Are You Putting Out Fires or Managing Workflow? The Urgent/Important Balance

Putting Out Fires

The clients are screaming for their rush jobs, the AEs just brought in three new “hot” projects, and agency production staff are looking fried and tired from trying to keep up. We’ve all been there. However, agencies should not be constantly running at “five-alarm” status, putting out fires and manning the bucket brigade on a daily basis. Daily workflow needs to be more orderly, so creative and production people have adequate time to deliver an error-free, quality final product. If your agency needs a fire brigade every day of the week, you need to invest in some fire prevention tactics.

Finding the Balance

A host of factors contribute to losing control of agency workflow. You may have too few people to handle the workload. Or, your clients may expect all of their projects to be delivered as rush jobs, believing these take priority over all other client work. But much of the blame for chaotic scheduling can be laid on poor prioritizing by agency account executives and the traffic manager. In small agencies, responsibility for prioritizing may even fall on the agency owners. If that’s the case, step up, Fire Chiefs: it’s time to get the conflagration under control.  

On any given day, certain projects will be “hotter” than others; several other projects may be important enough to need work toward an approaching deadline. The trick is defining which jobs are truly “important” and “hot,” so you can manage workflow back into some degree of sanity.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower is said to have organized his tasks based on an idea that has since become known as the Eisenhower Principle: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Discuss the concept of “urgent” vs. “important” with all agency staff, especially account service people and project managers. “Importance” refers to meeting goals and objectives; “urgent” is entirely about timing. Both of these may be based on agency or client needs. Account managers, project managers and traffic managers need to have a good sense for how much “wiggle room” there is in any given project’s level of urgency—or be prepared to backpedal when agency creatives demand clear priorities be established.

Stephen Covey shared a useful visual in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Here’s how this planning tool works:

List all tasks/activities for the day.

Assign a rating for “importance” (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 as “top priority” and 5 as “it can wait”). “Importance” relates to meeting goals and objectives; do not consider timing.

Now, evaluate the “urgency” of each item, and plot the task or activity in the matrix.

Use the following strategies to schedule priorities (clockwise from top left in the matrix):

Not Urgent but Important (Important Goals) - NU&I tasks in this quadrant of the matrix help toward meeting goals and objectives.  Procrastinating or delaying these may result in their moving to U&I status. Try to schedule these so some work is done to keep the projects moving forward, but rank them below more important tasks.

Urgent and Important (Critical Activities) - These may (but shouldn’t!) be the result of procrastinating. More often, they are items that agency schedulers did not foresee or expect. If these happen frequently, try to allow at least some time in the daily or weekly schedule to deal with U&I tasks. Also examine to see if these issues might be anticipated in the future, so U&Is do not continue to disrupt the agency’s workflow schedule.

Urgent and Not Important (Interruptions) - These are interruptions that prevent employees from accomplishing “important” goals and objectives. They range from co-workers disturbing the art director during “groove time” with problems they should be able to solve themselves or with others; to clients arbitrarily demanding rush work that in fact could be done on a reasonable, normal turnaround. Ideally, U&NIs should be negotiated, rescheduled, or assigned to people with lighter workloads.

Not Urgent and Not Important (Distractions) - NUNIs are distractions and disruptions that do not contribute at all to meeting goals and objectives. Traffic managers must learn to ask that interruptive tasks and activities be defined by their importance to the agency or client, not by the urgency, which is often arbitrary. 

As agency people become more familiar with how this works, they’ll be better able to determine where in the daily schedule they need to slot each project. Account executives will ask clients up front how critical timing is, versus a longer-term need for a project to meet an objective or goal. Traffic managers will learn to ask for this information before scheduling. The burden for trying to manage everything-is-critical scheduling will be lifted from creative and production teams, and be moved back to workflow managers, where it belongs. Reducing the chaos will allow your people to be energized rather than fried.

Stop putting out fires and get agency scheduling under control. Your agency can burn more brightly without everyone’s hair being aflame.