Swim lanes at agencies: A key way to get better results

Eliminate drama and get better results by using Swim Lanes at your agency.

A client reached out, annoyed that her business partner kept second-guessing her decisions. They were both frustrated—fortunately, there’s a solution!

If you’re frustrated about getting sucked into every decision—or annoyed that other people are butting into things that aren’t their business—you should add the concept of “Swim Lanes” to your agency’s vocabulary.

It will make your life easier—and you can use Swim Lanes with your employees, your business partners, and even your clients and sales prospects. Agreeing about Swim Lanes lets everyone focus on getting results—and helps you eliminate drama.

Let’s look at what Swim Lanes are, along with how to apply them in various parts of your agency.

What are “Swim Lanes” at an agency?

“Swim Lanes” are a shared definition who’s in charge of what. You know what they’re handling, and they know what you’re handling. And your team knows, too.

If you’re on the same page about who owns what, people should stay out of each other’s way—and not second-guess the responsible person’s decisions. (The one exception is if the team’s not meeting the goals—when things are slipping, it’s reasonable to ask what’s up.)

You can have Swim Lanes anywhere. In my experience, they’re helpful when you have two (or more) people who want to make decisions in a particular area. Ultimately, it works best if one person has the final responsibility—they can get input and feedback, but it’s ultimately their call. This helps agencies make progress, instead of getting stuck arguing over who’ll decide what.

Where to create Swim Lanes at your agency

Let’s look at places to apply Swim Lanes at your agency—when it comes to your team members, business partner(s), clients, and prospects.

Swim Lanes for Employees & Contractors

Swim Lanes can go a long way in reducing drama between employees, since everyone knows who’s in charge. This works in other industries—in a hospital operating room, the surgical team isn’t arguing over who hands the surgeon the scalpel.

Here are some employee-related questions you can answer via Swim Lanes:

  1. Who’s handling which clients?
  2. Who makes final decisions about certain strategy items?
  3. Who makes decision about design vs. technical considerations?
  4. Who decides whether to provide “strategically free” work?
  5. Who decides which project comes first?
  6. Who decides which contractor to hire?
  7. What can contractors handle vs. what’s employee-only?

Swim Lanes can also cover gray areas—for instance, defining that a PM can do free work up to $1,000 but needs higher-up approval to do free work above $1,000. There are fewer bottlenecks, since the PM can handle most situations themselves—and then they know the person to escalate to if they need an override.

Got an employee who’s “butthurt” that they aren’t the decisionmaker? You need to address that—but that’s a personnel problem, not a Swim Lanes problem.

Swim Lanes for Your Business Partner(s)

Remember the agency owner at the beginning, where her partner kept second-guessing her marketing decisions? They had discussed a division of labor, but they hadn’t agreed to respect decisions made by the task “owner.” In this case, the marketing team was exceeding its goals—so the other partner didn’t have a reasonable basis to interfere.

The right approach will vary by agency—since each partner brings unique skills and interests.

At two-partner agencies, I typically see one partner handling sales and admin (“business”), while the other partner handles billable work (“creative”). In other cases, one partner does account management while the other partner does project management.

At three-partner agencies, there’s greater specialization. A typical arrangement is where one partner serves as Creative Director, the second partner serves as Account Director (including sales), and the third partner serves as Operations Director.

However you choose split it, you need to eliminate situations where you overlap—otherwise you’re making it harder for yourself to grow.

Swim Lanes for Clients & Sales Prospects

Ultimately, who’s handling what? Here are examples of some questions Swim Lanes can help you handle when it comes to clients and sales prospects:

  1. Where can the agency make the final decision vs. where the client makes the final decision?
  2. What’s in-scope vs. out-of-scope?
  3. Where are you focusing now vs. what’s in your backlog?
  4. Who at the client is approved to share feedback?
  5. How many revisions are included vs. an additional charge?

Getting started with Swim Lanes

Start by looking at areas where you and the team waste time talking about the same things over and over again. Also look at areas where you’ve seen a pattern of disagreements.

Swim Lanes are a key part of delegation—when people keep asking you what time it is, build them a clock.

Ultimately, you have to be willing to plan and communicate—and communicate more when there are disagreements. Fortunately, once you make the Swim Lane decisions, you’re eliminating unnecessary discussions and drama by delegating entire areas to other people—as long as they’re getting results, you don’t need to get involved again.

Question: Have you tried Swim Lanes at your agency? How did it go?

Image credit: Swim lanes photo by Atos International, via Creative Commons