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An Approach to Improving Process and Growing People

A CEO from a Boston-based agency reached out me in April 2016. He was looking to hire a lead for their digital practice. In addition to “deliver award-winning solutions that help solve client problems”, they had hoped that this person could “improve the existing processes and draw out the best from the team members”.

I was intrigued by this challenge many large and small agencies face today.

Often we see job descriptions mention “increase efficiency”, “enhance process”, “employee enablement”. These topics pop up during interviews, but rarely do interviewers or interviewees address them head-on with deep conversations or detailed approaches.

Why? Because it’s much easier said than done. Every agency (or company, for that matter) is different in its DNA in terms of its core offerings, culture and values. These elements aren’t constant either. Today, products and services change more frequently than they ever did before. A company’s culture also varies, sometimes drastically, dependent on leadership and people. With a high turnover in industries such Marketing and Advertising, change is the only constant we know.

There is no magic wand that improves efficiency and grows talent overnight. However, an approach rooted in “people over process” can lead the way.

I believe that it’s crucial to understand the people behind the products and services first, before proposing solutions that can begin to address the problems and challenges.

After 10+ years of working in some of the largest agencies in the US, I’ve concluded that most people can learn, as long as they are given enough direction and opportunities for growth. Furthermore, before the necessary course of actions are identified, people need a chance to share (or to be understood) who they are and what makes them tick.

How would someone approach this?  Here’s one approach I took for the agency in Boston. So far the process is working very well. I’m also interested in your take on what you would do (same or different) in the comment area below.

My Initial Assessment of the Agency:

  • Size: Between 25-50 people
  • Age: A good mix of junior and manager-level talent
  • Technical competency: in-house dev team including front and back-end, full stack developers
  • Senior Management: The founder (who hired me) is not only involved but leading the charge, who has the ability to make decisions (without a line of Board of Directors), who also deeply cares about the company, its reputation and future
  • Overall assessment: Most people understand digital well (innately or learned on the job), are open-minded, respect the leadership team, willing to try new things

Along with these positive takeaways, I also noted “a few things to watch out for” such as strong personalities, lack of shared knowledge (little to no overlap between disciplines, only 1-2 people in each domain). Upon completing the framework, I will be putting together a sustainable training and rollout plan for the agency as well. A separate blog post will be written to cover this topic.

Within the first two months of this consulting engagement, I have managed to conduct the following activities:

Step 1: One-on-one conversations with key people from each discipline

  • Each conversation took about 45 mins to one hour. I carefully took notes categorized by a) current job functions, b) background (“origin” stories), c) growth areas. Similar to the Scrum project management approach, I’m interested in learning what the person is currently experiencing (surprise, delight and pain points).
  • It’s important to distinguish the difference between enjoyment vs. competency. Though we often enjoy doing the things we are good at, I have also seen scenarios where people want to become good or better at something they feel passionate for, but haven’t given the opportunity to explore and learn more. This can be a tipping point for future growth and cross-disciplinary learning.
  • Another interesting observation I had was people’s underlying skills and talents in areas that are not yet known or obvious. (For example, I discovered a young Account Manager who quickly became an candidate to teach Presentation Skills at the agency level. This story will be covered via a future blog post on
  • If time permits, these conversations can and should stretch beyond 1-2 people from each discipline.

Step 2: Construct an Initial Framework to Test and Iterate 

  • Since my client is a digital agency, I broke down the framework by addressing each discipline in its down section – Strategy, Research, Content, UX, Visual Design, Development, Project Management.
  • For each section, I clarified the discipline not by its generic definition, but rather how it fits into the genre and context of the agency. I also worked closely with the person (leading the discipline) to capture:

    • Deliverables (including alignment on terminologies, names and priorities)
    • Definitions (the significance and reasons behind creating each deliverable)
    • Effort (a general sense of effort and resources required to complete each deliverable.)
    • Client Deliverable Example (previous deliverables completed for existing clients)
    • Template (a clean slate to download for future reference).
  • “Sizing” efforts for different clients and client needs (think Small, Medium, Large)

    • This step may be the most challenging of all. Because client work always vary in size, complexity and budget, we must find a flexible approach to plan and resource for the project.
    • Since some risks and constraints are known, some are unknown. A plan or a framework is only compass, not a map. Discussions, considerations that guided the sizing exercise must be tracked.
    • In addition, some deliverables can be reduced, replaced, or even eliminated, but some can’t. These details can be tracked in a table (or excel) using labels such as “Required” vs. “Optional”., a comment area for details and sign-offs.

A Framework Is a Compass, Not a Map.

We must combine proper use of an established framework along with knowledge and experience to make the best decisions. If the framework gets us 90% there, the final 10% of our thinking and risk mitigation are still critical.

Running a project from start to finish, especially when facing the daily grind of ups and downs, is an art form in itself.  There is no bulletproof framework. Believing in the process and the ability to flex as needed is the only path to success.

As I continue my journey to refine the framework, I welcome your feedback on this series of Project Management / Production related blog posts. I will be writing more about Step 3 (Refinement), Step 4 (Rollout Plan) and Presentation Training.

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