Oct 31 2006

Do or Die: Managing Ad Hoc Projects

Special projects always seem to appear out of nowhere when you least expect them. Handling these often tricky requests can become easier using project management skills such as allocating sufficient resources and managing people’s expectations.

John Fleischman, director of technology services for the Sacramento County Office of Education, says he doesn’t do enough ad hoc projects to qualify as an expert on the subject. In his role of supporting the employees in his department and the IT staffs in the California county’s 16 school districts, he usually manages about 20 to 25 structured projects at a time.

Yet, as Fleischman described his week, he mentioned three projects that were not even in his day planner. A deputy superintendent needed a quick customer satisfaction survey. The technology consortium that provides Internet services to education institutions countywide needed to set up a streaming video feed to desktop computers for a live feed from undersea explorer Bob Ballard’s latest exploits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, the head of personnel wanted the same kind of online job application form that she had seen in other county offices, and she needed it as soon as possible.

In all three cases, saying “no” was not an option.

“We know that ad hoc projects are always going to happen,” Fleischman says, “so we build in time [to annual budgets and planning] that we can allocate—a fudge factor to anticipate the unanticipated.”

Sometimes that works.

To deal with the customer-satisfaction survey, Fleischman knew that his staff already was skilled in the use of survey-creation software. It was just a matter of allocating staff time, designing the survey, getting it on the Web and tabulating results.

For the consortium request, Fleischman quickly assembled his tech staff, set up a special server, made arrangements to take the video feed, put it in the computer, encoded it and streamed it over the network. It was important to accommodate the consortium, he says, because the group is building a gigabit Ethernet network that connects 10 of the 16 Sacramento County districts—an important tool in the department’s ongoing distance learning initiatives.

Sometimes the fudge factor doesn’t work quite as well.

When he came to the online personnel application, Fleischman knew that it might take considerable planning and possibly months of programming. Since he didn’t have the budget, staff availability or in-house expertise to develop such an application, Fleischman decided to create a new position for some upcoming projects, with a portion of that programmer’s time allocated to building the online application.

Though the personnel director wasn’t thrilled with his solution, Fleischman points out that “part of my job is a little like politics, so it’s important to show people you’re moving in the right direction.”

Making Do With Less

Most IT professionals in education are buffeted by pressures from every direction to do more with less—and to do it more quickly. That often involves ad hoc, or unanticipated, projects initiated by political governing boards, federal and state government entities, district administrators, teachers, parents and the public.

“Whether curriculum-based or systems-based, an ad hoc project is something the IT administrator didn’t plan for,” says Bernadette McGinnis, director of Local Education Agency projects, California School Information Services program (CSIS) in Sacramento. “The first problem is that it’s unexpected; the second is that the IT person doesn’t have right of refusal.”

McGinnis points out that resolving technological issues in ad hoc projects “isn’t always easy, but that really isn’t the toughest part. It’s the soft skills that get muddied most.” These soft skills include the project manager’s diplomacy and ability to deal with both internal and external politics, as well as the need to include in the planning phases all the people who will be affected.

Created by legislative mandate in 1997, CSIS primarily builds systems to enable the state education department and more than 8,000 K-12 public school systems in California to share information.

Robin Canale, CEO of New Millennium Consulting in Roseville, Calif., works as the program project manager with CSIS, and suggests that if IT managers employ some project management discipline, they may well take the sting out of ad hoc initiatives. (See “Rules for Ad Hoc Projects ” below.)

“For ad hoc projects, there is absolutely no discipline,” says Canale. “I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me and said, ‘This is what has to be done, this is when it is due and this is how you will do it.’ ”

Demands such as that take away the cornerstone of good project management: understanding why the project is needed, then planning and setting measurable goals.

“The biggest struggle is with small IT departments that don’t have the funds and people to do all the work that’s required of them,” Canale says. “The challenge comes in on the soft-skill side. [IT staffers] have to influence people who are driving the initiative and make them understand what’s actually involved.”

Rules for Ad Hoc Projects

When Roy Barnes was the governor of Georgia between 1999 and 2003, he strongly advocated more technology for schools. Now a private practice lawyer, Barnes offers some common sense advice for managing technology projects. First, have a clear understanding of every aspect of a project or initiative and what it will take to sustain it. Second, get buy-in and support from everyone who will be affected. Third, have defined goals. Show how a project will improve student achievement, help teachers teach more effectively or solve an existing problem.

Some additional suggestions for managing ad hoc projects:

• Try to find a way to say “yes.” Get creative with staff time and budgets.

• Be sure to allocate sufficient resources for planning the project.

• Manage expectations.

• Know what tools to use and when to use them.

• Allocate time for the unexpected.

• Consider the long-range costs of projects you're asked to handle.

• Don't reinvent the wheel. Check around to see whether another educational institution has developed a solution that would solve your district's problem.

David Morrison is an Atlanta-based writer who specializes in business and technology.