avoid distraction

Episode 95: The Things Left Undone – Avoid Getting Overwhelmed

When you’re in the middle of the scrum, with a thousand requests coming at you at the same time, how do you prioritize? How do you deliver to expectations? How do you maintain the quality of your thinking and output? How do you stay sane?

Life comes at you fast. To be a strategist means to never have a dull moment. But it is a fine line between excitement and exhaustion. We have created a perfect storm for ourselves with the career decisions we have made.

Work in an agency? Chaos.

Interface between new business, client service and execution teams? Chaos.

Involve yourself in the qualifying, planning and pitching of new prospects? Chaos.

Step in when programs are not delivering to expectations? Chaos.

Stay ahead of industry changes and trends across all digital disciplines? Chaos.

Do this every day, at the top of your game, without missing a beat? Chaos.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed as a strategist. You sit at the heart of the organization. You act as a clearinghouse for ideas, proposals, pitches and problems. You work in an industry whose constituent parts are evolving and moving at a breakneck pace, and you need to keep up with all of them. And when you don’t deliver, either through a missed deadline or because the quality of thinking or work is not up to expectations, it can have ramifications throughout the organization. Being busy, getting overwhelmed and not having the time to think through original and creative solutions to problems is an invitation for templated thinking and cookie cutter solutions that become stale quickly. So how do we avoid these outcomes?

It begins with understanding your role relative to those of your colleagues. You can’t possibly be responsible for the day to day client relationship. While you have responsibility in the sense of a collective agency responsibility to clients, this is very much the role of client service. You can’t be responsible for execution; there are entire teams for that. But you are responsible for ensuring that these activities are executed well. You are able to achieve that through open dialogue with your colleagues, with providing direction if necessary, and through empowering them with the authority to execute in the best manner necessary.

In other words, not getting overwhelmed begins with trusting your colleagues and empowering and supporting them to take action. When they don’t deliver, that is the opportunity to step in and provide direction and support if necessary, but make it clear that this is not sustainable. If they consistently fail to deliver, then make sure you escalate the issue appropriately.

When you are able to focus on your own responsibilities, what happens when the sheer volume of the requirements becomes overwhelming? If that is happening, it is a symptom of success. You have more work than you know what to do with. Here, the key is seeing the wave coming, anticipating the workload and putting up your hand and asking for help. If an organization is unwilling to invest in new strategic resources to support you due to an increase in business, then you should reconsider your role within that organization.

When time becomes scare due to competing needs, learn to prioritize. Determine the relative importance of individual requests based on the urgency, the client context, the importance of your contribution to the solution and the potential impact on the business. Be sure to communicate your situation with your colleagues and work through potential solutions together. If a colleague is consistently unwilling to help or accommodate, then escalate that issue appropriately for discussion. You aren’t in this by yourself.

Finally, be sure to book time for yourself. Your capabilities as a strategist are constrained by how current and innovative your thinking is. If you don’t have time to think, your value diminishes.

Clear and honest communication is the key to not getting overwhelmed. Your colleagues want and need you to succeed, and would be happy to be part of the solution, but they can’t do that if they don’t know you have a problem. Communicate with them.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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