Ad hoc project challenges & how to manage them

Learn how to fit unexpected projects into your planned work and execute successfully.

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Nothing beats the feeling when you’ve finally gotten your project portfolio under control, like a cherry positioned perfectly on top of a delicately balanced ice cream sundae.

That is, until a stakeholder pops up out of nowhere with an ad hoc project to throw a wrench into your project management process. You may think there’s not much to do at this point except add juggler to your never-ending list of project manager job duties—as if you weren’t doing enough already. Right? Wrong.

As a program manager with 15+ years of experience in this field, do I have some stories to tell you! In this guide, I take you through the challenges of managing ad hoc projects and give you some tips for handling them.

What are ad hoc projects?

An ad hoc project is a one-time activity that arises unexpectedly or is not part of a pre-planned project schedule. Ad hoc work typically lacks a structured plan and may involve solving urgent issues or addressing sudden needs with immediate attention.

“Ad hoc” is a phrase borrowed from Latin that means “for this.” Ad hoc projects are therefore one-off, unique situations that don’t fit cleanly into an existing framework or project planning process. Basically, like each of your stakeholders, ad hoc projects are special snowflakes ❄️

You’re not supposed to encounter ad hoc projects often, but if your organization lacks robust project management processes, has trouble saying no to clients, or struggles with prioritization, then these types of projects tend to arise more often than you’d expect.

Today, a lot of the projects I handle are ad hoc, but most of my team’s time is allocated to addressing these special situations and wrangling them into manageable processes.

Ad hoc projects were much more concerning when I worked as a strategy consultant and had a full slate of scheduled client work. Asking me to fit in a marketing effort on the side or work “part-time” on a proposal for a couple of weeks was much trickier to handle.

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Learn how Emily Feliciano, the Creative Resource Manager at Atlassian, handles almost 100 resource requests every week with Float—luckily, not all of which are ad hoc! 😉

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What are the challenges with ad hoc projects?

Ad hoc projects present several challenges:

They’re unplanned and unscheduled

Ad hoc projects, by definition, are not part of an organization’s planned project portfolio. Since these types of projects tend to crop up at the last minute, they can be difficult for project teams to accommodate as part of their existing workload.

Solution: avoid scheduling your team up to 100% of their time. Allow some slack in your current project portfolio. That way, when ad hoc projects arise, you’ve got some built-in bandwidth to address them without throwing your existing projects off track. You can use Float’s project planning capability to avoid the risk of overallocation.

They do not adhere to existing project protocols

Since they’re typically labeled “urgent” or “high priority,” ad hoc projects sometimes get a pass from having to follow established processes. Cutting corners may compromise the quality of delivery, leading to rework.

Solution: even if a project is unplanned, it doesn’t mean you automatically have to take it on. Apply a decision-making framework to ad hoc projects to minimize the risk of taking on someone else’s emergency.

Consider including additional screening criteria specific to ad hoc projects to assess whether an effort is worthy of bypassing traditional project management processes. Sample criteria include anticipated cost versus benefits (a cost-benefit analysis can help with this!), security concerns, and reputational risk from failing to deliver.

They lack proper performance metrics

Ad hoc projects are typically not tracked well or at all, either due to time constraints or because the organization initiated the project to correct another issue that they would like to downplay. In this situation, you lose valuable data on how long projects are taking and how people are spending their time, which can impact future cost estimates and/or resourcing decisions. Team members staffed on this type of project may also lose visibility for their accomplishments.

Solution: make sure to add every project, no matter how small, to your resource management software. Even though it may seem like an extra step, it can be really helpful to keep track of how long projects actually take compared to what was estimated and know what your team is working on each day. This information helps you plan for the future and decide how to balance the workload among your team members.

Tools & resources you’ll need to manage and execute ad hoc projects

Despite your best efforts, you may inevitably find yourself saddled with an ad hoc project at some point. When this happens, try not to stress too much—as long as dealing with ad hoc projects is a temporary, periodic situation and not a constantly recurring phenomenon, you’ll be able to handle them without causing too much disruption to your existing portfolio.

Here are some things you can do to improve the execution of ad hoc projects:

1. Allocate resources appropriately

You can use resource planning software like Float to determine resource availability and then create a schedule for your ad hoc project that minimizes disruption to tasks already in flight. Where possible, you should also fast track the schedule to execute multiple tasks in parallel.

Team schedule in Float
You can view the projects your team is currently working on and assess their capacity to handle ad hoc projects.

To speed up your return to business as usual, it’s also best to staff ad hoc projects with a small team, ideally composed of high performers familiar with the subject matter. A pitfall with this approach is that organizations tend to tap the same people over and over for this type of work, reducing team productivity and organizational visibility and risking burnout.

Use Float’s historical project data to expose who may be getting “voluntold” to work on ad hoc projects a little too often.

Float report dashboard showing utilization levels
Reports in Float let you uncover what your time is spending their time on

Then, to combat this tendency, pair more experienced employees with junior staff that can shadow them. Now, you have a pool of staff equipped to handle these challenges. In the meantime, find ways to publicly acknowledge the fixers for the value they bring.

2. Apply project management processes

With ad hoc projects, you may not be able to spend as much time on planning as you normally would, but that doesn’t mean you get to skip planning altogether.

For example, ad hoc projects should still have:

  • Defined goals and objectives
  • A curated project team with defined roles and responsibilities
  • A project schedule that you communicate throughout the organization
  • Lessons learned that you can apply to future projects, both ad hoc and planned.

3. Take on ad hoc projects for the right reasons

While the above tactics can help you minimize the disruptions that ad hoc projects will impose upon your portfolio, ad hoc projects remain disruptive. Taking one on may require your team to go into over-work mode for a couple of weeks to get something important out the door. It may shift deadlines on ongoing projects that are deemed less critical.

The key is to make sure you are doing these projects for the right reasons and that ad hoc project management doesn’t become your default operational mode. Remember you have the option to say no to an effort that isn’t worth the time and cost—and that there are dedicated project planning tools that will help you along the way.

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Manage your ad hoc projects without disrupting ongoing projects

Float allows you to view your team's capacity well in advance and assess the impact of ad hoc tasks on ongoing projects. The visual Schedule helps you prioritize ad hoc requests and schedule them without overloading your team.

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FAQs

How can I balance ad hoc projects with ongoing responsibilities?

Balancing ad hoc projects with ongoing responsibilities requires effective time management, delegation, and prioritization. It's important to communicate openly with supervisors and members about your team’s workload and resource allocation constraints to ensure that ad hoc projects don't negatively impact other commitments.

How can I learn to become better at managing ad hoc projects?

Improving ad hoc work management skills requires team-consuming practice, reflection, teamwork, and continuous learning. Seeking feedback from colleagues, studying case studies, and participating in training or professional development opportunities can all contribute to growth in this area. You can also use resource management software to improve how you handle ad hoc requests.

What role does improvisation play in ad hoc project management?

Improvisation is often a necessary skill in ad hoc project management, as it involves making decisions and taking action in real time with limited information. While improvisation can be valuable in responding to unexpected challenges, it's important to maintain a balance between agility and strategic initiatives.