Agencies Thrive on Chaos, but Micromanaging Can Disrupt That Delicate System

Part of what's so enticing about the industry is its inherent mayhem

Chaos sounds bad, but for agencies it’s unavoidable, even essential. How we deal with it largely determines how strong the agency is. Chaos comes because each assignment is different, demands come in multiples, and there’s nothing linear or simple about the delivery. Everyone works on multiple projects and teams and does significant work for several clients at a time. At any given moment, deadlines and priorities can change. An agency is a naturally-occurring chaotic organization.

The chaos makes agencies fun and exciting. It creates the conditions and attracts the people that generate breakthrough ideas. Behavioral scientists call them divergent and lateral thinkers. Agencies wouldn’t be agencies without them.

At their best, agencies operate as chaotic systems. It’s like a train station at rush hour where experienced commuters seem to dance between entries, exits and platforms as trains come and go. It’s chaotic, yes, but everyone knows where they’re going, and they continually adjust to the fastest available way to get there.

Yet our knee-jerk reaction to chaos is to eliminate it. So most agencies employ the traditional management techniques that business schools and consultants teach: controlling managers who set the agendas, required approval processes, information on a need-to-know basis, systems everyone must use and meetings upon meetings, to name a few. Those techniques work great in linear businesses with stable priorities, standardized work product, repeatable processes and clear lines of authority (read: no great agency).

And those techniques make an agency fragile. Teams depend utterly on all-knowing managers who guard the deep knowledge about how things work, what clients really need and what’s happening at the agency. Every time plans change—and they change all the time—people need a manager’s help.

Needing help turns agency people into tourists trying to navigate that train station at rush hour. They have a scrap of paper with a train and track number, but when delays and track reassignments change the station schedule, they have to stop and ask for help. Often, they don’t even know why they were going there. There aren’t enough station managers to handle their requests in time. Bedlam results.

In the agency, the confusion starts with the flood of interruptions caused by the management structure. Since people in a one of these naturally-occurring chaotic organizations are assigned to multiple clients and projects, they’ll have as many as 10 managers (account people, project managers, producers, leads, etc.) to deal with. That means that they can be interrupted by every manager they report to, which is easily 20 interruptions or changes of plan per day.

Agencies that thrive in chaos do it by reversing how we’ve been taught to think about managing.

Research shows that each of these out-of-context interruptions can reduce productivity by 10 minutes or more. Factor in the competing priorities and contradicting direction interruptions can impose, and it becomes obvious how interruption and confusion win out over focused work time. No wonder most work (and the best work) often happens after office hours; the managers have gone home.

In such over-managed environments, whenever something changes, the mayhem intensifies. Management’s response? We need more managers! At its peak, I’ve seen agencies with one manager for every staffer.

To find a solution, I’ve gone deep inside more than 100 agencies and spoken with hundreds more. It turns out the agencies that thrive in chaos do it by reversing how we’ve been taught to think about managing.

For starters, they manage less. They turn every hour of the day into after-hours by empowering people to be more self-sufficient. They recognize the power of their teams to operate like a complex, adaptive system. They give people the autonomy to adapt to continuous changes and trust that they will dance with the chaos and make the agency resilient.

Instead of partitioning information into silos, these agencies democratize it. They give everyone overall priorities and real-time updates, so people can make decisions largely on their own. Teams share deep knowledge with each other in real time rather than waiting for managers to divulge information and set direction. They help shape schedules, scope and solutions on the ground where the action is.

I’ve seen a 35-person team update 200-plus work items and daily status in less than 30 minutes. It reminded me of the commuters in the train station: no wasted motion and virtually no managing involved.

Resilient agencies also reverse the way they brief teams. They teach teams to pull information rather than pushing it on them. Invariably, asking questions this way brings up things managers would have missed. The people who will do the work own and understand the objective together. They have the deep knowledge needed to adapt to all kinds of changes in the moment so the chaos doesn’t become a crisis.

In effect, they un-manage their agency. The natural chaos sparks fresh ideas, responses and ways of working. Managers shift back into doing the work they love. Clarity increases, interruption decreases and the cost of management goes down altogether.

In the process, these agencies protect themselves from the onslaught of competition for their business and talent. And they prove that chaos doesn’t become bedlam when you organize to cultivate rather than control it.