Recent years have seen a rise in the personal productivity approach of building a “second-brain”; The idea of capturing thoughts, notes and ideas in one central software repository.” – This sentence should be split into two: “Recent years have seen a rise in the personal productivity approach of building a “second-brain”. The idea involves capturing thoughts, notes, and ideas in one central software repository. The potential benefits of managing personal knowledge in this way are many, from reducing cognitive load, aiding recall, building connections and creativity to improved communication and decision making. I’m a big fan of the approach, but I also believe the benefits of building something similar for your organisation are greater still. Enter the idea of the Agency Brain.

Anatomy of an Agency Brain

The idea of a central repository for company information isn’t new. Knowledgebases, intranets and handbooks are all established ideas. In less technological times filing cabinets stuffed with manuals, documents and SOPs performed a similar function. I see an Agency Brain differently though: More organic, with more connections and constantly changing and growing. Done well, your Agency Brain could quickly become the most powerful and valuable tool in your digital agency. So how is the idea of an Agency Brain different to these existing systems?

Truly collaborative : Your Agency Brain should be something that every member of the team uses, updates and adds to. It is not a tool built by management to show others what to do, but a way for the organisation to capture what is useful. It should be as easy to add to and update as possible. It should capture feedback and questions as people use it – encouraging continuous improvement. Improving the brain should be the responsibility of all, not just a few gate-keepers.

Unfinished by design : A staff handbook get completed before it is distributed. An SOP is finished and checked before it is signed off. No part of the Agency Brain should ever be seen as “done”. The idea of the brain is the capture whatever is likely to be useful in the future, not to define a few things well. Stub entries consisting of a few lines and a link, a quickly captured Loom video of an interesting problem that might come up again, an outline process that clearly needs to be improved and in fact anything that is better than nothing and remains useful is all good.

A single source of “probably” : “When your entire team knows exactly where to look for anything, great things happen. Time spent searching through Google drive, old emails, and long abandoned process documents is reclaimed for more productive things. Knowing exactly where to find the best answer to anything saves time even when that answer doesn’t exist or is poor because at least you don’t spend more time looking for a better one. It’s why I think less in terms of a “single source of truth” as a “single source of probably”.

Authentic, relaxed and organic : If you ever stop to wonder if it is worth recording something, record it. There should be no rules about what is in and out beyond basic decency. If it might be useful in the future add it. Never worry if it is complete, someone else could do better, whether it is perfect or whether it is “the right sort of thing” to record. Just get it recorded.

Has built in feedback loops : When users don’t find what they need they should not only be able to flag the omission, but ask questions directly in context. Those answers then become part of the retained knowledge, ensuring that knowledge captured grows, improves and remains current.

Sounds like work. Why bother?

Once you start building your Agency Brain, the benefits come quickly and in smaller organisations it is usually the most senior people who feel those benefits first. Being able to answer queries with “did you check the brain?” rather than demonstrating for the umpteenth time, can start freeing up leadership time fast and often a big enough benefit on its own to warrant the work. It’s far from the only benefit though. Let’s list some of the big ones.

  • New staff get good faster
    y adding an additional page in the brain for “starter bootcamp” and linking to every page of essential information, you create a ready-to-go onboarding program. This approach covers more ground than if you were to sit down and design a program from scratch.
  • Reduced internal noise
    Reduce the time spent asking and answering the same questions over and over again. If it gets asked a second time, then the answer should be logged in the brain.
  • Knowledge is retained
    When staff leave, some of their knowledge stays behind, limiting the brain drain and impact on the wider team.
  • Continuous team development
    Having the team review, question, edit and add to existing content fosters both the culture and the mechanics needed for continuous learning
  • Fewer errors & more consistency
    The brain approach allows easy documentation of not only “what” the team should do, but also “how” and “why”. A quick screen capture that includes the thinking around how something was done can bring additional value that an SOP or checklist wouldn’t.
  • It’s as valuable a resource to add to as it is to refer to
    If you want to really learn how to do something, explain it to others. The act of documenting something forces you to think about it in a different way and has value in its own right.
  • Resilience
    Bad things sometimes happen. Having more knowledge shared can protect you from the impact of that.

What My Agency Brain Did For Me

My ideas of an effective Agency Brain have continued to develop since I sold my own agency, but the idea was conceived through our own needs. It is no exaggeration to say the ancestor of the idea that we implemented had three significant positive impacts on my own life.

  1. When we made a big pivot I found myself with two very full-time roles. I still had the job I had before, but now I additionally had the jobs of growing the new business and managing out the old one. There were not enough hours in the day and I struggled with the mental bandwidth to manage it all. Putting in the extra work to document and capture knowledge was yet another job to do, but quickly began to give me time back to change the business into something that was ultimately better. I had less questions. I was less involved with on boarding and I spent less time fixing problems. The result was a more profitable business that was easier to manage.
  2. When I got diagnosed with cancer life got very weird very quickly. My recollection of those days is cloudy, but I think I sent an out of hours “I might not be back for a while” message to the team and was effectively removed from the business from that moment for several weeks. My team were brilliant, but had that happened a year earlier they would not have had the tools to keep the business going. Too much of it relied on me or lived in my head. We couldn’t complete a calendar month without my involvement and I genuinely think the business would have failed through no fault of theirs. I dread to think what impact that would have had on my personal situation at that point. Instead things went well. The team were brilliant and clients didn’t even notice. It was almost hurtfully successful!
  3. Our organisation brain was also pivotal at the end of my Agency Journey. Our commitment to documentation and process was a clear demonstration of how knowledgeable our team was to our buyers and there was a lot of enthusiasm both for giving their larger team access to our documentation, and to applying the same approach to their collective knowledge. It undoubtably aided the sale, but it was just as pivotal in my exit. Documentation helped me exit post-sale earlier than we had originally planned – given me the time and capacity to start what I am doing today.

Sold! Where do I start?

Honestly, just pick a platform and go. The important thing about getting started is to start capturing knowledge now, not getting bogged down trying to find the perfect platform. Pick something that you and the team will find easy to work with –  you can always port the content later. We had a couple of iterations of this build on WordPress using Knowledgebase theme like KnowAll and it is difficult to think of a faster way to get started than that. Teams that already use systems like Coda or Notion might be more likely to update and engage if it were built on those. There is also the option of dedicated platforms like Guru that bring more useful features out of the box.

Just pick a platform that:

  • Everyone will be comfortable adding content to.
  • Is quick, easy and convenient to use.
  • Is searchable and navigable.
  • Allows easy adding of rich media like screenshots (Awesome screenshot) and screen captures (ScreenPal or Loom).
  • Isn’t Google Drive (sorry, I love Google Drive and am frequently told by people “Oh we do that in Google Drive”. No you don’t. It’s a place you dump poorly organised information until it goes out of date. that is not the same).
  • Is secure.

This is a bit of a passion topic for me; partly because of the impact it had on my agency and my life, but mostly because of the benefits I see it bring even when tackled in quite a relaxed way by others. It’s easier to do and more beneficial that most realise. If anyone would like to hear more about how to use your brain more effectively, how to manage it in a way that it continues to get better and how to get your team on board with the idea, leave some feedback in the linkedin thread that accompanies this post. If there is interest I’ll happily write a follow-up.

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