If you’re feeling a little “Scrooged” this holiday season, working late rather than shopping or enjoying a holiday drink with friends, and sweating deadlines while others spend time with those they cherish, you may have the Yellow Column of Death (YCOD) to thank.
Like the ghosts who visited Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the Yellow Column is a symbol of how ignoring projects-past and making light of projects-yet-to-come can destroy a holiday for all.
You can find the YCOD, or its equivalent in most agency pricing spreadsheets – they all have one significant feature in common: a column to the right of the final calculation, shaded yellow, that reads, “Use these Hours.” Unlike the other, detailed calculations on the spreadsheet, the YCOD doesn’t use formulas; the numbers are just typed in. They are the numbers that make the deal “work.”
When the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come show Scrooge present his dismal future, he asks, “…tell me! Are these the shadows of things that must be, or are they the shadows of things that MIGHT be?”
It’s a question that agencies somehow forget to ask – once the deal is booked, these numbers, despite a provenance as dubious as elves at the North Pole, somehow become reality. And that reality looks like production chaos.
So everyone on the project gets their hours allocated from the YCOD. Happy Holidays to you! The only sure thing about the YCOD is that it is wrong. You should have 210 hours, but are only given 160 hours. The YCOD, like the miserly Scrooge, begrudges you weekends and holidays, as if they did not exist:
“You'll want the whole day off tomorrow [Christmas], I suppose…. But be back all the earlier the next morning.”
Try to finish within the skimpy 160 hours, and its likely the work won’t be good enough and you’ll have to “fix it.” What’s really broken is the hours, not your work, so it’s probably best to just put the 210 hours in, and do it right. That’s why your holiday shopping will be on Amazon.com rather than 5th Avenue.
Dickens’ Carol is a set during Christmas, but it is really about the meaning of business, and what businesses owe to their employees and the community. In a pivotal moment, the ghost of Scrooge’s business partner, points out:
“Business? Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!”
In the process of selling, agencies often lose sight of the problems they create for the people who have to deliver. Research has shown that senior people tend to create overly optimistic estimates based on a desire to find a “number that works.” There’s nothing wrong with making a deal work…but these unrealistic numbers create an operations crisis. The ensuing chaos destroys people’s holidays.
Scrooge, confronted with his own tombstone, pleads to the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, believing that he can undo the damage of his neglect:
“Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which…they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus..!”
Though the advice is over 170 years old, it’s something that agencies can learn from. Regardless of what was done to win or close the deal, step back and assess what your team will really need for time and resources to do work that you’ll all be proud of.
So be good at business, and also be good to people with this New Year’s Resolution that lets sales and account teams do what they do well – build a pipeline of business that keeps everyone employed – and also helps to make delivery more successful:
“We pledge to scope and estimate projects twice. Once while selling, using our regular process, and again when the project is booked, to bring the scope and estimates back into reality.”
This “second scoping” can be highly effective. Those agencies that adopt it see huge improvements in margin, project delivery speed, client engagement, and most important in this holiday season, team satisfaction.
Jack Skeels is CEO of AgencyAgile a productivity training firm for agencies.
Effective scoping and estimating is how an agency goes from small to not-so-small, and from good to great. Have you ever noticed that agencies seem to be at their best when they are very small? Estimating is easy when the people selling are the same people doing the work and cashing the checks. Quality in these environments is very high if the core talent is very high. But as agencies grow, the new machine must be fed with revenue. People who sell are less likely to be the people who deliver work to the client. This new "business development" class loses touch with how the sausage actually gets made; quality suffers and talent leaves the agency. To close the gap between new business development and delivery, most growing agencies create some sort of silly, over-engineered process that no one uses anyway (I know this because that's what I did several different times when growing our agency). Good scoping and estimating as you grow can be as easy as it was when you were a boutique - but it requires stripping down the process in your agency and focusing on the details of the work. The only agencies who can sustain growth during the next several years are those agencies that turn their early success into a repeatable, scalable model for delivering high-quality work. The most important part of this model is real-life scoping and estimating. Getting the scope right frees your talent to do their best work and live their best life at the same time. People and agencies can only thrive on heroic effort for so long. Eventually you have to grow up, stop pulling all-nighters and get serious about the business side of your business. It takes a while to get it right ... but it's so worth it.