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Project Management, a Curse and a Blessing

What stands between you and project completion? The things that frustrate us may be some of the reasons we’re in higher education.

October 31, 2017
 
 

It’s mid-fall and you may find yourself facing an upcoming deadline that you clearly won’t meet. Or maybe you’re laboring to complete a task that you had every intention of finishing by the end of summer. In any case, shaking your fist at unrealistic timelines and banging your head against a wall are not inappropriate reactions. Who can possibly allocate the right amount of time to achieve “buy-in?”

While a lot of our work in higher education is cyclical--homecoming, end-of-year giving, spring yield activities--any change or innovation comes via initiatives that we might lump together under the category of “special projects.”

A website redesign, publication overhaul, policy/process revision--these are projects for which we must carve out time from an already-packed itinerary of regularly-scheduled programming. While they may not all require additional funding, they all require additional time and energy from multiple team members. Layer onto this our tendency to defer to multiple stakeholders, and it’s no wonder that we are notorious for soft deadlines and extended project timeframes.

As a younger person, I might have spent energy bemoaning what I perceived to be the bureaucracy of university systems; today, I’ve made my peace with it. What follows is not a list of tips and tricks to avoid these pitfalls, but merely some reflections that help me weather periods of frustration. In the end, it’s a matter of understanding that they go hand-in-hand with what attracted me to working in higher ed marketing in the first place.

Decision by Committee

Most of the special projects that we undertake have impact well beyond the confines of our offices. They will be seen by prospective students, read by alumni, and acted upon by donors. Therefore, the stakeholders are endless. Sometimes seeing a project through to completion is like negotiating an international treaty at the United Nations. Has the island nation of Nauru weighed in? I’ve seen the best and most agile project management plans blown to pieces by VIPs who will emerge in the final draft to voice their opinions and exert their influence.

And I’m OK with it. We work in a field that values diversity of opinions, that encourages its community to be engaged, that attracts people committed to excellence. That passion and investment is evident in the materials we produce, but it also sometimes slows production to a standstill. No, not everyone’s opinions matter equally, but the least we can do is hear them out.

Not Enough Bandwidth

For all the talk of administrative bloat, I almost never see it in higher education marketing and communications offices. Instead, I see very lean teams, churning out high-quality content that nearly always exceeds expectations. I see staff pivot from one client/project to another multiple times a day. Be it the president, dean, director, VP, faculty member, or administrative assistant, we serve many masters, which means we can’t focus for too long on any single task.

It’s best to get comfortable with an infinite to-do list and overflowing inbox. No amount of efficiencies is going to offset the additional work that special projects produce, so I embrace the chaos and appreciate that there is very little that is assembly-line or rote about what we do. Never boring, our jobs require us to be creative and systematic, spontaneous and strategic, all before noon.

High Stakes and Higher Expectations

With funding shrinking and competition increasing, colleges and universities are leaning on marketing and communications teams heavily. Yes, delays are costly, both monetarily and emotionally, but very few of our institutions have the resources for do-overs. There won’t be another budget infusion any time soon if the campaign doesn’t hit its mark. There won’t be the same patient group of stakeholders if we have to do this again next year. We’ve got a class to make and fundraising goals to meet. What’s a few more weeks? Let’s get it right.

This field is not for the faint of heart these days. We aren’t just working to support a bottom line. We are working to support higher education itself. I think my work is important to the mission of my university. I think yours is too. So when your vendor presents you with an aggressive eight-week production schedule, just smile and nod and secretly triple it. Mentally, at least.

Donna Lehmann is the assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University, in New York City.

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