News & Views

The magnificent trio

by Contagious Contributor

Leif Abraham, partner at Prehype and founder of Pay With a Tweet, on breaking the boundaries of a workplace hierarchy

How often have you wasted a perfectly good day to keep rolling on a project just because some C-level has not given their approval or opinion yet?

I once was invited to a 'super important' pitch kick-off. When the meeting started, I looked around and realized immediately this was going to be two very painful weeks. Why? Two main reasons:

1. There were 30 people in the room; and
2. The meeting started with introductions.

In my experience, I’ve learned two applicable lessons:

1. Throwing more people at a problem won’t make the outcome better. The more people are working on the same thing, the fewer people feel responsible for it.
2. The better people know each other; the smoother a project will run. So a kick-off that starts with introductions is not really a great sign.

Later, I was exposed to the opposite: a team of three or four people who ran a whole project. From that experience, I developed something I like to call “The Magnificent Trio.”

But before we further dive into this, let’s quickly look at the most popular team structure at the moment.

The authoritarian hierarchy is a concept originating from armies, kingdoms and dictatorships where one, or a small group of leaders, has full power over every decision made and enforces this power by the established hierarchy through direct, unquestionable orders. This model was applied to workplaces during the time of the industrial revolution, where tasks were clearly defined and broken down into smaller pieces, and ideas were not solicited at the assembly line.

Somehow this model made its way into today’s workplace. Whenever you will ask someone to think of an organisational structure, I guarantee you most people will start drawing boxes with names and tell you whom should report to whom. But does this really still have to be the model?

As a German, I obviously love efficiency. To make things efficiently, decisions have to be made quickly by people who are the most well-informed about the task at-hand. This person just shouldn’t always be the one on the top of the pyramid. Sure, even in an authoritarian hierarchy many decisions are being made on the fly and will never reach the top, but usually hierarchy drains the pace of the decision-making process.

I’ve observed most projects run the smoothest when the following is in place:

1. The core team is not bigger than 3 people.
2. The core team is not afraid of doing the work. Each member can execute in their area of expertise and are not reliant on more bodies. Otherwise they tend to become pure directors, not makers.
3. Each member of the core team has a different skill set and therefore responsibility.

You can break it down like this:

Even in über-collaborative environments, when you look closely, you can usually see that the magnificent trio already exists. There are always three people with different skill sets who basically run the project. Managers just need to recognise this and make them officially the trio by giving them the power to make their own decisions. They shouldn’t have to rely on or jump through the hoops of the hierarchy before they can make a move on a project.

In an agency, a magnificent trio can be staffed from both sides and therefore be a mix of client and agency people. 

The DB - Decision Backup

In authoritarian hierarchies, people can easily fall into a trap where they don’t make their own decisions or even develop strong opinions, because, at the end, their opinion or decision is always at risk of being changed by the authority at the top. People learn to like whatever the boss thinks is right.

Not just ownership and power, but also risk needs to be distributed. One of the members of a magnificent trio should be the DB, a decision backup person, who has the final say on all decisions on the project. That person is inclined to be the most well-informed person on the project, including collecting opinions of others and vetting them for their pros and cons. So whenever the magnificent trio can’t align on a decision, the DB will make the call and the team can move on quickly, without the need of going through the full hierarchy of an organisation. This way projects run a lot faster.

At the end, everyone should be a DB on something.

Ownership makes people care more about the work they do, helps develop opinions and creates a desire for mentorship, because when a person is owning a project, they are also responsible for its success or failure.

So start low and make your intern the DB on the agency holiday card.

Authoritarian hierarchy

In a hierarchy, people have to go through layers of approval. To move forward on a project, one level gives their blessing, then moves it up to the next level for their blessing and so on. This can easily waste a lot of days and lead to situations where the sole purpose of a job is to make sure everything is done the way the person above them thinks should be done. This leads to many people doing work not on what they think is right, but on what they believe their boss thinks is right.

Magnificent Trios

In an organisation of Magnificent Trios, each trio acts like a mini-company. They make their own decisions and they get feedback and advice on their work, instead of orders. The DB acts as the tiebreaker in times of conflict.

  • Enable, don't direct
  • Mediocre talent needs directors, great talent needs enablers - if you direct great talent, it will leave
  • A director gives you feedback by telling you what to do
  • An enabler gives you feedback by asking what you need


Madison Valley, Leif Abraham's book on building digital products, getting the most out of talent and how Madison Avenue can be more like Silicon Valley is available now:

Leif is Partner at Prehype, a venture development firm in New York City. He creates new digital products and companies together with startups and bigger corporations. He also serves as Creative Director for Bark&Co, mentor at startup accelerators Rock Health and Urban.Us and teaches product innovation at the Miami Ad School. Leif co-founded Pay with a Tweet, a social payment system that lets people sell and buy stuff for the price of a Tweet. In 2013, Pay with a Tweet got acquired by HanseVentures, Germany. 

He was also a Creative Director at R/GA in New York and worked at CP+B and Jung von Matt in Germany. He has won over 150 awards, including two Cannes Lion Grand Prix and a MTV OMusic Award. In 2011, AdWeek named him one of the "top 10 most creative minds in digital."