One thing that keeps founders stuck down in the weeds of their agency is the work being too bespoke and manual.

This can be caused by two things:

  1. The 'hamster wheel' effect — where you're too busy keeping the wheel moving to be able to get off and train other people how to run it, or install an engine to make it run itself. Client projects or operational issues depend on your attention and skill in some way, and so you keep having to do them or more problems emerge;
  2. The 'creative genius' fallacy (or often, phallusy 😉) — the mistaken belief that all agency work is creative work, and all creative work must take the form of an artist delivering flashes of unique inspiration from the top of their head at every turn. You get hooked on the buzz of jumping into every new situation to be the creative genius, feeling needed and showing your talent.

In my experience, if we're honest with ourselves, we are all prone to at least one of these. I regularly catch myself doing both.

Each one becomes a self-perpetuating system, which disempowers your team and places all the burden on you. This means you are regularly pulled down into client work, or basic operational issues, so you never have enough time to proactively design and build your business.

The role of the agency founder is to build the business to do the work, not to do the work of the business.

In great agencies, the founders have designed solid processes to underpin everything the business does, meaning most things can happen without them. The agency becomes a machine that they work on.

But in a good agency wanting to become a great agency, it can seem too daunting to design all those processes at once.

You don't have to.

Processes can be developed bit by bit over time. Start small. Really small.

This week, look for one little thing in your agency that's a bit of a time/brain drain for you. Go about your normal work with your antennae tuned to look for something you keep having to do.

Write down how you want it done (the process). Then see if there is a way to:

  1. Automate it, which includes training others to do it within the business on a routine, outsourcing it to a supplier, or setting up software to do it.
  2. Batch it, so you or others only need to think about it once in a while, following the process you wrote down to remind you. For example something you have to do each week could be done monthly, something monthly done quarterly, and so on. This reduces costly and tiring context-switching.

Then, next week, look for one other small thing to batch or automate. Over time the 'weeds' of your role will be run by these processes, freeing you up to do the higher-altitude work.

Over the summer I run what I call my 'summer office'. In July and August I go away, don't do any of my normal repetitive work (and no video calls), and just immerse myself in some deep work — reading, thinking, writing, designing. In particular, this year I wanted to do a lot of work expanding our Agency Leaders Playbook.

To enable this I have to ensure the work I would normally do is handled in other ways, and one of those was this newsletter. I put a lot of thought into writing this, taking a few hours each week. It needs to be from me personally, so I can't delegate it. But I can batch it.

So, for the summer, I developed a theme — Summer Reflections — and wrote 8 newsletters under that theme over the course of a couple of days. Then I simply scheduled them to send every Monday morning. That gave me 8 weeks where I didn't need to think about the weekly job of the newsletter at all, and I could focus on deeper work. So that's the kind of small task you could think about.

I've seen other leaders decide to automate their month-end process, scheduling of monthly 1-to-1s, project kickoffs, onboarding new team-members and so on.

Start small so it's easy to start, then repeat.

Here's what I got up to with expanding the Agency Leaders Playbook over the last few weeks:

  • Added a section on Agency Advisory Boards (start here), bringing together all our advice on this to date that was previously in multiple different places. More will be added to this section in the coming weeks, so it contains everything you need to know to set up and run a highly effective agency board.
  • Added a section on the Annual Agency Owners Retreat that we recommend, including how to prepare an Owners Briefing and an Owners Mandate to prepare for and
  • Expanded the page on Behaviours/Values in the Pyramid of Purpose section, to show how to identify and curate these.
  • Added a section on how to do continuous professional development in your agency, including a lightweight process to provide the momentum to make it happen.
  • Added a section how to set up a healthy recruitment process, including guidance for more effective interviews, and some key template documents for job descriptions and so on.
  • And some new sections will be published soon on agency finances, continuous agency transformation, and the pyramid of purpose for leading on culture, strategy and purpose.

Members on one of our 'advisory board' plans get access to the full Agency Playbook. This is a continuously expanding vital manual for owners of creative and digital agencies.

I'm giving two live workshops in September, one on Horizon Scanning for Agency Owners, and one on Powering up your agency with culture, strategy and purpose (The Pyramid of Purpose). These are half day session via Zoom, designed to be affordable and accessible for all agency founders (and Convivio Advisory Board plan members get a free place on any courses they like). Book now!

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