I manage an internal graphic design team that provides services to other groups within the same company. Most of our clients are very reasonable but there are some who are in the habit of making unreasonable turnaround demands. We have established typical turnaround times, but they are usually ignored. There is always some emergency or another that simply must be dealt with immediately. If we don’t deliver, the company will lose a big account or a publication will not be released at an event, etc.
So we pull another rabbit out of a hat and save the day again and again. Of course that is a catch-22 because the next time they’ll have even less time. In my days at the “agency” we would fire bad clients, but that is not an option here. How can I help my team to manage the work in a way that respects our capacity and allows us to keep our sanityat the same time?
THE FIRST ANSWER
Corporate trainer and career specialist, Toronto
Interesting how people with emergencies think their problems are more important than the ones your team is already working on. Sigh! Do you have a giant white board with your projects and their deadlines listed? If you did, then when the emergency is presented to you, you could show the client with the emergency the board and ask them whose work you should bump to handle their request. Put the onus on the interloper.
Build emergency time into your schedules. If emergencies are a regular occurrence, provide broader time lines in general, which would give your team more flexibility flex time when a last-minute request comes in. Assign a “rover,” if the budget allows, who would be available to step out of an existing project and take on the emergency for a short period of time.
If communication is what is lacking in your office, starting talking. Walk each client through the execution process from the time they drop the bomb, to completion. Show and tell them why this is such a difficult situation for your staff. Most employees have no idea what their colleagues do that supports their work. Once people see and understand how a project – let alone an emergency – operates, they just might be more sensitive to your department’s priorities and scheduling.
Reinforce to your staff that they are doing great work and their job is to produce high-quality, accurate work at the best pace they can. Offer incentives and perks when there is overtime required, especially last-minute overtime. Keep your team happy and proud of their output.
THE SECOND ANSWER
Associate professor, industrial/organizational psychology, Windsor
University of Windsor, Ontario I suspect you know the solution: Stop pulling rabbits out of your hat; stop even trying. Stop making someone else’s emergency your own. As you note, every time your team saves these clients, they are rewarded for their behaviour and will continue to push the limits of your “established” turnaround times. What’s worse, it will soon become widely known that your time lines are flexible; then you will have a much bigger problem.
You are also your team’s leader. How long do you think you will be seen as such if you keep caving in to unreasonable demands that hurt the team?
Although you say there are established turnaround times, they are clearly not established any more. It is time to re-establish the policy. Explain to your clients that expecting faster turnaround times is not reasonable and why. Emphasize what the consequences will be if they come to you late again. Most importantly, if they are late again, do what you said you would do – nothing. No heroics. Without follow-through, no one will ever take you seriously. If you follow through once – publicly – you are less likely to have to do so again.
People have a tendency to exaggerate their self-inflicted problems, portraying them as emergencies to get others to bail them out. The negative consequences are rarely as severe as they would have you believe, otherwise maybe these people would have considered being more diligent. Again: their emergency, not yours.
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