How to Prioritize Projects When Your Hair is Already on Fire

Prioritize projects

Figuring out how to prioritize projects when you and your team are already overwhelmed is certainly a challenge. But it’s doable. Here’s one in-house creative manager’s proven strategy for successfully prioritizing workflow and reducing the impact of those scary last-minute pop-up requests.

Have you ever driven past a long-abandoned building and suddenly, one day, noticed a new retailer popped up in the space? Flash retailing or pop-up shops have become quite popular. It’s one way for creative dreamers to test their latest ideas. For owners of pop-ups, success or failure depends on how well they planned and built strong relationships prior to opening. The same holds true for creative managers.

Working as an in-house manager, I’ve witnessed client projects pop up out of thin air and create firestorms in the midst of overworked creative teams. I refer to these last-minute assignments as “pop-up projects” or PUPs. So, how do you wrangle all your PUPs when your team is already working at capacity? My advice is to begin prioritizing projects by developing a structure that will tier all assignments that flow into the department and across each team contributor’s desk.

Knowing how to prioritize projects doesn’t have to be as complicated as some would have you believe. The tiered structure comes down to this one foundational question: What are the baseline goals developed to position your organization towards success? The degree of difficulty in answering this question depends on whether your team’s objectives align with the overarching goals of your employer. If they don’t, it’s no wonder you feel like your hair is perpetually on fire. Here are some ideas on how to revamp your department’s objectives to better reflect the company’s goals:

Tier 1: Reserve for senior-level team contributors

In some organizations, the CEO’s personal initiatives or pet projects can be just as critical as the most conceptually creative and strategic assignments. To some leaders, the company picnic flyer or golf outing invitation could matter just as much as designing the annual report.

Why? Well, perhaps an important industry thought leader or congressperson has been invited. The who doesn’t necessarily matter. The point is that it’s of interest to the people leading your organization. When this type of pop-up project hits your desk, make room on your most talented contributor’s calendar. Have him or her do the work and knock it out of the park — and quickly. This is where facilitating daily project status meetings and having implemented a solid workflow management system will come in handy.

I huddle each morning with my team to discuss their assignments and ask each contributor the following questions: Are there any roadblocks that you need me to clear? Do you have any questions that need to be answered in order to successfully complete your projects on time? This also gives me the opportunity to communicate any changes in the scope of existing projects or reposition previously assigned tasks in order to make room for a new PUP.

When it comes to C-suite requests, both long-range and pop-up projects take top priority, no matter what. Creating strong relationships with key decision makers can pay off big, particularly when other plum assignments that normally go to outside firms finally land on your desk.

Tier 2: Reserve for mid-level team contributors

In this tier, most of the general day-to-day work gets completed. Tier 2 projects are typically easier to predict because they’re most likely spinoff assignments from Tier 1 initiatives. For example, maybe your top employee designed a trade show booth and the sales team requests a brochure to hand out at the show. Even if the request pops up suddenly, most client-facing contributors can predict the need by attending regular meetings with internal clients and asking the right questions to safeguard against projects that could become flash fires. For example, when discussing something like the trade show booth project I might ask:

  • How many trade shows are you planning to attend this year?
  • How many people attend the shows; what appeals most to that audience?
  • How can you set yourself apart from the others?
  • Do you need a video or fact sheet to provide information to clients who are waiting to chat with you?
  • Do the trade show producers allow giveaways; if so, are there any restrictions?

The point of the conversation is to get your client to think about all of their needs earlier rather than later. Good communication and the ability to forecast are the keys to success within this tier.

Tier 3: Reserve for junior-level team contributors

Many PowerPoint presentations and image resizing requests find a comfortable home within this tier. Even the routine maintenance of your digital asset management system falls squarely within Tier 3. This is a place where most people starting out in their careers can learn how to handle the least critical pop-up projects without getting burned.

Spending time properly onboarding new hires ensures their smooth transition onto the team. Explain everyone’s role to them and how their work and efforts will support the group. This provides junior-level contributors a greater sense of how they fit and play a part in the department’s success. While checking in with them each day, discuss which items on their to-do list are the most urgent. In the end, they will feel more engaged, and with time, more confident and empowered to be proactive in tackling assignments.

Controlling all the PUPs within your creative department is a much easier task when you develop a system of prioritizing workflow. But it doesn’t stop there. Consider utilizing a specialized staffing firm to help your team manage heavy workloads or access certain skills that don't exist internally.

One final suggestion for reducing the negative impact of pop-up projects on your creative team is changing your vernacular. Avoid using these two words: “due date.” Replace them with “event date” on all assignments. Doing so will nearly eliminate your clients’ use of this dreaded four-letter word: ASAP.

Do you have any tips on how to prioritize projects? Please share in the comments.

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