How do you get things done in your office?
November 17, 2017 10:19 AM   Subscribe

I strongly suspect that the marketing department that I belong to is more dysfunctional than average. Please tell me about the workflow, best practices, software solutions, meeting frequency, etc. that make your office (marketing or otherwise) work so I might have a better idea of how far off the mark we are. Blizzard within.

In a nutshell, it does not feel as if our department overall has an effective structure or well-established communication or workflow, issues that are particularly obvious on the web and social end (where I work).

It's like we're too busy to stop and figure out a better way to work so maybe we could all, collectively, be just a little bit less busy. There's also more than a little tech-phobia and resistance to change in play, which is another hurdle to clear.

So please hope me--tell me how your departments tackle projects better than we do and what you do differently to achieve this. I'm trying to establish a baseline of normality so that I can develop some concrete suggestions to bring to my boss (who is often one of the worst offenders re: information silos and tech-phobia) the next time I can summon up the energy to be the squeaky wheel.

Thank you! Feel free to scroll right down to comment, or check out this laundry list of details about my department to get a better idea of where we're at right now.


-I do digital marketing for a multi-campus college. Our team is small for an institution of our size; eight FT administrators, two admin assistants, one PT copy editor. We all work on the same floor.

-We do not have a project manager; project requests can come from anywhere to anyone in the department, and they become the de facto project manager.

-There is no shared departmental calendar. We have a shared drive for graphics and projects, but no DAM system, so finding things can be difficult.

-We do not meet as a group very often. Maybe around once every 2-3 months.

-The three most senior people in the department are all varying levels of uncomfortable with technology. Particularly our executive director.

-If the director has a project, she pulls only the people that she thinks need to be involved with it at the start into her office, and does not send emails appraising the rest of the department about projects that are in the works.

-Beyond a hard copy project sheet that is circulated for copy editing new print projects, there is no established project workflow or project breakdown. Also, the web and social people are not included on this project sheet; it "slows down the workflow".

-The web and social people (there are two of us) are often not informed of upcoming projects until they are already completed or near completion by the rest of the department, when we usually receive something along the lines of a context-free email with a PDF of a new flyer attached for us something with. (If we receive an email at all.)

-We then have to circle back to the graphic designers or marketing manager to ask for additional information, appropriately sized/formatted graphics, or both; even for recurring projects where the web and social info and graphics needs are already well established.

-Deadlines and expected deliverables are poorly, if ever, communicated. Priorities are not often strategically determined outside of urgent or emergency requests. It's like...anti-micromanaging. (Side note: I was recently diagnosed with ADHD. So while these conditions aren't ideal under most circumstances, they have been particularly detrimental to me. My boss doesn't know about my diagnosis.)

-We have met multiple times with our boss to attempt to address the issue of web and social being left out of the workflow. We have attempted several fixes (meeting more often with the graphic designers, getting added to the print projects list, getting CCed on emails, etc.) that have never stuck for long. The old print-based workflow asserts itself again pretty quickly.

-Other members of the department have expressed open hostility in response to being asked to alter their workflow to be more accommodating of the web and social team. We have been told that we should "just ask" when we need something from them, even if it is for a project where web and social graphics needs are expected from the outset.

-Frankly: the web and social people are getting a little jaded and tired of fighting the same battles over and over. It is definitely affecting morale to be forever considered an accessory to the "real" work in the department rather than an integral part of the process.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds like an office that I once worked in. I don't work there anymore. The new office that I moved to wasn't much better, but the difference was that they realized that they were in trouble, and were open to anything that might help. New upper management came in, and we all sat down and wrote out a new handbook with definitive procedures for all our different types of projects. We also built in a double-check system, so that each step in the project had two sets of eyes on it before it went out the door, and everyone knew who had to clear on what. We have a weekly staff meeting, where we report on any difficult projects, and are generally aware of everything that the others are working on. Also, we've created a database that tracks all of our projects from start to finish, whose portfolio the project belongs to, etc.

Lots of this information was formerly just kept in people's memories or in their own personal file cabinets, which did not work very well, as you know. Sometimes the rigidness of having all of these procedures, databases, etc., can seem like too much, but they've made a major improvement in our accuracy and efficiency.
posted by backwards compatible at 10:46 AM on November 17, 2017

Here's my take: I agree with you about some, but not all of this. Not all teams need a project manager. You don't want to have lots of excessive meetings with people about projects they don't work on because it is a time sink. Yes, you should have clear, centrally-accessible design/style guides, although it's sadly not uncommon for a small shop like yours not to have them.

You are on the web/social media team, correct? Could you solve this by setting a series of project deadlines based on a) project type and b) expected public release date? So for example, "Infographics: approved text must be submitted to web team 3 weeks before expected posting date. Web Articles: for articles 500 words and under, text must be submitted 1 week before posting date..." etc. And can you post these in physical, paper form around the office?

Other members of the department have expressed open hostility in response to being asked to alter their workflow to be more accommodating of the web and social team

Hostility is never okay, but for the sake of trying to fix this, could they be acting out of frustration that they've been given one direction by their manager(s) on workflow and deadlines, and a different one by you? Can your boss talk to their boss?
posted by capricorn at 10:57 AM on November 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think that I'm working in an agency that's a few steps above yours, organization-wise. Thing we have going for us:

- Clear hierarchy and well-defined roles for project types, and we have enough flexibility to support each-other if we need help on a project
-- If inquiries are mis-routed, we re-route them to the proper individual, instead of taking them on ourselves
- Weekly staff meetings with all staff, including financial manager, to keep everyone informed of the various projects and deadlines for each area (meetings are focused on updating each-other on the status of current projects, and we keep it around an hour)
-- Notes from these meetings are kept on white boards as an overview of on-going projects and activities, who's responsible, and when things are due, as well as an ongoing Word document with notes from all of our staff meetings (note taking responsibilities rotate)
-- We also have a managers-only meeting, as we now have 4 managers in our 14-person office (part of that is to provide an internal position ladder), with our own white board of duties and due-dates
- Individuals keep their own white boards or other project tracking
- We have a roughly-structured shared file system
- Friendly office place, with birthday "parties" (everyone but the birthday person brings food) in the office, and some out-of-office gatherings

Problems we still have:
- project and file management is ad hoc, and something we haven't had time to improve
- we haven't documented our procedures well, but we're working on it, time allowing (but we generally don't have time to improve documentation)
posted by filthy light thief at 10:58 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

A former employer had so much success using Scrum and related agile/lean methodologies for software development, other departments started using similar strategies.

Of particular use is the daily stand-up meeting, in which each person on a team declares:
  • What you did yesterday.
  • What you are now working on.
  • A rough estimate for when that work will be completed.
  • Anything that is blocking you from getting your task done. Other team members should feel free to jump in and help break up the block, or it can be raised to management.
It is really hard to stand up before your peers repeatedly and say "I didn't get anything done yesterday," so this practice alone tends to cause tasks to get done.

The rest of an agile methodology involves, primarily:
  • Breaking down projects into tasks that are small enough to do in a day or two. This is done by creating "stories," which are groups of related tasks that, together, deliver a chunk of value to the project stakeholders.
  • Tracking stories and tasks as they move through work. Often this is done by putting a task board on a wall and moving index cards (representing stories and tasks) from one column to the next (representing phases of work. For software tasks, for example, the columns might be design, implementation, testing, and documentation). There are also software task boards, such as Trello (which is free and which I recommend), but the advantage of using a wall is that it is immediately visible to anyone who walks into the room. You can't forget about a story or a task (let alone an entire project) and management can easily see where everyone is. Plus it's easier for non-technical people to use.
  • Reviewing projects after completion to find out what went right and wrong and improving the process to avoid future problems.
This stuff does work, especially for small, mostly autonomous teams, and it is very adaptable to your team's specific way of working. When something isn't working for the team, or when there is a hole in the process for a case you hadn't considered, you change it. Even a half-assed version is going to be a lot better than what you have now.
posted by kindall at 11:29 AM on November 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

I love this question - just about every project I've worked on has had an orientation of "this is just the way we do it." Speaking as a digital consultant and having worked on a variety of project teams over the years, I think your biggest issue is that you have some conflicting goals on the larger marketing team. Secondary to that, you need to tighten the workflow of the team to be more strategically responsive and consistent. Are you being called out for quality of work issues? Missing delivery SLAs? Or is it just the feeling that you're not seeing the value in what you deliver - that it feels like an afterthought rather than strategic?

If it's the former, you need the director to understand the current problems with delivery are systemic - it's not simply a matter of being more consistent. Driving a process improvement initiative can really help align things where print is getting all the attention. This doesn't have to be a time-intensive intervention. You probably already have a pretty good sense of the workflow for both groups. Sketch something out, and list the dependencies for each step in each workflow. Include expected SLAs for each. Then build a proposed alternative workflow - don't try to make this perfect, this is to demonstrate how you want the director to understand the problem. The goal is to get him to buy off on a meeting or two to map this out as a joint effort with the print team.

If it's the latter, your fear is that the print folks are right - that digital is an afterthought, and isn't strategic to the university's admissions process. I can't imagine that's true, but sit with that question and ask why that might be. Are there opportunities that the marketing is missing because their strategy doesn't have enough vision towards digital engagement? It's a great case study - develop something informal that speaks to opportunities. How might you test those out within the digital workflow to build your case?
posted by SoundInhabitant at 1:08 PM on November 17, 2017

Sounds like your management structure is definitely lacking and your boss could be helping you out with a more systematic/structured approach, and with representing your needs better to other groups. That said, managers are human and they might be dealing with all kinds of things that are not visible to you that prevent them from giving these thing the attention you would like them to.

So, the question is, is there anything you and your team could just start doing to improve the situation? Could you set up your own electronic calendar and share information about project and deadlines that way? (Maybe even just a whiteboard might do the trick.) Could you start a daily standup, maybe even over morning coffee, where you coordinate with each other as much as possible, within your lanes/areas of expertise? Could you discuss the needs for standard templates/manuals etc, and divide up the work among you, then present your boss with a set of draft products that has broad support from the team?

You know the personalities involved, so you are in the best place to decide what if any of these ideas might work, and whether or not your input would be welcomed or seen as a threat. I'm a manager who has been on both sides of such initiatives and I've usually found that when a team just gets on with making their own environment better, it has a knock-on effect far beyond their own work unit.
posted by rpfields at 9:44 AM on November 18, 2017

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