Five Tips for Leading Ad Hoc Teams

Five Tips for Leading Ad Hoc Teams | Wired 4 LeadershipHow do you lead ad hoc teams to do great things? If you asked five people from different divisions or departments within your organization to come together to launch a strategic event involving your CEO, department heads, multiple vendors, outside groups, and unique media demands with three or four days notice, could they do it? How about asking five complete strangers from outside your organization to do the same thing? If you’re feeling a bit skeptical, join the club.

Over the past year I’ve done just that with surprising success. I’ve also gathered an amazing collection of lessons about leadership, resilience, and innovation along the way. I’ll share some of those with you in a minute, but first a little background.

“The military adage that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy readily applies to ad hoc teams and events produced under tight deadlines.”


What started out as an offer to lend a hand turned into a real-life adventure working with diverse teams of complete strangers to deliver high-value events under extremely tight, pressure-filled deadlines. As a team member and leader of these spontaneously formed, ad hoc groups, we have traveled the country putting up and taking down strategic events at venues across the United States. If this sounds like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey or the traveling edition of Cirque Du Soleil, it’s more like the latter than the former. Finesse in high pressure, high-profile events, simply cannot be overlooked. Neither can leadership. Here’s what I’ve learned  leading ad hoc teams:

Get Clear on The Goals Now.
Tight deadlines create performance pressures most find uncomfortable at best and unbearable at worst. When those events are likely seen by hundreds of thousands of people you can expect exponential stress levels.  As a leader your job is to clarify immediate goals, strip away non-essential activities, and delegate responsibilities quickly. “Need to do” eats “nice to do” for lunch in these situations. That doesn’t mean surrendering your own sense of humor, civility, or kindness. It just means using those skills to strategically push your team toward expeditiously accomplishing the bigger goals.

Candor Starts With You.
Sometimes under the pressure of deadline, everyone’s needs cannot always be accommodated. The required skill is finding different ways of saying no– gracefully, politely, yet firmly. One example, in meetings with the client, hosts, and staff, I caution them on the inherent limits brought on by tight lead times. I also tell them our team will do everything we can to support their needs. There’s one simple caveat–early requests are more easily granted–than last-minute ones. As a result in environments where every change is heavily scrutinized last-minute requests remain rare. Candor helps show expectations upfront and forces everyone to make sure essential priorities come quickly to the fore.

Focus on Best Skills.
Leading ad hoc teams requires you to quickly assess capacity, capability, and character essential to task success. You have to watch for small cues and big ones simultaneously. Communications coach Nick Morgan writes in Power Cues that people who are in agreement  tend to mirror each others movements and behaviors. Undoubtedly you have your own set of heuristics. With no time for written assessments, reference checks, or team interviews with candidates, you’ll want to use them. The team in front of you is the team you’ve got. Some of them will amaze you, others will disappoint. With ad hoc teams it’s the here and now that matters. As a leader I focus the team on three things:

  • The tasks immediately at hand
  • Skills at hand–What team members do in the “real world”
  • Personal and professional accountability
  • What success and a great event will look and feel like for the team and the attendees when we put it all together.

The conversations are fast-paced, positively focused, and encompassed by the “magic” of bringing strangers together to do great things. Pride in accomplishment is a powerful motivator. You overlook that truth at your own peril with ad hoc teams. The best team members show an above average level of self-awareness, curiosity and smarts. Others toss in a bit of braggadocio.  Asking any of them to handle a complex task unfamiliar to them is a great barometer for what the week may bring. With a bit of guidance, most willingly accept the challenge. Having team members who share that “sense of adventure”, will focus on success and share expertise are invaluable.

Identify Client Needs–Sooner Not Later.
Our clients give us a broad framework for how they want to communicate their message. Illuminating that concept and garnering approval for the presentation requires us to capture and convey an extraordinary amount of information to the client. We share every detail from locations, audience and stage perspectives, backdrops, stage decor, and venue layouts to assure our client is comfortable. Leveraging all available digital tools to share sights, sounds, and images speeds this process immeasurably. Most importantly, identifying and sharing options with your client at the beginning of the work helps smooth the rest of your planning, set-up and execution. No one likes surprises.

Create Plan B. and Plan C.
Helmuth von Moltke‘s adage that “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” readily applies to ad hoc teams and production of tight deadline events. The enemy is time. No matter how often you have done something, each new venue, marketing message, and ad hoc team presents fresh challenges. That’s not to say having a system–a project outline, checklists, or other planning tools won’t help. They will. Resilience is still required on your part. Sometimes the layout of the venue isn’t conducive to accomplishing the task. The venue floor plan you pull off the Internet fails to mention those large support beams and fire hoses strategically spanning the venue. At other times local conditions (rain, traffic, fire marshals, hotels, audio-visual firms, vendors) will conspire to impede your every effort. No matter. The easiest and most effective method having plan B and a plan C in your pocket before you even get started. What will you do if there are no backdrop drapes available in your preferred size or color? What if the electrical capacity in the venue is insufficient to handle the loads required for the event? What if the crowd expected exceeds the venue capacity? How will you handle an extremely too low or too high ceiling in a given space? Plan for it. Expecting the unexpected isn’t a cliché, it’s the reality of creating events under extraordinarily tight deadlines. Don’t get tripped up.

What About Plan D?
You’ll likely never get there at the pace I’m describing for these types of events. If you do find yourself in need of plan D, my best advice is to promptly assemble your ad hoc team, share the problem or issue, let them know the time frame for finding a solution, and by when you’ll need to make a final decision. Ask for lots of ideas and potential solutions, chat about the pro’s and con’s of each, and then make a choice. Not making a choice is still making a choice. It’s often the worst option ever. Don’t do it.

The events we create are quick, crisp experiences, intended to generate media buzz, enthrall, inform, and motivate audiences. They combine leadership lessons in communications, flexibility, information gathering, resilience, debate, discussion, negotiation, big picture thinking, people occasionally behaving badly, mastery of minute details, and a healthy dose of hyper sonic personal bonding to make it all work. When it does your clients, attendees, and most importantly your team will be grateful for your leadership. Go ahead. Give it a try.


What’s your experience working with ad-hoc groups? Does any of this make sense? How would you get started working with a group of strangers? Share your leadership tips with us.

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