Common Challenges Faced by the Project Manager

Posted by Brad Egeland

Gary Heerkens wrote A Briefcase Book entitled simply “Project Management.”  In it he uses a fictional character, Brad (good choice!) as his subject who has been thrust into the world of project management.  Below is Mr. Heerkens section on the common challenges that he sees project managers being faced with as they lead engagements and work with both their customers and their management structure.  Read on….

Common Challenges You Can Expect to Face

As the Project Manager, can expect to face a number of challenges as you take on the responsibility of managing projects in your organization. Whatever the specifics of your particular situation, however, many of the challenges you’ll face are faced by most project managers. Let’s review a few of these common challenges.

The Responsibility vs. Authority Trap

Firmly embedded in project management folklore is this one: the responsibility you’ve been given is not commensurate with the authority (or formal power) you believe you need to accomplish the mission. The size of the gap between responsibility and authority will partially depend upon the structure of your organization. If you’re in a purely functional organization – and in many cases, a matrix organization – you should not expect to be granted very much formal authority. The gap between responsibility and authority will be quite wide. To compensate for your perceived lack of formal authority, you’ll have to rely upon expert power (respect you can garner through superior knowledge or capability) or referent power (often accessed by practicing an excellent leadership style). You’ll also need to rely heavily upon your ability to influence and persuade.

Imposition of Unrealistic Targets

Sound project management practice suggests that project goals (cost, schedule, quality, and functionality) should be determined through a systematic process of understanding customer needs, identifying the best solution, and formal planning. Throughout this process, realistic assumptions about resource availability, quality of materials, and work process (just to name a few factors) should be used. This approach yields a credible estimation of what is reasonably achievable. If this estimation does not meet business goals, then a systematic risk-vs.-return process should be pursued until it can be verified whether or not the targets can be met within a given level of elevated risk. That’s the process that should be followed.

Unfortunately, we live in a real world. Targets are far too often based on desire or a vague sense of what should be achievable, rather than driven by calculated business needs. In even more unfortunate circumstances, targets are developed before it’s even known what the project entails! In either case, the result is that impatience – rather than a rational process – drives the selection of the targets. From that point on, a desperate struggle begins, as the team tries to force the project to fit within the boundaries that have been drawn.

This practice puts project managers in a very difficult position, as it often sets them up for certain failure and severely undermines the planning process. Unfortunately, this phenomenon seems to have reached epidemic proportion: it’s one of the biggest complaints of practicing project managers today.

Perpetual Emphasis on Function

If you’re managing a project in a functionally oriented organization, one of the more difficult challenges that you’ll face is getting team members to overcome their inherent tendency to think and act in terms of optimizing their own discipline, technical field, or department. It’s important to recognize that this phenomenon is fueled by three powerful influences. First, by definition, projects are temporary, but functions live on. In other words, a person often considers his or her work group to be home; the project is just a passing state of existence. Second, unless contemplating a formal career change to project management, a person considers his or her discipline or area of expertise as the work focus. This means that her or she will likely be committed to ensuring the well-being of that area. This strong loyalty could, for example, give rise to counterproductive situations, such as team members using your project funds to advance their discipline – perhaps in excess of what customer requirements dictate. Finally, there’s the power of the paycheck. Simply stated, most people tend to pledge allegiance to the source of their paycheck. For most people in most organizations, that’s their work group or functional department, not you.

The Dual Responsibility Trap

Most project managers I encounter are asked to wear two hats. They must perform their job duties while acting as the project manager. This situation may present additional challenges for you.

At the center of this dilemma is the issue of allegiance. Imagine for a moment that you’re facing a critical decision. Unfortunately, what’s best for the project will negatively impact your work group but what benefits your work group will hurt your project. What’s the right decision? What do you do? If you make the decision that benefits your work group, you risk being viewed as a poor project manager. If you choose the course of action that benefits the project, you may incur the wrath of your peers and/or departmental management. It’s a tough spot – and you can almost bank on being in it, possibly often.

A more fundamental problem of the dual responsibility trap is figuring out how to divide your time and attention between the two roles. How much should you allocate to each? How long can you try to satisfy both before you realize you’re working most nights and weekends?

Finally, a third issue often surfaces in the form of thetwo boss syndrome. The project manager reports to his or her functional supervisor and to the person who manages the project management function in the organization. Again, this is a difficult situation for most project managers.

The Fundamental Conflict of Certainty and Uncertainty

Many misunderstandings and disconnects between project managers and organizational management can be traced to the fundamental conflict between the certainty that management requires to properly run the business and the inherent uncertainty of project work. Cost and schedule estimating provides us with an excellent example.

Suppose you’re just beginning a project. It’s likely that you have limited information on this project and there’s a significant degree of uncertainty. In a situation such as this, project management practice suggests that you would be well advised to use ranges of values when providing estimates on cost and schedule. The size of your range would reflect a level of accuracy consistent with the extent of your knowledge and the amount of uncertainty. In our example, it would be perfectly appropriate for you to estimate that the cost of your project will be somewhere in the range of $400,000 to $550,000.

Unfortunately, many project managers today would receive a very unfavorable response from their organizational management to that type of “crude” estimate. It doesn’t provide the certainty that management requires for approval.

Unfortunately, this example is not exceptional. The uncertainty associated with projects exists throughout the life of the project: it simply never goes away—nor does management’s craving for certainty.

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