It’s time. You’re ready. You’re running a young agency with a handful of energetic and creative colleagues. With some strong success stories behind you, it’s time to scale up.
Financially, it makes sense to scale your agency. You’ve been keeping on top of metrics such as net profit, labor costs, and overhead, and you’re confident you have the financial bandwidth and demand for your services to bring in more people. You know the culture will change and you won’t have as much input into every project, but you’re sure you can keep the essence of your current startup energy alive.
You can do this. You just need to scale with a solid plan in place.
As you grow, if you want people to be able to do their best work, you need clear processes that encourage collaboration and streamline administrative tasks.
This is the simple secret to successfully scaling your agency: Carefully documenting your processes and using workflow tools.
But Shouldn’t I Focus on Growing My Business?
Of course you should, but trust us – Invest the time now, and you’ll save countless hours of redundant work down the line. Think about it. You’re small now and it’s easy to make sure everyone is on the same page, but once you scale up, documented processes will ensure everyone is accountable for their roles and remove ambiguity about how they should execute tasks.
Even for something as subjective as client onboarding, you need a documented process in place. Without one, how can you replicate your successes, or even have a benchmark to measure against?
Documented agency processes and workflows help you:
- Onboard new employees faster
- Improve team collaboration
- Better audit your performance
- Remove ambiguity around team member responsibilities
- Provide a resource for staff to find answers before asking questions
Convinced? Let’s go through a simple way to get this done so you can start focusing on the more fun parts of agency growth.
Can You Identify Your Workflow Bottlenecks?
All collaborative processes get bogged down by bottlenecks. It’s inevitable. You can minimize those inconvenient delays, however, if you can identify them and better define your workflows.
Here are a couple of major ones, along with some tips on how to nip them in the bud:
1) Unclear Roles Leading to Duplicate Efforts
In any collaborative process, there can be confusion around who is responsible for what. Suppose you have a workflow for social media production. Does your team know who is responsible for which part of the process? For example:
- Who is the first editor? Second editor?
- What is each editor responsible for? (tone, style, grammar, spelling, branding, etc.)
- Who should each editor ask if they have questions?
- Whose input comes before and after the editors step in?
If there’s any confusion about who is taking which role or the tasks required for that role, you’ll either waste time debating the issue, or both people will needlessly tackle the task independently.
As you audit your practices, be sure to identify any confusing areas in your processes so you can better delegate those roles in your new workflow.
2) Too Many Creative Meetings
Ever been trapped in an email chain where people consistently use the phrase “I think?” Everybody generally has their own two cents about every decision, often including things that are outside of their designated scope and role. Unfortunately, that simply won’t work if you want to stay productive in a larger agency.
There’s a time for productive brainstorming (read this great blog by Thomasz Tunguz, “Disagree and Commit”), but for the most part, you need to design workflows that allow for creativity to flow naturally from one person to the next, or for a routine process such as client onboarding to happen seamlessly with minimal discussion.
If a team member has ideas for the future, of course they should be discussed, but they need to be brought up at the right time and place. Otherwise, you risk stalling work against already tenuous deadlines.
3) Getting Buried in Emails and Documents
If your idea of collaboration is sending the current version of a project through emails, spreadsheets, and documents, your productivity is going to suffer.
If this is you, choosing the right tools to optimize your workflows and processes is a necessity. If you want to free up valuable time to focus on creativity (and making money for your agency), you have to help your employees collaborate better.
There are plenty of tools that help you manage workflows within an organization, all of which help add transparency to the creative process so everyone can stay on the same page. Tools such as Trello, Asana and Gliffy are built specifically to track a process from start to finish and ensure the right people are brought in at the right time.
You’ll need to choose the right tools for content production, as well. When you’re going through the social media production life cycle, for example, stages include: draft, design, edit, client review and publish. Without the right tool, you’ll have to email the social copy and images every time someone else needs to take over.
Don’t even get us started about the headache of exporting content to send to clients for review.
A proper content workflow tool will liberate your email inbox and ease away the painful aspects of your production process. Choose a tool that allows you to draft, edit, review and publish all in one environment. When it’s someone else’s time to jump in, send them a notification from within the tool, and ensure the system logs all edits and comments with an audit trail.
A good tool will also make client reviews a snap, allowing them to easily view content they need to review in the same environment you use to draft and publish.
Make sure you do your research when choosing any tool to find the right ones to suit your agency. Once you’ve got your new utility belt ready to go, it’s time to actually start documenting those workflows.
Prioritize Your Needs
So, you ask, do I need to spend a lot of time documenting every process? That depends. As you grow, which processes are going to be the most critical to your continued success as an agency? For example, documenting workflows like client onboarding, project reporting or content production are key because they involve a lot of people and need to occur on a regular basis.
Other tasks, such as HR procedures or minutiae such as instructions on how to change your email signature, can wait. If you try to do too much at once, people will become overwhelmed. Start with the important stuff, and when you find success with that, then work on the rest.
How Do You Document a Workflow?
“We recognized early on that we didn’t want different team members to reinvent the wheel each time a procedure or process was initiated. We therefore decided that any workflow that was routine, repetitive and predictable, regardless of magnitude, must follow a designed process to eliminate the daily bottlenecks that were slowing our organization down.”
“Then, as now, our complex procedures involved many touches by lots of people across the organization, and it took a tremendous amount of time to think through how each of the dominoes would fall from start to finish. Our management now treats each step in a process as a standalone procedure, identifying all the different scenarios that staff may encounter, so the step can be interpreted in if-then’ terms: If this happens, then do that’.”
Yes, a workflow really should be this detailed. Consider a graphic designer who needs more input on the social media content they are creating. If they don’t know whom to contact, they could end up involving the wrong people, or worse, sending an email to the entire content team.
Basically, your workflows and procedures should be so well-defined that you could go on vacation with confidence that the agency isn’t going to fall to pieces while you’re gone.
A strong workflow will:
- Break down each stage of a process into tickable tasks
- Reference tasks that need to happen in various company tools
- Instruct each team member whom to contact if they have questions
- Very clearly instruct who to hand work off to and in what format
For a good example of what you should be aiming for, look to Gliffy’s example of an editor’s task list as a part of a content workflow:
Alternatively, some organizations choose to make their walkthroughs into videos if the process is easier to show visually or if that better suits the agency culture.
However you document, remember that workflows will always be subject to change, particularly as your agency scales up. You’ll want to ensure you use a format or database for your workflows that is easy to edit.
For advice on crafting workflows for specific processes, be sure to check out our other posts:
- The Easy Steps to Create an Enhanced Content Workflow
- How to Excel at Client Onboarding – a Guide for Agencies
Getting Your Organization On Board
Okay, so you’ve written your workflows and purchased licenses for tools to save the day. All well and good. Are you using them?
Many a Trello board is left gathering dust, at least until you train your staff to use it. It’s hard to adjust behavior across an organization, but for all the benefits workflows and tools provide, it’s an important one that needs to happen.
Train your whole organization, and make sure all managers are advocates for these new processes. Everyone needs to know their roles in the various processes of a company, and that they are expected to take ownership of those roles.
Sometimes checklists and workflows seem rigid. Emphasize that workflows aren’t the end of creativity. There is always room to explore and innovate with the tasks assigned to each person. At the end of the day, having a process in place is designed to save time on the tedious aspects of work and allow for more time to think outside of the box.
Never Stop Iterating On Your Processes
As your agency scales, processes will need to be regularly audited to incorporate new roles and processes.
The best part of documenting your workflows is that processes are easily adaptable. Also, tracking tools make it easy to see how efficiently your processes are flowing, and if there are any continually missed deadlines. Managers will undoubtedly notice when a workflow might be hitting bottlenecks, but ensure employees have a chance to voice any ideas for change they feel would be helpful.
For workflows to be efficient, the entire agency needs to buy into them, so make sure you take their ideas into account and continually work to refine your processes for success.
Scaling Your Agency Is a Journey
There may be growing pains when your agency goes from five people to 50, but enjoy the journey!
Better workflows are key to scaling your agency, but there is plenty of other advice out there on things to consider when scaling your agency, and how to do it better.
Here are some of our favorite resources for growing an agency effectively:
- 9 Questions You Should Answer Before Scaling Your Agency
- How to Avoid the Premature Scaling Deathtrap
- 7 Experts Reveal How They Scaled Their Digital Agencies