shutterstock_176362196As a project, the 2014 Sochi Olympics will forever be overshadowed by one stark image: four rings lit up, one didn’t. Although the typical triumphs and human drama eventually kicked in at the Sochi Games, the event was also (some might say comically) fraught with failures, with numbers so unbelievably huge ($39-billion over-budget, anyone?) they just couldn’t be ignored. Then there were the anecdotes: the stray dogs, the missing hotel floors, the unlit ring, and Bob Costas’ angry eye infection.

And after all of this trouble, they expected a meager return on investment of only 5 percent. Surely anyone who manages work muttered to themselves at some point, “Man, I’m glad that’s not me.”

That leads us to the most chilling fact of all: it could be any of us, whether we’re Russian event planners or creative managers. According to the numbers, 70 percent of projects fail. Not every project turns into a $51 billion nightmare broadcast to the whole planet, but every project—your next direct mail campaign, that product video you’re supposed to finish in two months—can fall prey to the same issues.

With this sobering reminder in front of us, let’s go through the three lessons creative managers can take from the 2014 Sochi Games:

1. Whether project or ad hoc work, it all matters.

Consider how many little things added up in Sochi to give the impression of a games gone to pot. For every stray dog story publicized giddily by the media, there were probably several dozen things that went off without a hitch. And somewhere a Sochi project manager was screaming at his television set, “Don’t look at the dogs! Look at our swingin’ song and dance number!”

In the creative management business, it’s easy to get consumed with the big projects, the multi-platform campaigns with the big price tags. We get so consumed with these that, when ad hoc requests pop up, we often treat them as fire drills. With 50 percent of our time devoured by new requests and other interruptions, it’s not hard to see why we might view them as an annoyance and push them to the outer reaches of our queues. Even most project management software packages reflect this very one-dimensional way of looking at our work—so much structure built around supporting projects but little to no structure for ad hoc work.

Not all ad hoc requests are crucial, but you only have to drop the ball with one or two important ones to ruin your creative team’s reputation. In other words, ad hoc requests can quickly become the stray dogs of your Olympic Games.

The Solution: Begin with request management. The creative teams who do this best usually have request management processes that let them objectively score each of the tasks they receive, ad hoc and project, and prioritize them accordingly. A precious few work management solutions allow you to do this and even automate the process for you. You can also attempt to do this manually in spreadsheets or whiteboards, although the extra time required can become a big time drain.

2. Track your time… or it will track you down.

The unfinished hotels of Sochi offer some of the most glaring examples of missed deadlines we’ve seen in a long time. How, you might wonder, in a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, does something as simple like a hotel floor go unfinished? After all, completing the basic parts of a hotel is not exactly the stuff of moon landings. Hotels are built and completed every day all around the world. But this fact is even more universal: people tend to underestimate how long tasks will take.

And your team is no exception. Studies have found that team members underestimate how long their work will take by 20 to 50 percent. Sometimes it’s out of sheer optimism. Most of the time, it stems from a lack of historical data on how long a given task takes. Whenever it occurs, it is always costly in terms of budget, reputation, and lost opportunities.

The Solution: Creative teams might not be your typical data-driven folks, but they know how to track their time. If you have your billable hours on hand, you have the data to see historically how long your standard brochure or billboard takes. This gives you the ammo to set more realistic expectations with your clients. This only gets better as you get more granular in your time tracking. Knowing which tasks are eating most of your time can allow you to find bottlenecks and eliminate them.

3. Don’t let your torch go out.

During the Sochi Olympics, the Olympic flame was allowed to be snuffed out no less than 44 times. Symbolically speaking, that’s tantamount to extinguishing the human spirit itself. If your projects had such a flame—a guiding light, if you will—it would be the reports and communications that keep you, your team, and your clients unified and in control. Unfortunately, with Sochi-like abandon, too many creative teams let that visibility flicker and, occasionally, die completely.

When creative teams throw up silos around themselves or communicate inconsistently with those outside their teams, the results aren’t pretty. This usually creates more rework on collateral, with as much as 35 percent of project time being consumed with multiple rounds of rework. Between sending extra emails or having to duplicate efforts, poor communication eats up 14 percent of the average creative team’s day. And if they’re spending more time trying to fix spotty communication, they’re spending less time doing actual creative work.

The Solution: The ideal way to keep communication open and clear—to keep your proverbial torch ignited—between managers, team members, and clients is to have one place where every task’s work status is updated and everyone involved can see those updates in real time. This eliminates confusion and wasted time on email and unnecessary meetings.

Lessons Learned

With the right processes in place to track all types of work, to track hours and deadlines, and to communicate project updates to everyone involved, you’ll be well on your way to avoiding Sochi-like infamy.