Agency Complacency


We’ve all been there: projects pile up, deadlines move closer, new requests come in, changes, edits, budgets, more changes. Maybe a team member decides to leave for another position, someone’s out on leave, or your Biz Dev team just goofed and over allocated its team. Either way, there’s a strain on resources, and it seems like everyone is burning the candle at both ends.

Sound familiar? Welcome to agency life.

The next part of this story is that the work starts to suffer – that innovation and creativity that your client is paying thousands for isn’t hitting the mark – and the general morale becomes low (even though no one’s talking about it). The constant going, going, going, get-it-done mentality that can occur is simply not sustainable. And PMs probably know this best of all, or at least we should. (Cue that complacency thing.)

We’re not robots (yet).

Why do we need this mental break? Because science. No, seriously – in the same way that you need to rest your body between workouts, you need to give your brain a break too. In fact, during the average 8-hour workday, it seems a break every 90 minutes or so is the rule of thumb. And since your brain never really shuts off, the point is to take mental breathers that re-focus the brain, thereby allowing people to be more productive in less time. (A sort of mental “quality over quantity” to increase the level of squee when it comes to your project budget.)

I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting we take hours out of each day to meditate or do yoga (though that would be extremely awesome). I fully recognize that a certain number of billable hours needs to be met in order to maintain profit, however that profit is not going to stick around if our clients are pissed off because our overworked project teams have turned into design monkeys pushing the feeder bar for another food pellet. As long as we’re continuing to sacrifice innovation and creativity in favor of “just getting the work done”, we won’t be providing the forward-thinking strategies that turn single projects into long term client relationships.

Creating space for creativity.

The trick is to find techniques that we can use to quickly boost creativity and keep our ideas fresh, without placing heavy demands on our already slammed schedules.

For example, the UX team at my office has implemented something from Zurb called the Friday 15. By signing up, they get a random activity delivered to their inbox each week. Then, as a team, they come together to complete the exercise. It’s 15 minutes, once a week, but it’s a way to not only encourage team building, it’s a complete mental break from work in the form of a quick brain teaser.

Another activity I’ve found to be rewarding is the Stanford d. school brainstorming exercise. It’s fast, it encourages wild ideas (that’s a direct quote), and it requires zero judgment or special skill. You simply think of a problem you need to solve, and phrase it in a question that starts “How might we…” For example, “How might we increase the amount of online leads for our client?” Then set the timer for 15 minutes, and make sure everyone is armed with post-its and a marker. When your team feels completely burned out, it’s a great way to get energized and get new ideas.

Finally, it’s important to realize that it’s not just the project team getting burned out. Any project manager out there can tell you the ridiculous number of tasks he or she might touch in a single hour, not to mention the entire day. It’s important that we allow ourselves time to mentally breathe and focus. For me, it can be as simple as going outside for a lap around the building or shutting myself into a conference room to play a quick memory game on Lumosity.

Bring your PM A-game.

So why is this important for project managers? Because we’re the ones holding all the cards! We’re the timeline masters, the client whisperers, the universal translators, the project planners, the team therapists, and the company cheerleaders.

We’re the first line of defense when it comes to  protecting our organizations’ most precious resource, our people. We can do this by looking for smart ways to avoid over-scheduling our teammates, so that they can maintain the mental focus and space for creativity that they need.

What use is it to our organizations if our team can  hit it out of the park for Client A, but are so burned out that Client B gets shafted. One of the most important parts of being a project manager is protecting our team’s time, so that they can deliver the innovation and creativity that our clients pay us for over and over again. Ultimately, this helps us foster a healthy workflow that enables us to retain our talent, deliver effective outcomes for clients, and make our jobs a little easier in the long run, too.

Larrisa ScordatoLarissa is a digital project manager in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. In her spare time, she serves as the Chapter Manager for AIGA Arizona and helps to plan Phoenix Design Week. Also loves anything music, cooking, or scotch related.