It’s a never-ending battle for agency managers to keep their teams on track. With the volume and pace of work that everyone is trying to get done, it can sometimes be frustrating to figure out what needs to be done next.
This is a topic that came up in a recent conversation in r/agency on Reddit. Chip and Gini found some of the responses to be just a bit off the mark, so they highlight some bad advice that they saw — then offer up their own take on the challenge.
Spoiler alert: secret lists are never the answer.
- Chip: “Keeping secret lists really is never a good management tactic. No, I can’t think of an occasion where there is a good secret list to be kept. So let’s just start with that concept that if you’re hiding something, or being secretive about something that probably suggests there’s something amiss.”
- Gini: “Tell them what the priorities are, have monthly company wide meetings to say, hey, these are the priorities for next month. Let’s talk through who needs to do what and what we’re going to be focused on.”
- Chip: “And like so many things, it almost doesn’t matter which tool you’re using, as long as you’re using it consistently. Because the reason why most project management tools fail is not because there’s something inherently wrong with the tool, it’s because the team isn’t using it. They’re not updating on a regular basis.”
- Gini: “Please do not keep secrets from the team.”
- Reddit post with original question
- Ken Jacobs episode
- Karl Sakas episode
- 60+ project management tools for agencies (by Karl Sakas)
CHIP: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I am very pleased to report that Gini Dietrich is back in her guest – or not in her guest. Let’s let’s start this over.
GINI: No I think you should leave it. in her guest -permanent co host spot.
CHIP: So she’s she’s our permanent guest co host Sure, we’ll just we’ll just ride with this because because why not? This is this is we are real about the Agency Leadership Podcast. There is nothing fake about this. We don’t use all sorts of editing tricks. We just lay it right out there for you. So…
GINI: Kind of like how our community manager was like the two of you should do this on video. So we can do your outtakes as bloopers and you were like, No, that would require us to be somewhat somewhat professional. And that’s just not happening.
CHIP: I to be clear, and you pointed this out in the Spin Sucks Community. I said pretend, pretend be professional because neither one of us is really all that professional if truth be told. We try to fake it as much as we can for the show. Because Well, we want you to continue to listen. So on that note, it is great to have you back. Thanks. Thanks to Ken Jacobs and Karl Sakas for filling in for the last couple of weeks. They did an excellent job. But it is always good to have the the original the OG the original Gini.
GINI: Ken has not let me live it down yet. So he seems to think he’s pretty special.
CHIP: Well, everybody is special. That’s that’s the society we live in today, everybody is special we’ll give everybody a trophy. So in any case, So today, we’re going to talk about an important topic, which is how do you make sure that your team is working on the right things? Yes. And this this is actually a question that came up in the Agency Forum on Reddit, a place that we don’t tap into all that often. But this one popped out at me when I saw it. And it was a post asking how do you ensure your team is working on the right work? And then it goes on to say, if you’ve got team members working on multiple projects at different levels of completion, how do you ensure your team is working on the right items across all of those projects? And he talks about using a scheduling app and other tools and all that? And he’s wondering, Is this just a manual thing? Or how do you go about doing it? So that’s actually a very good topic, because every agency, no matter what kind you are, you have projects that you’re working on, you have to make sure that your team is devoting their time and resources to the right things at any given time. So that’s can be a juggling act. So how do you do that? And the community on Reddit had some thoughts.
GINI: You’re not even gonna let me pretend it’s my idea. There was one thought on Reddit, which I’m impressed that you use Reddit because it scares me but different topic for different day. One person said, in addition to project management tools that your team actively uses, such as Trello, I would keep a meeting agenda separately on your own that they don’t see. That includes what you believe their priorities would be if you were all of them, then check in frequently ask them what they’re prioritizing and hammer home your key tasks
CHIP: To which someone very helpfully chimed in, totally agree with the hidden pm tool for yourself.
GINI: Oh, no, no, no.
CHIP: I’m not even sure where to begin with this.
GINI: I agree with you. So you want to have – they’re suggesting you have a secret list of priorities that you don’t share with your team. And then you ask them what the priorities are. And if they don’t get them, right, you hammer home what they should be?
CHIP: In other words, you get to yell Gotcha!
GINI: It does feel a little bit like that. It does feel a little bit like that.
CHIP: Yeah, it feels it feels a lot like that. And let me just say, this is a bad idea.
GINI: This is a terrible idea.
CHIP: This is – do not do not take this management advice. Ever. Terrible idea. Keeping secret lists really is never a good management tactic. No, I can’t think of an occasion where there is a good secret list to be kept. So let’s, let’s just start with that concept that if you’re hiding something, or being secretive about something that probably suggests there’s something amiss.
GINI: Yeah. And it’s not great leadership, it does definitely feel like you’re trying to catch them, you know, in some some sort of wrong prioritization. So it’s, it’s, you know, going back to Ken Jacobs, what would he say about that, quote, unquote, leadership?
CHIP: Well, it also just strikes me is, frankly, inefficient, because so in order to manage someone, so the team is using some sort of project management tool, probably already, yes, whether that’s a proper tool, or just a spreadsheet or whatever, they’re using something their own to do list. Now, you’re then going to replicate that effort on your own, without full information really about what they’re doing. Because if you know, everything that your employees are doing every minute of every day, well, first of all, that’s impossible. But secondly, what the hell are you doing? Right? And, but so then you’re going to duplicate this effort by keeping your own system where you’re going to then prioritize things, but instead of telling people what the priority should be, you’re just gonna let them guess? This is inefficient. It’s not just a bad, it’s efficient. Yeah. I mean, you want it done. If you want something done, just say, I would like this done. It should be your priority.
GINI: Yes. And not only is it inefficient, but it would be completely frustrating, because now they’re not doing what you think should be done or prioritizing correctly. So then you’re frustrated that they’re not doing what you think they should be doing. Like it doesn’t…
CHIP: and they get frustrated with you. And it’s just it becomes an escalating battle. I mean, that is that is not, you know, we all talk about talent being so critical to the agency environment, that is not a good way to retain talent, it is not a good way to get the most out of talent. So instead, try actually communicating.
GINI: That’s a good way to do it. Yeah. Tell them what the priorities are, have monthly company wide meetings to say, hey, these are the priorities for next month. Let’s talk through who needs to do what and what we’re going to be, you know, focused on. Marketing team, what are you focused on? Sales team, what are you focused on? yada, yada, yada, right, account team, what are you focused on? Let’s make sure they all align and go do our jobs.
CHIP: Right. And it needs to be a two way street. Because you as the manager, you don’t have full information on everything, they may well know something about what they’re working on, that would influence your decision on priorities, they may have had communications with the client or with others in the agency, about steps that need to be taken that you haven’t yet had. So as a manager, you get value out of these conference. So don’t just sit there with a megaphone and say, here are your priorities and don’t, you know, keep your hands over your ears or something like that you actually want to listen and take feedback. And if someone pushes back, have that discussion now, obviously, as the manager as the owner, you still get to make the final call. But you should do it as well informed as you can.
GINI: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
CHIP: And this is this is this is a good place to say that, look, management advice. It’s sort of like googling the internet for health diagnoses. Sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn’t. You need to understand what is the source of your information. And when it’s some nameless, faceless username on a forum like Reddit, maybe take it with a grain of salt. There’s great advice in there. I offer advice in there. I like to think my advice is good. But at the same time, you have to judge for yourself. If you’re listening to my advice, or your advice, Gini, on the show, you need to judge, Are these the right people to be giving you advice? You know, what’s their background? How does it mesh with my own style, my own needs? And so you really need to make those kinds of judgments anytime you’re looking for this kind of information.
GINI: Yeah, and as my attorney would say, free advice is exactly that – free. So, do with it…
CHIP: Well, frankly, paid advice is, you know, let’s be honest, I’ve been on both sides of the consulting gig over the years. And, you know, sometimes I have great ideas, sometimes I have bad ideas, it’s, you know, hopefully in the net, they’re overall positive, but it really depends on the individual relationships, and you need to make sure that anytime you’re getting and taking advice, that you’re actually applying your own judgment to it as well and say, Hey, does this does this really make sense? Or is this a little bit out there? And this seems to be one of those ones, where it’s a little bit out there. But right, I think we’re in agreement that secret lists are bad, you should actually communicate, you should communicate with your employees. But look, the question is actually a good one. And I think we ought to take a few minutes to actually properly answer this individual’s question. How is it that you do make sure that your team is working on the right things?
GINI: Well, I tell you that, you know, we I run a virtual organization, my team is spread across North America, the US and Canada. And one of the things that we do is a daily check in just on Slack every day. And it’s you know, a quick synopsis of meetings that people have, just so that you know, and the rest of the team knows that they if they don’t respond immediately to you is because they’re in a meeting, and then the top three priorities for them for the day. So that helps me just from the perspective of being able to see exactly what people are working on, if their priorities are what I think they should be. And typically they are, but also helps me because a lot of people will get stuck where their top three priorities, they get two of them down, and one keeps showing up on the list all week long. So that helps me go Okay, well, what’s going on here? Why is this taking so long, you know, it shouldn’t still be on your list. And it just gives me a really good bird’s eye view at what people are looking at or working on.
CHIP: And, and I think that that makes a lot of sense, because that’s leading to that kind of communication that we talked about. And it’s also helping you uncover the hidden things that you might not have noticed otherwise. So I think having team members share those, frankly, I think it’s good for each individual. Even if your boss doesn’t ask you for this, or if you’re an owner, do it for yourself have your list of you know, usually three is the number that most people recommend. It’s usually what I do, I make a longer to do list that I highlight. Because even though even though I use online project management task tracking type systems each morning, or sometimes the night before I take a little three by five note card and I write down, what are the things I absolutely need to get done that next day. And then I highlight the top three priorities so that I know, okay, these are the ones where I got to really beat myself up if I didn’t get to these by the end of the day. And sometimes I don’t get to all three, for whatever reason, something, you know, does come up. But more often than not, I do get those three, because I try to make sure that those are finished before I go on to anything else.
GINI: Well, and I think it also does, it also helps you like for me right now I’m in this unpleasant world where I’m back to back meetings most of every day. And so what it does for me is it says to me, okay, oh, that meeting ended 20 minutes early, great, I can start to work on something. And you know, actually get through my list versus Oh, I have 20 minutes, I’ll check email, I’ll check Twitter, I’ll check Facebook, you know, so I’m not doing that. Because I’m really focused on I have to get those three things done.
CHIP: Well, just a little advice, the way you can get some additional time in your day is just work more hours. And an easy way to do that is by deciding to schedule lots of international calls certain clients. Yeah. So you know, I’ve managed to find myself in a situation where I have nice little gaps during the day. But that’s because most days or a lot of days, I start with a 5am conference call, usually involving Asia. And then sometimes I’ll I’ll finish up with a seven or eight o’clock at night call. You know, that one, that one, you know, might be Australia or something like that. So yes. So that’s another way to find gaps. That is not it’s not necessarily the way that I would encourage everybody. But I’ve having spent the last several years in international business, I sort of have become accustomed to it for better or for worse. But in any case back on track. So that look, the other thing that I think that this questioner was getting at and that I think is important is obviously you have your individual three priorities for the day. But the other thing is, if you’ve got a project where there’s a lot of moving parts, there’s different stages that it has to go through, where you’ve got multiple team members working on it, you maybe were waiting for client feedback somewhere along the way. So this could be you know, whether it’s a website project or working on a larger piece of content for a client, or you know, all sorts of different things that agencies might engage with, it’s good to use some sort of a proper project management tool that will allow you to track it, that will have milestones in it, that you’ll be able to see what the dependencies are. So you don’t want to overcomplicate it, but it is useful, particularly when you’ve got multiple people working on the same thing to have that centralized place as opposed to secret lists, of course, but a centralized place where everybody on the team can see where you stand and what is needed next.
GINI: Yes. And one of the things they recommend is Trello, which I know is a is a big thing. I mean, I think the specific thread was more specific to developers. But I know it’s a big thing among the development community. I personally don’t like it just because it’s not…I just don’t like it. It doesn’t appeal to me visually. So we we use CoSchedule and CoSchedule a few months ago launched their project management suite. Phenomenal. So now we can do everything in CoSchedule: project management, editorial, social, everything, it’s all in there.
CHIP: And I personally am fond of Asana. That’s right, yeah, my that is my go to. And I like it because I actually like Trello to some degree. Because and what you don’t like is that it’s the kanban style, the sort of the post it note style, I would assume is what you don’t like about it. But that’s having worked in development environments before I became accustomed to that. And I liked that for certain things. At the same time. I like the fact that Asana lets you choose for each project, whether you use that style, or the more traditional lists. And so it so for me, a straight list is often better for some kinds of projects. So being able to mix and match is really beneficial.
GINI: And I know some people use Basecamp. And so when when we have client work that where there’s a project management piece of it, that we will have to collaborate will use Basecamp, because it’s really easy to have your own stuff internal and then share external stuff with clients and you know, all the emails and everything or go into there, you can collaborate on documents in there. So that’s really easy to use as well.
CHIP: You know, I have I have so wanted to love Basecamp over the years. And I’ve I’ve tried it many, many times in different incarnations, I just I’ve never loved it, I’ve certainly had to use it for various projects, with clients or even even in my own business for a long period of time we used it and we had used it enough that we just kind of stuck with it. But I Gosh, I just I really have never fallen in love with Basecamp even though I wanted to.
GINI: I think it’s hard. And it’s I mean, it’s it’s a really personal thing, I think I mean, just like with Trello with me, I’m just like meh.
CHIP: Yeah, and look there are, I mean, it’s almost impossible to count how many project management tools are out there. In fact, I think I saw a list not too long ago of something like over 100. In fact, it might have been Karl Sakas who shared that list of over 100 project names of tools that you could use. And it’s just, it’s crazy, it, you know it. So you really at some point, just have to put a stake in the ground and say, This is the one you’re using. And like so many things, it almost doesn’t matter which tool you’re using, as long as you’re using it consistently. Right? Right. Because the reason why most project management tools fail is not because there’s something inherently wrong with the tool, it’s because the team isn’t using it. They’re not updating on a regular basis. They’re, you know, or they’re using it inefficiently. I was just talking with an agency owner not too long ago, who they use a central project tracking system, but some of their team members use their own system and then copy things over from there whenever they have to do reports. You know, that is so inefficient. And I look I understand…
GINI: Like having a secret list that you don’t tell people about!
CHIP: It is, you know, and, and, and then they complain about having to do it twice. Well, yeah. Even though even though you like your tool better, yeah, at the end of the day, not everybody can have their own tool because they don’t all talk to each other. You know, this isn’t like an email client where you all get to pick your own. And, you know, it doesn’t really matter, you know, because it all just goes through the email protocol there. Nobody’s developed that yet for project management. Maybe they will someday, maybe maybe I’ve just given someone a brilliant idea. And they will create interoperability standards. But I would say good luck with that, right. But you know, so until that happens, you just need to pick one as a business as an agency, and stick with it. And make sure that everybody’s keeping the proper things tracked in there. Because if you don’t have that, then things will absolutely fall through the cracks. You will absolutely miss deadlines, you will absolutely piss off clients. It just it’s impossible these days to manage a complex project without having some sort of system in place to do it. Even if I mean it doesn’t have to be expensive, you could use Google Sheets, I don’t care, right, just you know, have something that everybody is required to use.
GINI: Yeah. And yes, don’t be copying. It’s kind of like, back in the day, you know, the big PR firm people would wait until the end of the month to do their timesheets, right. First of all, you’re complaining about it because you waited 30 days, and now you have to put 30 days of activities, and you have to go back and look and you know, figure it all out. But also you’re leaving money on the table. Just do it as you go.
CHIP: Right. Right. I mean, heck, I have a hard time doing my time sheets in the afternoon from the morning, on some days, depending on how crazy that morning was. You know, so and it’s the irony is it’s actually easier when I’m in a mode like you are right now where you just back to back meetings, because then it’s really easy to keep track of what was this meeting, it’s when you have a few hours to actually get things done and you’re bouncing from task to task. That’s when it actually becomes more complicated. Oh, yeah, to keep track. But look that. So the bottom line is that if you want to make sure that your team is working on the right things, you need to have a system in place. The team needs to use that system. And the team can’t keep secrets from you. But you can’t keep secrets from the team either.
GINI: Please do not keep secrets from the team.
CHIP: No. I mean it, although it might help, maybe I’ll just start keeping a secret list of topics for the show. And then…
GINI: And then surprise me?
CHIP: Well no, I will then ask you for your topic ideas. But if you don’t guess the ones that are on my list, then we won’t be able to have a show.
GINI: You can have a guest – you can replace the permanent guest co host with the grill guest co host.
CHIP: Now you’re just confusing me. I need to keep things simple, Gini, this is just this is too much.
GINI: Well, either that or take me off your Asana list because I can see it.
CHIP: Well, you can see some of my Asana list. You don’t see the hidden Asana list that I have. That is my shared topic list for this show, I have my super secret topic list.
GINI: It would be kind of funny though, see if we could we could totally wing it where I come to a show and we’re like, okay, start recording. Today we’re going to talk about go and like whatever the topic is go without any preparation for you. Or vice versa.
CHIP: I’m pretty sure that we could do that. Because that’s really only about 30 seconds off of our usual processes.
GINI: It’s 10 minutes off our normal process!
CHIP: All right, fine. We do talk for about 10 minutes before the show, although, truth be told, if we had a recorder going for that about eight of those 10 minutes are about nonsense. Not nonsense, not related to the podcast. It’s kibitzing, it’s entertaining things. It’s and then we spend two minutes trying to figure out okay, which of these topics are we actually going to hit on today? And then we jump right in. But thank God for the Spin Sucks Community. Thank God for crazy managers on Reddit. God, I really hope that the people who are suggesting hidden lists are not actually managers. That they don’t have people working for them.
GINI: Very bad advice. Very bad advice.
CHIP: Very bad advice. So hopefully, if you are listening, you’re not using hidden lists. But if you are, tear them up, delete them, however you keep them, get rid of them, and go out there and talk with your staff. That’s how you keep them on track.
The end. And that brings us to the end of another Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.
GINI: The end.
And I’m Gini Dietrich.
CHIP: And it depends unless you’re using a secret list in which case it does not depend at all ever, ever. Goodbye.