In-house Issues: Alone In The Tower

Last week an air traffic controller at Reagan International Airport fell asleep on the job. Maybe not such a big deal if he was working at a hardware store, but his nap resulted in two airliners having to, excuse the pun, wing it on their landings – definitely not a good thing.

I was skeptical that this was the result of incompetence, sloppiness or lack of professionalism on the controller’s part as the media initially implied. My suspicions were confirmed when it turned out that the gentleman was working his fourth night in a row, had no backup AND was a supervisor who had other responsibilities in addition to working the tower.

This poor sucker was set up as a fall guy to divert attention away from poor management and operational policies on the part of his superiors who are now scrambling to mandate that 2 air controllers should always be present in the tower – what a brainstorm!

Like the air traffic controller, in-house teams and their managers are also often set up to fail, with less potentially lethal consequences, but critical repercussions nonetheless. How often have you been given multiple projects with the same deadlines and not enough resources to complete them all on time? How about just plain unrealistic deadlines? Do you get complete information for your projects? Are your projects continually infected with scope creep but with management affording no flexibility for additional resources or time for completion?

The worst of it is, that when these booby-trapped projects go south, your clients and managers often deflect accountability and pin the failure squarely on your back. I’m compelled to say, though, that ultimately you’re responsible for ending up in this situation. Not to absolve your managers and clients of their complicity in this cluster fluster, but it’s up to you to, at the very least, insulate you and your colleagues from these toxic circumstances if not solve them.

Here are some suggestions on just how to do that.

  • Create and distribute to your clients a weekly (or daily if need be) production schedule that includes all the projects your team is working on with their respective due dates and associated man-hours. (It’s your judgement call on whether it’s appropriate to include client or management’s personal projects.)
  • Determine who has the authority to prioritize your projects and ask them to do so. If they don’t take this necessary function on, escalate the issue to their boss and keep doing this until someone accepts responsibility for this function.
  • If you are unsuccessful at finding an appropriate manager to assume the role of prioritizing your projects, create your own priority list as best you can and refer all requests to revise the priorities to the manager who has the authority to determine your priorities.
  • When asked to take on workload or responsibilities you don’t have enough or the right resources for, inform your manager of this fact and offer solutions to the problem such as acquiring additional resources, outsourcing projects, working with clients to revise deadlines or turning away work. Do not just agree to take on the responsibilities without a solution in place. OT may be a temporary solution but point out it is not sustainable if employed as a long-term fix and set up clear parameters on how much and when OT is to be used.
  • If you’re not given all the information you need to complete a project, work diligently and in a supportive manner with the client to get the needed information but don’t start the project without it.
  • If scope creep occurs, immediately notify your client and your manager and discuss the need to either revise the deadline or secure additional resources for the project.

I’d like to encourage other in-house designers to respond with their challenges and the solutions they’ve put into place to address those challenges.

One thought on “In-house Issues: Alone In The Tower

  1. Garcia

    Thanks for the article! When I first started at an in-house agency – I had all the challenges you list above and more. My way of adapting included telling the “why” for the many things I asked for – which was a lot. This included a much larger typeface library, Basecamp (project management tool), work orders for art that goes out to vendors, group brainstorms, creative briefs, policing our brand and new timeframes. It was a crazy couple of years, but now our team works together really well and there is a mutual respect for each other’s roles in the department. We still have flubs here and there, but we’ve come a long way!

    P.S. I have to add that I report to an amazing leadership team. The VP and Manager are great listeners and are always willing to try any suggested solutions that we deem necessary to implement.