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Top 10 PM Challenges


Top 10 Project Management Challenges

by P. W. Ford

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Whether you are a new project manager, or an experienced leader, project management will continue to reveal itself as part art, part science, and part major headache! The list below highlights some of the top project management challenges, along with suggested solution ideas to help overcome those challenges:

  1. Unrealistic deadlines - Some would argue that the majority of projects have "schedule slippage" as a standard feature rather than an anomaly. The challenge of many managers becomes to find alternate approaches to the tasks and schedules in order to complete a project "on time", or to get approval for slipping dates out. An "absolute" time-based deadline such as a government election, externally-scheduled event, or public holiday forces a on-time completion (though perhaps not with 100% of desired deliverables). But, most project timelines do eventually slip due to faulty initial deadlines (and the assumptions that created them). Solution: Manage the stress of "the immovable rock and the irresistible force" (i.e. the project deadline and the project issues) with creative planning, alternatives analysis, and communication of reality to the project participants. Also determine what deadlines are tied to higher level objectives, or have critical links into schedules of other projects in the organization's portfolio.
  2. Communication deficit - Many project managers and team members do not provide enough information to enough people, along with the lack of an infrastructure or culture for good communication. Solution: Determine proper communication flows for project members and develop a checklist of what information (reports, status, etc.) needs to be conveyed to project participants. The communications checklist should also have an associated schedule of when each information dissemination should occur.
  3. Scope changes - As most project managers know, an evil nemesis "The Scope Creep" is usually their number one enemy who continually tries to take control. Solution: There is no anti-scope-creep spray in our PM utility belts, but as with many project management challenges, document what is happening or anticipated to happen. Communicate what is being requested, the challenges related to these changes, and the alternate plans, if any, to the project participants (stakeholders, team, management, and others).
  4. Resource competition - Projects usually compete for resources (people, money, time) against other projects and initiatives, putting the project manager in the position of being in competition. Solution: Portfolio Management - ask upper level management to define and set project priority across all projects. Also realize that some projects seemingly are more important only due to the importance and political clout of the project manager, and these may not be aligned with the organization's goals and objectives.
  5. Uncertain dependencies - As the project manager and the team determine project dependencies, assessing the risk or reliability behind these linkages usually involves trusting someone else's assessment. "My planner didn't think that our area could have a hurricane the day of the wedding, and now we're out of celebration deposits for the hall and the band, and the cost of a honeymoon in Tahiti!" Solution: Have several people - use brainstorming sessions - pick at the plan elements and dependencies, doing "what if?" scenarios. Update the list of project risk items if necessary based on the results.
  6. Failure to manage risk - A project plan has included in it some risks, simply listed, but no further review happens unless instigated by an event later on. Solution: Once a project team has assessed risks, they can either (1) act to reduce the chance of the risk occurrence or (2) act or plan towards responding to the risk occurrence after it happens.
  7. Insufficient team skills - The team members for many projects are assigned based on their availability, and some people assigned may be too proud or simply not knowledgeable enough to tell the manager that they are not trained for all of their assigned work. Solution: Starting with the project manager role, document the core set of skills needed to accomplish the expected workload, and honestly bounce each person's skills against the list or matrix. Using this assessment of the team, guide the team towards competency with training, cross-training, additional resources, external advisors, and other methods to close the skills gap.
  8. Lack of accountability - The project participants and related players are not held accountable for their results - or lack of achieving all of them. Solution: Determine and use accountability as part of the project risk profile. These accountability risks will be then identified and managed in a more visible manner.
  9. Customers and end-users are not engaged during the project. Project teams can get wound up in their own world of internal deliverables, deadlines, and process, and the people on the outside do not get to give added input during the critical phases. Solution: Discuss and provide status updates to all project participants - keep them informed! Invite (and encourage) stakeholders, customers, end-users, and others to periodic status briefings, and provide an update to those that did not attend.
  10. Vision and goals not well-defined - The goals of the project (and the reasons for doing it), along with the sub-projects or major tasks involved, are not always clearly defined. Clearly communicating these vague goals to the project participants becomes an impossible task. Some solutions and ideas to thrash vagueness: Determine which parts of a project are not understood by the team and other project participants - ask them or note feedback and questions that come up. Check the project documentation as prepared, and tighten up the stated objectives and goals - an editor has appropriate skills to find vague terms and phrasing. Each project is, hopefully, tied into to the direction, strategic goals, and vision for the whole organization, as part of the portfolio of projects for the organization.

Project leadership is a skill that takes time to develop in a person or organization. Achieving success requires analyzing setbacks and failures in order to improve. Focusing on each project's challenges and learning from them will help to build a more capable and successful project management capability.

© 2004 P. W. Ford



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