In-house Issues: The High Priority of Prioritization

A few months ago, I was working with a group of seasoned in-house managers on designing an in-house event. We had just begun determining what topics would be covered when one of the team, who has extensive design business experience, quickly jumped in and suggested that workload management and prioritization should be included. It was more of a plea than a request and, as we delved into the topic, I came to realize just what an “elephant in the room” issue this really is for the in-house design community.

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It seems the challenge typically faced by most internal creative teams is one where these teams have multiple clients all with multiple projects that have competing deadlines. The groups don’t have the capacity to complete all the projects in their queue on time and they don’t have a manager who has the skill, will or authority to prioritize the projects and manage the blowback from clients who might have to accept revised deadlines.

This scenario doesn’t leave design departments with many options and none of the options they do have are beneficial to the creative teams or their companies. Often, when confronted with this situation, it’s all hands on deck and everyone involved deals with the chaos with a triage-like mindset. Priorities are then determined by which client is the most assertive, important or nicest; not exactly the best criteria for prioritizing projects.

There is no silver bullet for this problem but there is a first step and that is to acknowledge the problem, make management aware of the problem and it’s detrimental effect on the design team, the clients and the company as a whole and to proactively define and then implement policies, processes and procedures to tame this particular beast. This is an extremely difficult task given that different stakeholders will probably have competing interests, but until everyone is engaged in finding a solution, the creatives will always be left suffering through the stress, demoralization and ambiguity of endless priority conflicts, missed deadlines and perceived failure.

5 thoughts on “In-house Issues: The High Priority of Prioritization

  1. Karen

    Yes, it is demoralizing when your V.P. has no concept of the need to prioritize. He just reminds us of the “perception” that’s “out there” that we are slow when we can’t accomplish everything that every department head wants as soon as they want it. And we are not “service-oriented” when we try to say “no” to any of these competing deadlines and try to align them with the mission or goals of the organization. We are on salary, and supposedly eligible for comp time. However, when we work overtime and comp time accumulates we are told it proves that we are not efficient at our jobs.

    Of course, there’s rarely any budget to hire freelancers to fill in during crunch times either. There’s very little down time, just different degrees of stress.

    Thank goodness we have a manager between us and the V.P. At least he tries to help us prioritize and juggle hot projects between overworked designers.

    I don’t have any experience at agencies. I wanted to work in-house because I thought there would be less pressure, but I’m not so sure about that any more.

    1. Brian

      Karen,

      I am chief of a 30-person in-house shop. Your boss sounds like he or she needs education. If that’s not possible, start looking for another gig. The leader’s job is to manage expectations without crushing the energy and spirit of their team. Your person, who appears to suck up and kick down is the worst sort of manager and should be run out of town.

  2. Andy

    What a fantastic post. The elephant in the room is a perfect metaphor. In so many ways, improperly managed workloads result in designers being forced to spend a disproportionate amount of time interfacing with customers or deciding where and how to shave off quality in order to meet competing deadlines.

    Our team is trying a number of approaches, including a Helpdesk application and a pseudo-project manager (someone who has a little extra time on their plate and can help run interference between “clients” and designers).

    But at the end of the day, the key point mentioned above seems to be the need for more managers with relevant skill sets in order to properly advocate or know what to advocate for.

  3. Tim

    Andy, this is such a critical topic for me. I’m sorry I’m just coming across this post.

    Five years ago I was charged with creating an in-house design team inside a growing Fortune 500 company’s corporate communication department. The past two years we’ve become a victim of our own success. We went from unknown to a group where the CEO requests our help for creative solutions. Our workload has grown tremendously with 3 designers for a company of 5,000.

    Originally with separate internal and external comm. groups and a community relations group, now combined, our biggest issue is determining an effective workflow/approval process. Clients, writers and designers and managers all have been used to making their own final approval on every project. Now that we are all part of the same group we are having back and forth revision nightmares. An unofficial approval process has been the cause of clogging project workflow along with the lack of a project coordinator (which position we are creating).
    We’ve acknowledged the problem and now considering changes even all the way to reorganizing the department.

    You said there is no “silver bullet” but what non-silver bullets would you recommend that would help us determine an effective workflow/approval process?

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