The Art of Mastering Project Surprises: Easy Strategies for Managing Unplanned Work

Picture of By: Steve McBroom, Founder,  Traxidy

By: Steve McBroom, Founder, Traxidy

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In this post, we will review the importance of working through project issues and the associated unplanned project tasks, as they arise, and provide effective strategies to manage them.

Effective project management involves monitoring progress closely and adjusting as needed to ensure the project meets its objectives. In agile projects, adjustments are expected with a more open-ended timeframe of scope and schedule. With a waterfall or hybrid approach, the project scope and schedule to be executed, are what has been approved by the sponsor. The approved plan and schedule are not to be changed without the Sponsor’s approval.

Why would project management involve any unplanned work?

As a Project Manager (PM), your initial blueprint and timeline sets the foundation for the project. However, despite starting with what seems like a flawless plan, during the project’s execution, unforeseen situations inevitably arise. These situations, which we’ll term ‘project issues,’ aren’t explicitly outlined in the project schedule or Gantt chart but require your attention to ensure the smooth execution of every task on the chart. They come with specific actions or tasks that must be closely monitored and completed to resolve the issues. These actions or tasks are ‘unplanned work’ and become integral parts of the project work, demanding diligent monitoring and control to guarantee the project’s ultimate success.

What do we mean by unplanned work? If the very nature of project management is to execute a set of well-planned and scheduled work items, then why would project management involve any unplanned work?


Get to the Point, in this Blog Post

What Unplanned Project Work are We Talking About?

Project Managers beware! You’ve done your best to arrange the logical steps and tasks to complete your project. Perhaps you even have them nicely laid out from start to finish in a colorful Gantt chart. For some projects, that set of work may be the tip of the iceberg of work that you will need to manage and control the project.

A task should not be so large that it becomes difficult to estimate or manage.

It’s important to keep in mind, that as a PM, the more line items you see on your Gantt chart, the more work you need to do as a PM to control the project. Tasks should be broken down to a level that makes them manageable for tracking progress and assigning (hopefully) singular ownership and responsibility. A task should not be so large that it becomes difficult to estimate or manage. It depends on the work expected and previous experience but a typical timeframe of about two weeks, for a sprint or a task, allows for flexibility of the work effort, without too much work within the project becoming an issue, if it starts to go wrong.

For every line item or major task on the project plan, there is the possibility of that work having to be monitored more closely and having additional smaller actions (because of project issues), to be monitored in order to keep the main work on track. Who is going to do what? By when? For each smaller action, there can get to be quite a list of unplanned work items that need to be managed.

These are the smaller actions related to project issues that can, if left unchecked, take the project off schedule, and off-budget, and affect the quality of the expected result. They can lead to a major change in the agreed approved plan and even the need to pause or cancel the project outright!

Listening for the Signs of More Work Ahead

Consistent communication is essential for managing project tasks effectively.

The best time to get a very clear understanding of the current work is in a project status meeting. Sometimes you need to be listening very carefully to the words being used when asking your team members for an update on their work; “sort-of”, “almost”, “close enough”, “I didn’t realize”, “it’s going to take a little more time” are all hints that the work that’s underway, potentially has an issue. Your next step without showing any panic in your face or your voice (!) is to ask what needs to be done to ensure the activity or work will go according to the approved plan.

Immediately track the actions needed to resolve the issue and see that they are managed properly.

It’s always a good idea to start any project with a detailed understanding of the critical path of the project. If this work is a main activity on the critical path, then if the timeline for this activity changes, does the entire project end date move with it? Is there a buffer in the  schedule or enough flexibility in the plan?

Sometimes if the work is not on the critical path, then the work can run a little longer and you should have the ability to make up for the extended time for this work, later in the project. Regardless, you should immediately track the actions needed to resolve the issue and see that they are managed properly to put the plan back on track.

By keeping team members and stakeholders informed of project progress and any project issues that arise, Project Managers can ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals for project success.

What Could Go Wrong? Almost Everything

Many things can go wrong with a task on a project. Here are some common examples that can lead to potential delays or scope or quality issues:

  • Misunderstandings: Team members may have different interpretations of what the task entails.
  • Poor communication: Team members not communicating effectively with the people they need to align with for the task to be completed.
  • Resourcing issues: The necessary resources are not available when needed or technical difficulties including technical project issues with software, hardware, or equipment.
  • Changing priorities: Team member priorities may change as directed by other business areas, and tasks may need to be reprioritized or rescheduled.
  • Poor task planning: Tasks are not planned properly; tasks may be more complex than planned and the timing under-estimated, leading to delays or incomplete work.

These are just a few examples. Project Managers need to anticipate these project issues and be prepared to address them.

How to Handle the Possibility of a Schedule Change

No plan is perfect and substantial change to the agreed-to project schedule isn’t always necessary just because a project issue arises.

Depending on your abilities as a PM and the project plan itself, change isn’t always inevitable. But how do you know that a ‘change’ to the plan is required? The process needs to be started at a point when investigating the situation allows the PM to prepare, or provide the contingency plan in case the project change is eventually needed.

This ‘investigation’ stage of the change provides the opportunity to get an early understanding of the situation and a chance to gather input and advice from managers and/or peers. Proactively, this record of the change can be passed along to management or the project Sponsor at a time when the change isn’t necessary. However, it may be needed in the future.

Understanding, communication, and alignment with the stakeholders are key aspects of managing project change successfully 

What happens when all your actions on the unplanned project work still don’t appear to be keeping the project on plan? Essentially, you’ll need to re-do the plan and schedule work for this portion of the project. Be prepared to make it part of a new project plan.

Engage the team members who are connected with the issue and ensure you have a clear understanding as to why the issue has occurred. Then take further steps to understand and communicate the time, resources, costs, and actions associated with the project change.

Understanding, communication, and alignment with the stakeholders are key aspects of managing project change successfully. Go back to that change record you had been investigating, update it, and you can now move it into the process for approval. The information is familiar to your Sponsor, the information from your investigation is there and you can easily manage the change.

Summary: Next Time Will be Made Easier by Taking These Steps

  1. Before your project plan is set, review your project learnings from past projects involving both the people and the work to be done, and build those learnings into the new schedule or plan.
  2. Focus on project issues as they arise, and as soon as possible shorten the time frame of the work update reviews to keep it under better control.
  3. As a project issue is made clear, begin a proactive cursory investigation of how the schedule and project might be modified if the issue were to force a change.
  4. Know your schedule and the contingency or buffer within it that may allow you to control the project issues without the need for any project changes.
  5. Know your sponsor and their acceptance of schedule or cost flexibility within the project. It’s better to communicate early, as most Sponsors don’t want to be surprised with project changes.


Managing and controlling project issues and corresponding project tasks as they arise, is crucial to the success of any project. It can help ensure that the project stays on track and meets its goals and objectives. When project issues are not addressed promptly, it can lead to delays, increased costs, and a failure to meet project deadlines. Clear communication, critical listening skills, and being proactive, are key to effectively managing the unplanned project work activities and keeping your plan on track.

Learn more about how Traxidy project work tracking software can help Project Managers with a practical approach to managing unplanned project work and project change management for greater success.

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