Strategic planning meets last-minute project

So your supervisor announces an urgent project. Or maybe a deadline that was weeks away has been moved up. Or Plan A fell through and you suddenly need to put together a viable Plan B.

Rush projects can throw a team into a frenzied whirlwind of activity. Sometimes they’re unavoidable. Other times they might be a result of poor planning or management.

On the receiving end, our brains kick into overdrive. Our driving thought is, “Must get this done now!” (Okay, that may not be our only thought.) Some people work well in high-pressure situations. Others get a little twitchy. But both still have a job to do.

I’ve worked through a lot of last-minute projects. What I’ve learned is that the most important step is to stop, breathe, and make a plan. Here are a few tips:

  1. Verify expectations. Make sure you know, as best as possible, what the task at hand is and what the expectations are. What’s the deadline, and is there any leeway? What are the project’s scope and parameters? Once you nail down these details as best you can, you’ll have an easier time delivering the desired results.
  2. Identify your teammates and collaborators. Know who needs to contribute to or complete each of the tasks you’ve identified. (If you’re a one-man show, this part is easy.) Make sure they know, too.
  3. Break it down. Divide the task into smaller, more manageable portions. If it’s a report, determine what sections need to be completed. If it’s a new web directory, determine what individual pages need to be built, who’s providing content, and so forth. I worked on a team that was writing, in a short amount of time, about 40 emails for a campaign. Before we got started, we identified the subject of each of those 40+ emails so there wouldn’t be confusion or overlap as we moved forward. Plus, we created a shared document that allowed all of use to view and track our progress.
  4. Set priorities. What task needs the most lead time? What can you take care of while you’re waiting to hear from a colleague? And, speaking of colleagues—if there’s a portion of the project that only Bob in IT can complete, then getting in touch with him and verifying his availability is a high priority. If Jan in finance tends to have a tight schedule, then you may want to reach out to her immediately—if only to alert her to the fact that you’ll be coming to her for assistance. This is a way to show your colleagues that you value their time.
  5. Communicate. When the pressure’s on, does communication break down? I like to keep the key players informed on a project’s progress, and I like to support and encourage my colleagues.
  6. Stay flexible. When I was a magazine editor, I shared a graphic designer with another department, and I sometimes had to rework my own priorities in order to prevent a bottleneck further down the line. Breaking news stories, contributors who missed their deadlines, the unexpected departure of a colleague—all of these can really mess with production if you’re not prepared to devise a back-up plan and/or re-prioritize ASAP.

Strategic planning is essential for any project. It’s especially important to remember, though, in those high-pressure situations where it’s easy to overlook the basics in the race to the finish line.

One more thing—strive to keep a positive attitude. “Urgent” requests can be stressful on many levels, but we don’t help ourselves when we let aggravation get the better of us.

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