In mainstream project management, you typically strive for a recurring set of tools and workflows: the scope statement, the work-breakdown-structure, the financial analysis, time and cost estimates, the risk assessment, and so on.
But any experienced project manager knows there’s no such thing as a typical project. One project type that companies often struggle with is the unexpected ad hoc project. These quick-turnaround work requests usually arrive out of the blue, hit hard, and leave chaos in their wake before project managers can say “estimation.”
One of the biggest challenges about ad hoc projects is establishing a process to something that feels like a mini storm system. Yes, quick-turnaround projects can feel disruptive, but you can also bring some order to them as well. Let’s have a look at how teams do this.
What makes ad hoc projects unique?
Though the core framework is the same as a larger project (you’re still driving to accomplish a goal within a constraint), there are a handful of characteristics that make ad hoc project management unique:
Shorter time frame: As you might have guessed, quick turnaround projects typically span much tighter time frames than larger, well-planned out projects. The duration of Ad hoc projects is typically between one day and one month, although this range can vary depending on business definitions.
More localized impact: Large, pre-planned projects have numerous business ramifications, affect multiple groups of stakeholders, and can even be part of a portfolio of interdependent projects. Ad hoc projects, on the other hand, are usually focused on a single goal and/or a specific group of stakeholders.
Less red tape: Because of their limited time frame and smaller scope, these rogue projects are generally quicker at getting off the ground, versus a complex, multi-faceted project that requires approval and revision from upper management across multiple departments.
Less resource intensive: Although there are certainly exceptions to this rule, ad hoc projects tend to rely more on specialized talent and resources than the wholesale supply of financing, labor or materials. That’s because they address a specific, temporary function rather than a broad initiative.
Here are some common examples of ad hoc projects in various industries:
- Implementation/adoption of new technology or workflow (such as migrating to the cloud)
- Ad-hoc system and software development (e.g. to patch a security vulnerability or fulfill an unanticipated request)
- Special events (such as fundraising dinners, auctions, or conferences)
- Ad-hoc campaigns or sprints (to pursue a temporary market opportunity or respond to a news item or trend)
- Special requests from above (a stakeholder makes a request you can’t refuse)
- Committee-based work
Collaborating on short-term projects
One of the biggest ways ad hoc projects are unique is that they depend heavily on unimpeded collaboration between stakeholders. Without time as the great equalizer, project managers can’t wait for information and requests to trickle through the bureaucracy. Everyone involved—regardless of team, department, or pay grade—needs to be on the same page about the project at each step.
Recent data from ESI International revealed that less than a third of teams “effectively drive project success,” and over 65 percent believe better collaboration is the answer. Many businesses are finding a solution to this discrepancy in project management software—especially cloud-based solutions that help teams communicate and share information and artifacts (code, blueprints, guest lists, etc.) in real time. This creation and curation of a unified repository is often referred to as “knowledge management.”
Without a system in place for sharing knowledge, the burden often falls on one poor soul who knows everything, and then the rest of the team forms a line to ask questions.
3 best practices for managing ad hoc projects
Along with constant collaboration, there are a number of other best practices for driving timely, successful completion of short-term projects. Here are three of the most important:
- Prioritize risk assessments.
The limited time frame of ad hoc projects truncates many of the procedures of traditional project management. One of the most time-consuming procedures is risk assessment. While it’s still important to anticipate weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the planning phase, be judicious about which risks you invest time into bypassing. Generally, it’s best to assess only the risks that directly relate to project values and carry high probability and high impact. This can include both negative risks (will cause harm if they come to fruition) or “opportunity risks” (could add value to the project unless they are overlooked).
Traditional, waterfall-style project management probably isn’t the best approach for small-scale projects on a tighter deadline. Instead, the best approach is Agile, one that provides flexibility and minimizes effort by maximizing the amount of work not done. Most frameworks and tools within the Agile spectrum fit this description and also reinforce collaboration best practices.
Have a plan.
If you’re trying to put together a project by the end of the week, then you don’t have time to form a committee and hold status meetings. But a short timebox doesn’t negate the importance of planning—however concise it may need to be. In fact, you might find that if you don’t plan, the project will take longer and cost more. According to the Project Management Institute, only 50 percent of projects are completed within their originally allotted time frames, and 44 percent experience scope creep. Even if it’s bare bones, creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) is helpful in order to divide the project into its smaller components for accurate time and cost estimates.
Think of ad hoc projects as highly concentrated versions of normal projects. They’re driven by the same forces and requirements, but take place on a smaller scale, with less resources, fewer goals, and a shorter allotted time frame. With the right software tools and best practices, your organization can perform with the same efficiency and foresight you bring to larger business initiatives.
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