207: Unmanaged Your Agency with Jack Skeels

Jack Skeels, author of Unmanaged and the CEO of Agency Agile, a consulting firm helping agencies define a system of culture, people, process, and tools that create superior results. We discuss the Unmanagement Blueprint, its principles, and applications, alongside strategies for boosting productivity and addressing non-performing employees. He showcases the transformative impact of implementing the blueprint, emphasizing its effectiveness in achieving superior results, while also highlighting the crucial role of communication in enhancing system efficiency.

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Unmanaged Your Agency with Jack Skeels

Our guest is Jack Skeels, author of Unmanaged and the CEO of Agency Agile, a consulting firm helping agencies define a system of culture, people, process, and tools that create superior results. Jack, welcome to the show.

Thanks so much for having me, Steve. Pleasure to be here today.

Well, I’m excited to have you because you have a very exciting background, your journey through consulting and the Rand Corporation. I mean, I was an avid reader of Ayn Rand, and I know that some of her values kind of were lived on in the Rand Corporation, which is a big think tank. And now you entered entrepreneurship several years ago and you’re running Agency Agile. So tell us a little bit about your journey and how did you end up here and authoring a book on management?

Thank you. You know, there’s a little bit of irony in the whole story. I just realized the other day, I saw, you know, the topics we were going to discuss. And when I came out of college, I was a programmer, and the first thing I learned about the workplace was that all my managers were stupid. I was trained in robotics, and no one else knew robotics. But they give you a manager, right, and the manager didn’t know anything about it. And so I was struck by the cynicism about what is it that managers do anyways, especially when I got some bigger work going on.

I had project managers over me and I’m like, they don’t know what to do either. And ironically, of course, I became a manager pretty quickly. So I had to sort of figure that part out. But all my life, actually, as I went through, I built a consultancy in the 1990s. We had 90 people and did a program management. And like you said, I ended up at a think tank because I sold my company. Didn’t get rich off of it, but sold it and went to go get my MBA.

And then part of the internship during the summer, I worked at a think tank and they asked me to stay. And I ended up staying for four years and went back another time later on in my career. The thing that happened along the way, by the way, Rand doesn’t like managers either particularly because they’re all researchers and they’re sort of like a bunch of cats that don’t like being herded sort of thing. And so I was in good company there as well.

What happened really during the next 10 years is really interesting from the perspective of I got back out in the real world and I’d been doing work at RAND around organizational research on how knowledge worker organizations should operate. And I’d learned a lot. I had to, you know, because I had to do some reports on it and the like. And then I started working in the world of advertising and marketing agencies. And these are very cool organizations.

We’ve all seen Mad Men and stuff like that, but they’re very crazy chaotic organizations as well. And what I realized was a lot of what I’d learned in that research at RAND is stuff that would help agencies. And it helps all kinds of organizations. But ironically, all the way back to that, you know, the little smart-ass, smart-mouthed kid that I was in, you know, 1982 or so, it all pointed back at managers and that we actually don’t manage in complex situations very well.

So, Jack, sorry to stop you there, but define to me agency. Is it just advertising agencies or agency would be any professional service firm which is hired for a job?

Yeah, and so that’s a great question. So, the word agency really means to be in agency of, in other words, to be of service, like a real estate agent. We used to have travel agents. I think there’s still a few of those left. So that’s where an agency got its name is from the idea of being in agency and the like. To be more precise, the type of organization we work with are what are called project-driven organizations, where you’re assembling a team of people to solve a problem, and it’s usually not a problem that you’ve solved before.

And advertising and marketing agencies always try to do something new and different, so they’re intrinsically, they’re always doing these new, complex, creative, innovative projects kind of thing. And that sort of environment is very, very challenging, but it turns out that we overmanage those environments tremendously. In fact, the less we manage, the better off they get, especially if we know how to unmanage, if you will. And that’s the name of the book. I chose it.

There are a couple other ideas we’ll talk about, of course, but I chose it for this idea that, have I said, hey, my team is unmanaged. Most people, most managers would go, oh, my God, you need to go manage it then. And my answer would be, well, actually my team is outperforming yours because it is unmanaged. I’ve lessened the amount of management that goes into the activity, allowing people to get more work done and the like. So that’s sort of the, that’s the wrapper for the whole thing.

I think maybe it’s a Jim Collins quote or a Gino Wickman that if you have to manage tightly someone, then you made a hiring mistake. So it’s about, you know, people need to self-manage, especially knowledge workers, we want them to self-manage and to figure it out, right?

Yeah, yeah, and I think that if you feel like you should be, if you feel like you should be tightly managing, then we may have made a different hiring mistake, right? Because that’s the-

You should have been hired in the first place.

Yeah, exactly, yeah, yeah.

That’s a good point, that’s a good point. So tell me about this blueprint that you developed or which you discussed. What is, how do you create unmanagement? How do you unwind management perhaps? What are the steps to that?

Yeah, so it’s, you know, there’s an interesting conundrum because I knew this stuff worked. We’ve implemented it with over 200 agencies and other project-driven organizations, consultancies, all that kind of thing. I knew it worked, but it’s really interesting when you write a book, because you actually have to think through how to explain it to someone.

And given that the key idea is do less as a manager, the first question a manager should ask back to me is, when? When do I do less? And when do I not? And so if you think about it, during the day, there are a thousand managerial moments for any manager. You’re walking around, you’re thinking, what should I do here? What should I do there? And there’s no book big enough to contain all the advice on all those moments, and you couldn’t because everyone’s moments are different and the like.

So the blueprint that we had to come up with was a little bit different, which is say, here are the points where you need to be very much a manager. And you need to be very much a manager in a certain way, which, in fact, you, Steve, alluded to a few minutes ago, and I’ll get to that. But the idea is if I succeed at managing well in these moments, I can probably manage less in the others.

And so, in essence, then I can start saying, well, maybe I’ll just see what happens. I’ll wait and see, right? Because waiting and seeing, in fact, is a very good move on a manager’s parts, but it’s hard to do in the light. And people want to do something, right? We have this sense of agency just around ourselves, which is, if I don’t feel like I’m being a manager during the day, then what’s my self worth, right? And so people get drawn into, I’m calling a meeting because it makes me feel like a manager.

Right. So in Vistage, when I was a Vistage chair, we had a saying which I really liked, which was don’t just do something, stand there. And that meant obviously that, you know, you don’t have to talk all the time. Just listen to that person and just try to understand what they are going through and how you can help them.

That’s great. I love this idea. I love that. I’m going to steal that if you don’t mind. So thank you.

It’s not mine.

So we came up with four key managerial moments. And it turns out if you, if he’s, and this is actually what I was able to do is sort of retrofit our curriculum into these ideas and really realize that’s what we’ve been teaching all along. And I’ll go through each of them. There’s why and what. It’s very simple. Why and what and go. And the why is why are we doing this, and all the things that go around that. The what is what are we doing. And the go is go do it, you know, that kind of thing. So, very simple framework that way. That’s not really the whole managers, and I’ll talk about what each of those look like.

But grow is one that spans across all of them, which is the primary goal of a manager is to grow the capability of their people. I was speaking with an executive the other day, and he started saying, well, you know, we just don’t know what to do with our people that aren’t the high potential ones. I mean, do we keep them or should we be circulating them as in, like, periodically moving them out and bring new people in to see if we find another high potential one.

The primary goal of a manager is to grow the capability of their people. Click To Tweet

And I was struck by his profound lack of understanding of the most important point, which is the manager’s job is not to cultivate high potential employees. High potential employees will do it on their own, okay? You probably just want to get out of the way of them. The manager’s job is to actually help all the other employees become high potential employees.

That is the measure of, in fact, I point this out in the book, that’s sort of the measure of the manager, if you will. Is the worst managers complain about their people? Oh, if only I had some good people, we would be killing it. We’d be getting things done on time. And my answer is, well, if only we had a great manager in your spot, then you’d have better people because they would have grown them. So that’s the primary job of a manager is to make, help talent become great, to help them grow and all that kind of thing.

Well, that’s a really interesting point, what you mentioned, because there’s another school of thought, which is that you don’t want to invest in your time in hopeless employees who are never going to make it or who are too much trouble. And you’d rather want to replace those with a potential as people who have the potential to become great employees and then invest your time mentoring those. And then the ones that are already hitting it out of park, maybe you want to stay close to them because you want to make sure that they don’t get bored and you can find the next opportunity for them where they can keep growing. So how do you reconcile that approach with, you know, try to fix the non-performing employees and invest time in them?

Well, it’s actually more complex than that, so I appreciate you asking that question. First of all, the fundamental part of what you just said is actually been proven to be very flawed, which is, how well do managers assess employees? And quite poorly is the answer. In fact, this is a great piece of research that I described in the book. Deloitte a university research group, studied employee evaluations. And they developed a set of qualitative measures of the employee, like how successful their projects had been and peer reviews and all that kind of thing.

And then they compared that to the supervisor reviews, right, and some other factors. And it turns out that the single most significant factor in the rating in a review, and that’s someone was rated is how many values the person being rated shares with the person rating them. In other words, and this is just, this is called flat out bias, okay. I will always prefer people who are more like me in whatever way. They wear great shoe wear. They have the same skin color. They like the same sports as me. It is the single most significant factor contributes to more than 50% of the rating.

The single most significant factor in a review is shared values. Click To Tweet

So what that says immediately is we’re horrible at assessing who’s right and who’s wrong who’s good and who’s bad and all that kind of thing so the my one of my hidden points in the CEO story was He the whole idea was flawed that even knew how good or people were or not Okay, because he was relying on those sorts of measures there are ways to solve that In terms of measuring better and that’s why Deloitte did the study because they were concerned.

The biggest tragedy is you had someone great and you didn’t know it because of this and you set them free and then went back to the Roulette table and to see if you’re trying to get another double zero or something like that, right? So I’ll tell a quick anecdote too, which is which is in the book but the I’ll try and do the short version of it. We had a we had the team. This is actually client side. We work inside just regular organizations as well.

They had a 50-person department and we walked through their challenges and how we fix it and all that kind of thing And they said this is great Jack. This is really really great. They pulled me aside the top two people. This is really great, except we have one problem. And Steve, you’ll love this, because this ties exactly with your question. We have one problem. See, where we operate, it’s really hard to hire good people.

And about half of our people don’t belong here. And they just don’t belong. We need to. And so we don’t know, if we do your trainings and do your transformation stuff with those people, then when we swap them out and bring new people in, then we have to retrain those people and should we wait until we do it?” That kind of thing. And I told them, I basically said, you should go ahead because you’ll learn a lot from actually putting those bad people through the training as well.

Fast forward a year later, the main client calls my business partner who did the actual training and transformation and they had this the big event that they throw every year and they It just went really really well and and the client called Greg and said hey I just want to tell you how fantastic this event went and you know it’s usually a mess every year when we throw this thing and this is our biggest event ever and And the team is simply amazing at their ability to run this event and get it set up and all this, on and on and on. And so – and Greg sent me a note. I said, can you ask her a question, please? He said, sure. I said, ask her how many people have left. And she replied, oh, we’ve only lost one person. They left because their husband moved to find another job. So 30 people.

So it was not the people, it’s just the management, basically.

Yeah, the way they were managing, the opportunities they were getting, etc. 30 people would have lost their jobs. Instead, she was happy with all of them after they started managing differently.

But they say that the bottleneck is always at the top of the barrel. So management, that is a problem. But you have to manage it in a way because they write the checks, so you have to handle it in a way so that they don’t get offended.

That’s two great quotes, by the way. It’s two great quotes. Bottleneck is at the top of the bottle.

Bottleneck is at the top of the bottle. Click To Tweet

That’s not mine either. So Jack, tell me, what does a transformation look like? So you go into the company, you do your thing, then you implement your ammunition blueprint, the viable go and grow steps, and 12 months later, I understand no one left, but what else would you say to describe this organization? How has it transformed?

Well so, the thing we focus on, because at the end of the day, this is one of the ideas that I put in the book as well. The goal of the manager is to ensure that the people doing the work are optimally productive, right? And being optimally productive is a greater good. It doesn’t mean working harder, right? It doesn’t mean working a lot of hours. What it means is the time that I’m there, that I’m actually supposed to be working, I’m actually working. I’m producing things, right?

Effective management means maximizing productivity in every moment. It's not about working harder or longer, but making each moment count towards meaningful progress. Click To Tweet

And so that’s a very, very – it’s a very simple measure. In other words, is everything I’m doing as a manager something that makes that person more productive? For example, calling them into a meeting does not make them more productive. They lose productivity every time they’re in a meeting. So we focus on that. In other words, what is the production function in the organization, and we study why it’s not happening. And what happens is when we fix that, we just serve a root cause analysis thing, and we’ve got some tricks and all that kind of clever stuff.

But when you fix that, all of a sudden some other things happen. And we didn’t know it at first, right? We knew how to fix the – because I had been at RAND, I thought, well, all the research is on how to make knowledge workers productive, right? But didn’t study like anything else or the least the ones I read It turns out that people that feel more productive are happier are happier being productive So this is interesting now all sudden you’re producing more work and you’re happier doing it, right?

And so the idea that I’m working hard. I’m not working hard. I’m working happy, right? And another thing happens along that path, which is people that are happy doing more work and more productive work actually do higher quality work. And higher quality work starts changing the shape of the organization as well. In other words, if we – if all of a sudden we’re producing great stuff, I mean, that has an external facing thing, right?

But it also has a team building thing to it. Like, wow, we’re proud of our work, right? And we’re proud of our ability to get done, proud of our ability to work with each other. I would say half of our clients would say the single most important thing they got out of our training was an improved culture, okay? And we do not sell improved culture because that’s like crazy to try and sell that, right? That’s something that they have to own, but that is a big side effect of doing the kind of thing that we do.

Okay. So I think that probably links to this, but I read your unmanagement manifesto at the back of your book, and the last one, and I thought that last one is probably the first, last one is probably the most impactful. So I’m quoting the last one, which is basically say that communications can outperform systems. So what do you mean by that? So do we not need systems? Is it like the marketing agency, advertising agency, where it’s the chaos rules, but they are still very impactful? Or what do you mean by that exactly?

So just to back up just a little bit on that, what we’re talking about is knowledge worker organizations and primarily what we think of as complex, in other words, a bunch of people have to work together, right? And I published an article in 19 – no, sorry, 2017, and shortly thereafter, the Economist published almost the same opinion piece. Mine was in Ad Age, I think, and theirs was, of course, in the Economist.

And it said the following, which is, when we introduce software workflow systems workflow systems in a knowledge worker environment, it robs people of the collaboration function. It robs them of the working together and communicating together function. When we take the complex work that needs to come out as a solution and break it into a bunch of tiny little pieces and put it in a system, people can no longer see the work together. And they don’t even have the same feeling of producing it together because they all produce it in their little silos and right a little like.

So I give you another quote. This is from my life The factories of the 21st century are the offices.

Oh Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. The the old-style factory is going to be just all all automated in fact.

Yeah, yeah, exactly and and people are you know, they’re very a tie perhaps in the jacket, but they really are just factory workers because their work is so atomized that they are just doing some piece of the process without seeing the big picture. Which is pretty sad.

You’re saying in the office that’s going to be the case?

In big companies, you know, in big company office buildings.

I think they are but they’re very different actually go into this point in the book a little bit which is in in the old factory model you can think of it this way that the people worked for the machines in other words the is my job to keep the machine moving as quickly as possible And and not let my humanity interfere with it right okay? In other words I have to keep feeding the machine or unloading the machine. And it’s all, the only constraint is me, right?

So the people are the limitation. And that’s the other way around now. Okay. We, the machines work for us. Okay. And increasingly the machines work for us. Right. And so our, the machine constraints are velocity a lot of times. And then there’s what can the machine do? And that’s where AI has all this potential to be an amplifier for what we do as human beings. It will replace the people that you were describing, though, the people that are doing something repetitive and simple, etc. AI will replace that because that can be replaced using AI.

But it’s the innovative work. It’s the messy work. It’s the complex work, the unique work. AI knows how to do work that’s been done before. That is, that’s, you know, if you want to go to the high ground because you’ve got this ocean of technology rising, you don’t want to drown, go to where you’ve got creativity, innovation, you know, inspiration, whatever, or the messy, the messy hill, which has like problems that computers can’t solve. Like how do we, how do we find some people to take blood samples from in Botswana and deal with tribes or whatever, right? You know, that kind of thing. The messy human problems. That’s where we’ll still be working.

Yeah, I love it. I agree. It seems it was Maltus who said that we are going to run out of work for people and maybe that’s the food stuff. I’m confusing things. But essentially, Actually, we think that mechanization, yeah, and in the industry of revolution, people were breaking machines because they were afraid that they would take their jobs. And actually, it’s the more machines there are, the lower unemployment is for.

The greater the prosperity, yeah.

Yeah, we’re running out of people first, rather than work. So before we wrap this up, I’d like to ask you a question. What are you working on that most excites you right now?

Well, you know, I’m actually working on another book, right? So the book that I just published, Unmanaged, is a – I think of it as the Bible to what we’ve done, right? In other words, it’s got that – I go deeply into a lot of the key topics and the like. It’s a practitioner’s guide that That essentially if you already know the methods and stuff we’ve shown you it’s a great handbook to keep on doing those things.

You can make some progress as a manager just reading it on your own and the like I think the challenge is it’s a dense book and a lot of people have told me look I read the same page four times. It’s great stuff, but it’s a lot of material. Can you do something simpler? And so I’m working on a new book, which is called The Four Key Managerial Moments, right, where we just go into that much more simple style and, you know, one of those things, hopefully 180 pages readable on a plane flight from New York to Los Angeles, all that kind of thing. So very excited about that. And I’m learning how to play pickleball. So those are my two things right now that are important.

Yeah, that’s an awesome game. I saw, actually, two nights ago, I saw a video of McEnroe playing Agassi. And they bring their own personality that we are already familiar with. You know, McEnroe is really upset and angry, but eventually he comes through and pretty awesome. So I recommend it. All right, thank you, Jack. That’s really interesting. So Unmanaged, Master the Magic of Creating Empowered and Happy Organizations. It is a dense book, it’s 300 pages, but there’s lots of good stuff in it. So I highly recommend that you study it and I’m reading it right now. I really like that you deal with professional service firms, learning organizations, knowledge workers because that’s the space where I spend most of my time as well. If the listeners would like to learn more about it, get a copy of Unmanaged or maybe want to learn about what Agency Agile does, where should they go?

Agencyagile.com. And, you know, I think a good way to sort of get yourself into some of that stuff is follow me on LinkedIn. And I’m always publishing new – I just came out with a new article called the Million Dollar Margin Murder, which is how small and medium-sized businesses lose margin to a bunch of these problems as well. But find me on LinkedIn, Jack Skeels, or visit us at agencyagile.com.

Jack, well, thank you for coming on the show and sharing your goodies and how to unmanage organizations so that they perform better. On the management blueprint. The Unmanagement Blueprint, I have to rename the podcast now.

There we go, I love that, that’s great. Steve, thank you very much. And I don’t usually come away from a podcast interview with some new ideas. So I appreciate you putting this. I love the bottleneck of those at the top of the bottle. That’s great. And I will remember that forever. So thank you very much. Great interview. That’s great. And I will remember that forever.


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