you will come to realize that they should not be part of the team. But at least then, you will know. Once again, if the destination is clear for everybody, they should be able to point it out even though you are not there to help. If they can’t, ask yourself if your directions were clear at first. Focus on being the driver, it will already take more than all the time you have.

Once the context and the culture guidelines are clear, know that you have created a space where you should let talented people evolve. The idea is simply to know where to draw the line between constant management and total freedom.

Having new people coming in without any sense of your goals and metrics is like landing in a traffic jam. Cars seemed faster at first, but they also are much more hazardous. Now maybe you will have to invest in HR, culture building, clear work funnels and hire more talented employees, but every cost that came with the bus you just built will pay out in the end. The day you will be able to keep your eyes on the road without never looking back, you will know.

Creative director — Associate at Orkestra. Collecting solidly articulated, relevant ideas with tangible implications, and trying to join in. | www.orkestra.ca