Project Managers’ Top Ten Challenges

Posted by Brad Egeland

Recently, I was perusing the Project Management Course website and happened upon an article by P.W. Ford from 2004 (www.projectmanagementcourse.com/project-challenges.html).  In this article, Mr. Ford states the top 10 challenges faced by Project Managers.

His list…

  1. Unrealistic deadlines
  2. Communication deficit
  3. Scope changes
  4. Resource competition
  5. Uncertain dependencies
  6. Failure to manage risk
  7. Insufficient team skills
  8. Lack of accountability
  9. Customer and end-users are not engaged during the project
  10. Vision and goals not well-defined

I found this list very interesting and I agree that every item on here can be a major challenge to project managers in every industry and at any given time.  I know that I’ve been faced with every one of these challenges at some point or another.  This list forced me to think about my own ‘Top 10’, but since I want to go into some detail on each I’m going to limit it 5 challenges that I’d like to share with you.  If you find it interesting and a worthwhile discussion, I certainly hope that you’ll share your thoughts and possibly your own list when commenting on this article.

Lack of PM involvement during the sales process

I’ve not hidden the fact in any of my posts that this is critical in my opinion.  I’ve witnessed first-hand what this can do to the project delivery team going into an IT engagement.  Customer expectations are sometimes set too high or are dangerously out of alignment with where the delivery team can go on the solution implementation.  Believe me, it’s never fun heading into a project kickoff meeting being forced to already worry about damage control before the engagement as even begun.

Unrealistic schedule expectations

This can sometimes be another pitfall of the lack of PM involvement in the sales process.  Many customer expectations are set during the sale and usually an initial project schedule is drawn up and included in the sales documents.  I personally walked into an engagement with a major airline after sales had promised them a 90-day implementation.  It was apparent during the first two hours of the kickoff meeting that we were up against an impossible task as the customer had not properly defined requirements or business processes in order to make that 90-day promise possible.  But they had submitted a global PR statement to the airline industry announcing the project and the 90-day timeline.  Once requirements were properly defined, the engagement began and was successfully implemented – approximately 180 days later.  Over budget and outside the timeline – so my delivery team took most of the hit.

Renegade team members

There are very talented individuals in nearly every organization.  Sometimes we’re lucky enough as Project Managers to get the very best on our team.  But sometimes that comes with a price.  When you have a very talented developer, for example, working on your project it can sometimes be hard to rein that person in.  In their minds, they know what’s best for the client, they know what technology to use and they know they can do it now and fast.  What they aren’t paying attention to is the budget, the process, the documentation, the agreed upon milestones, etc.  This is far more likely to happen on a smaller project where one developer runs the application development for the entire project and knows what needs to be done.  But as the Project Manager, the challenge is ours to keep them focused on the project schedule, the milestones and deliverables that have been agreed to, and the testing and documentation processes necessary to ensure success and maintainability.

Financial management/budgeting

Managing the budget is a huge challenge for Project Managers – especially on large, long-term engagements where unchecked slow scope creep can eat through a budget almost undetected.  That’s when you find yourself three months from go-live with no money left in the budget.  Try telling a customer that you need more money and see how that sits with them.  I’ve had to – and I WAS monitoring the budget closely.  It was with a very large government agency and they were not happy.  As the PM, the best thing you can do is ensure that the budget is closely monitored, that it is in the project team’s and the customer’s faces at every status meeting either as part of the weekly status report and meeting discussion or as a separate weekly report (I had one customer executive sponsor who did not want the rest of his team to see the project budget details for whatever reason.)

Resource availability

Good resources are sometimes hard to come by.  They’re even harder to come by if your project is not quite as visible as the next project that just started, but you have a great resource that is wanted by the other project.  Face it, you’re going to have to bow to executive direction to put that key resource on the more visible project and you’re also going to be the one to explain that to your current client and spend the extra time to onboard a new project member.  Make the best of it – negotiate additional time for the departing resource to ‘mentor’ the new team member on the project for a few weeks and to remain on the weekly project meetings/calls for awhile to let the customer know you’re not dropping the ball on them.  A smooth transition rather than a sudden one will site much better with the customer and your executive leadership will usually agree with that approach. 

Final thoughts

This is merely a summary of 5 of my perceived ‘Top 10’ because I’m running out of thoughts and article length.  Others I would include are:

  • Communication
  • Scope management
  • Customer requirements definition
  • Over-involvement by customer team members (too many cooks in the kitchen concept)
  • Lack of knowledge transfer to delivery team (this is another sales process issue that concerns me)

I’m sure tomorrow I’ll think of some major ones that I left off…maybe I’ll leave the rest for another post.  I would, however, really like to hear your thoughts, feedback, comments, and info on your own experiences.

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3 Comments to “Project Managers’ Top Ten Challenges”

  • Brad, Thanks for your top five issues. What I like about your list (and Mr. Ford’s) is that you put some thought into how to deal with them.

    I find it fascinating that most of us managers know the common pitfalls, but few if any, put in place and execute systematic procedures that include process steps (with best practice knowledge descriptions) on how to minimize these risks. We spend all of our time in meetings (putting out fires) and heads-down with our 1000-line MS Project work plan and say implementing best practice processes would be great, but we don’t have the time.

    I think focusing on defining, executing, and governing best practice procedures should become corporate policy and mandated. Just think of the longer term power that could come out of implementing tips from you, Mr. Ford, and countless others who share common sense solutions to the top project problems. If feel the only solution is to incorporate the “stay-out-of-trouble” steps into 100% of all stakeholders’ daily task list, which need to be executed and governed in real-time. Turning these best practices into transparency and accountability will yield predictability. Then it’s up to us to constantly evolve the process. Just think how easy it would be to go to the VP of Sales and say, “we have a systematic best practice process in place working wonders in IT, now if we can plug our process into your sales presentation, we can stay out of trouble with the client, and in addition, we can use this as a differentiator to expand client business.”

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