Despite our best efforts, marketers can't seem to shake the reactive nature of our jobs. Why? A lot of it has to do with poor planning and unplanned work. Once a last-minute project lands on your table, it's already behind schedule, and your team is expected to pull a rabbit out of a hat to get it launched in time.

All because someone remembered too late that they need a tear sheet for that trade show next week.

Research done by my company with almost 3,600 marketers shows that marketers who proactively plan projects are 356 percent more likely to report success. But what if the poor planning is out of your control?

The Problem With Unplanned Marketing Work

Unplanned work refers to anything that crops up that wasn't built into your plan. Usually, these projects have two common denominators: They're last minute and they're urgent. This type of work presents several challenges to marketing managers and their cross-functional teams.

  • Unexpected projects impact your team's ability to deliver on what was already planned.

  • Unplanned work can lead to unsustainable work practices and an unhealthy culture.

  • There are only so many hours in a day. If something new comes in, something must go out, which causes a domino effect on future timelines.

Here are a few ways to deal with last-minute marketing projects to improve efficiency and team morale.

Assess and Prioritize Better

President Eisenhower once said, "I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."

By understanding this distinction, we can start to better prioritize unplanned marketing work.

Think of it this way: Important activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals. These are the things that we identified as major marketing projects to help increase sales or whatever goal you set to grow the company.

Urgent activities demand immediate attention and are usually associated with achieving someone else's goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

One easy way to ensure other departments respect your planned work is to enforce standard timeframes of commonly requested projects. One week for tear sheets, four weeks for white papers, four days for sales presentations, etc. This helps other departments' last-minute projects from becoming future fire drills for your team to deal with.

Set up a System to Field Incoming Marketing Requests

Dropping by one's desk, status meetings, and endless email chains are some of the side effects of unplanned work. These things are killing our productivity all because of something called context switching, or the time that is lost when multi-tasking and jumping from task to task. 

Productivity is a lot like sleep. If someone wakes you up repeatedly at unplanned intervals, it will take some time for your brain to relax and fall back to sleep. 

The same goes for productivity. When working on something creative, it takes time for your brain to dive in and "get in the zone". You can't just jump into the zone whenever you want?.

So when someone interrupts your regular work to repeatedly pull you onto emergency projects, the interruptions prevent you from getting into a productive zone to make consistent progress on your goals.

To lessen the effect of these interruptions, set up a formalized process to field incoming requests so that nothing gets started unless it's submitted through the process and can be assigned a deadline.

Insisting on a clear incoming project process helps ensure that all the details are provided upfront, which cuts down on meetings, desk drop-ins, and guesswork.

Commit to Marketing Sprints 

The concept of a sprint is borrowed from Agile Project Management or Scrum.  

In a sprint, teams work in short bursts of one or two weeks and accomplish a specific amount of work that fits into the timeframe. Within the scope of the sprint, what will be worked on is variable, but time is constant. This means that the team follows a one-in one-out rule.

If a new priority pops up, then work is moved to the next sprint, not added on top of the existing workload.

With Scrum, tasks are prioritized by order of importance, which means that tasks completed first will probably affect return on investment the most. This prioritization cuts back urgent but not important work that doesn't contribute to the bottom line.

Marketing teams are increasingly implementing the idea of working in short iterations. In fact, 28 percent of marketing organizations are working in short sprint-like iterations, according to our State of Agile Marketing Report; a survey we conducted with over 400 marketers.

Unplanned work costs our teams a lot. From lost productivity to sacrificing our strategic goals and even diminished team morale, it's clear that we marketers need new processes for managing last-minute, urgent projects.