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.
In this article, we’ll cover the challenges of managing ad hoc projects and give you some strategies for handling them that won’t upset the apple cart.
What are ad hoc projects?
What do we mean by ad hoc projects anyway?
“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 ❄️
Today, a lot of the projects I handle are ad hoc, but most of my time is allocated to address these special situations and wrangle 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 weeks was much trickier to handle.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
How do you handle these projects without derailing your planning?
While they are less than ideal, ad hoc projects are somewhat inevitable. This is because you can’t forecast every emerging need. Sometimes, urgent issues arise that you need to correct.
But, even if you can’t prevent ad hoc projects from cropping up, you can get better at incorporating them as part of your workload.
Ad hoc project “planning”
Here are some actions you can take before ad hoc projects arise:
A) Avoid scheduling your team up to 100% of their time.
Allow some slack in your 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.
B) Apply project selection processes to ad hoc projects.
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.
C) Manage stakeholder expectations.
While it’s not easy to do at the moment, it’s OK to refuse an ad hoc project if you truly don’t have bandwidth to take it on, it doesn’t align with organizational goals, and/or the costs of the project outweigh the benefits.
For example, I’ve heard clients pitch projects that my company ultimately decided not to pursue because doing so simply wasn’t worth the risk. I’ve also turned down ad hoc projects because I decided that adding the extra work to my schedule wouldn’t yield the type of learnings or visibility that I was seeking at that point in my career.
In these types of situations, honesty is the best policy. Communicate the rationale firmly but gently. It also helps to have a project selection process, set of performance metrics, and list of other commitments to bolster your argument, if necessary.
Executing 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 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.
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 their 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.
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.
Schedule and track project work with Float
Easily check team availability to schedule project work based on capacity and skillset, and keep track of timelines to make project planning a breeze.Try for free
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, the fact is that ad hoc projects are, by nature, disruptive. Taking one on may require your team to burn the candle at both ends for a couple of weeks to get something important out the door. It may shift deadlines on existing 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. Follow the tips above to stay grounded in reality and help you hit the curveballs that ad hoc projects throw your way!