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July 14, 2011 | By Tim Williams

Looking at agencies from the outside, a lot of business people presuppose that agencies must be hothouses of internal collaboration.  Most of the time they’re not.

treeThe supposed reasons are often “We just don’t have time to collaborate,” or “The people in the agency just don’t get along that well.”  But the real reasons are not so obvious; they constitute the root of the problem:

Real Reason 1: Agencies are paid for the time they work rather than the problems they solve

In a world where estimated time drives the entire work product and profit model, there’s actually a huge disincentive to collaborate.  The more people you involve, the more hours against the project, the less “profitable” it is.  Agency leaders are operating in a Jekyll & Hyde mode when on the one hand they complain that their people don’t collaborate and then on the other hand complain that their people spend too many hours against projects.

How do you solve this problem?  Take hours out of the equation entirely and judge your people by what really matters.  Are they effective at what they do?  Did we solve the client’s problem?

Real Reason 2: Agencies are working against “scope of work” instead of “scope of value.”

While this is related to the reason above, it has a slightly different slant.  When agencies manage exclusively against a “scope of work” – a list of deliverables – then of course the goal is going to be to get this work done as quickly as possible.  That means not involving a lot of other people.  With this mindset, collaboration obviously suffers.

Contrast this with an approach instead focused on “scope of value” – a set of objectives or success metrics instead of deliverables.  The mindset here is to get the work done effectively, not just efficiently, which means you would actually be motivated to involve the right people in order to produce the right result, not just check the project off your list and come in “under estimate.”

Real Reason 3: Agencies suffer from Attention Deficit Trait

Most agency professionals have convinced themselves that their main job is to keep up an empty email inbox.  They allow themselves to be constantly distracted by a never-ending supply of emails, texts, and instant messages.  This creates the illusion that their job is to be efficient.  But knowledge work is about being effective.  It doesn’t matter if you’re efficient if you’re not effective.  And because so many agency professionals are so distracted, they have lost sight of the fact that their job is to act, not be acted upon.

As Chris Brogan says in a brilliant post Organize Your Business, Email is a system that delivers other people’s priorities to your attention. It’s up to you to decide when that priority should be managed into your world. It’s not the other way around.”

Attention Deficit Trait makes collaboration much harder, because team members allow themselves to be constantly distracted by literally hundreds of seemingly “urgent” messages and unimportant tasks.  Who’s in control of that?  You are.


Other industry observers often say that collaboration is hurt by agency structure or even office layout.  Of course these can be factors.  But the way to really ascertain why something does or doesn’t happen in an organization is to simply look at the incentives.  In most firms, there are mostly disincentives when it comes to collaboration.  You’ll have to do some work at the root of that problem – not the branches – to fix it.


Photo: Sten Porse

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