The #1 Challenge in Project Management (According to the Experts)

Oct 19, 2017

The #1 Challenge in Project Management (According to the Experts)

Project management is a complex practice that continues to challenge even the most sophisticated of companies and experts. The many moving parts involved in a project from inception to completion makes the practice extremely fluid and hard to predict. Even the experts, with years of work in the project-based arena, recognize the pressures on a day-to-day basis.

We wanted to identify the #1 challenge shared by project management professionals to better help others struggling in the field. The first step was to join forces with Aberdeen to release the recent report, “2017 Project Management Software Trends.” This report, among various insights, uncovers 6 modern trends challenging nearly all project managers today:

Following the release of the report, the team at Mavenlink wanted to find out if additional experts, across various industries, felt the same six pressures.

The next step was to connect with a number of professionals with years of project management experience to take part in an “Expert Roundup.” Each expert was asked the same question that was explored in the figure above: “From your experience, what is the #1 challenge that professionals experience with project management?” Discover how these 10 expert insights shed even more light on the top pressures being faced by project managers today.

From your experience, what is the #1 challenge in project management?

Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin is the award-winning blogger behind GirlsGuideTo and author of several books about project management.

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The top challenge I see for professionals managing projects is managing the expectations of their customers. Whether it’s an internal customer in a different department or a paying client, aligning what they expect to what is practical and achievable seems to be a constant source of tension. We’d all love to give our stakeholders the world, but when paired with limited resources and fixed deadlines, we can only do so much.

I’ve faced this numerous times and the best advice I can give is to be honest. I am always honest about what I can achieve with our team, and by addressing expectations early and often I can align what stakeholders think they are going to get with what we can deliver. Working closely with stakeholders is so important so they can see the process evolve and help us correct the course at every step – this ‘total immersion’ of key internal customers worked really well during an ERP deployment.

Rick A Morris

Rick A. Morris, PMP, is a certified Scrum Agile Master, Human Behavior Consultant, best-selling author, mentor, and evangelist for project management.

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I think the number one issue is the collision of two main factors.  

One, companies select projects based on what they can spend and not what their resources can reasonably accomplish, setting themselves up for failure before the project manager even takes over.  

The second main factor is that they also select the project with the thought that they can constrict the time and budget and think they understand the full scope and many times are not willing to budge on any of these items.  Executives then turn these decisions over to the project manager and ask them to work the miracle and blame the profession if the plan doesn’t work out.  What many do not realize is by doing this, they have removed any of the value the project manager can provide.  Projects need to be selected based on resource availability and budgets.  Scope needs to be progressively elaborated and project managers are uniquely qualified to help manage the chaos and unease that can come from this type of decision making.  Setting a strategic plan and budget at the beginning of the year and being unwilling to revisit it is a management practice of the past.  Setting timeboxes and budgets that are value-based and allowing scope to be customer focused and aligned to strategy is where the growing companies are thriving.

We are currently working with an insurance company and have realigned their vision and project selection.  Three years ago they were attempting to do all projects that were coming their way and realized they were not finishing anything well.  What we do now is understand the percentage of the effort that goes to keeping the lights on.  We then aligned teams and percentages of effort to products.  Those teams work directly with the customers and meet monthly to determine which items get completed.  Once a plan is in place for the month, no changes or interruptions are made to the plan until the next month.  This gives the team complete focus of their effort while accommodating changes to the market and new ideas on a monthly basis.  The remaining effort is then aligned to the strategic projects of the organization.  Since this strategy has been employed, revenue has grown over 40% and project success criteria has grown at an astronomical rate.  Customer retention is up, employee turnover is down, and all leading indicators of the business are trending in the right direction.

Many organizations that we meet with think it is hard to align the business to the strategy and place governance to the process of project selection.  Change can be difficult, however, running the business becomes a fluid motion instead of the chaos of missing targets, being reactive versus proactive, and burning out your employees.  The project management discipline is paramount to understanding how to plan and execute the strategy.  I have met with many organizations that state, “We just hired a new PMO manager, now they are not from the Project Management discipline, but we think they will do a good job.”  When is that a good strategy? 

Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the ‘Pragmatic Manager,’  is the author of ‘Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Project’ and was the technical editor for six years.

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All of your top 6 challenges arise when organizations plan for long projects without interim releases and when they don’t manage the project portfolio. My experience is that not managing the project portfolio actually causes all of them.

When senior managers plan the strategy once a year, and they fund projects once a year, they create long projects that do not have to provide interim deliverables. When that occurs, projects compete for “resources” (aka people), which means there is little alignment between the projects and “resource” scheduling. That creates contention for people and the need to use people better.

Without interim releases, customers do change their mind. It’s not possible for requirements to remain static on any project longer than three months. We have data from the past 50 years of projects to tell us this, anecdotal and empirical/research.

Now, the insufficient project reporting is about using cost accounting rather than throughput accounting. I realize I am a lone voice in the wilderness there. But the problem is cost accounting wants us to split people and measure their busy-ness. Instead, we need to measure what the customers want: finished features in software, and incremental deliveries for other kinds of products.

If I have to choose my top challenge, it’s managing the project portfolio. The organization’s strategy drives project selection. And organizations need to rank those projects because there is no point in starting 47 projects when you only have the people for 10 projects.

Here’s a quote you might like: “It doesn’t matter how many projects you start. It matters how many projects you finish, and when.” — Johanna Rothman

Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen is a project leadership coach, trainer and consultant, and the author of ‘The Project Management Coaching Workbook’ and ‘The Power of Project Leadership’.

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I believe that the number one challenge for project managers is to gain buy-in from team members and stakeholders. With that I mean aligning everyone to work towards the same goal and experiencing that people WANT to contribute to the project rather and having to. Many project managers feel that they constantly have to chase team members and stakeholders to get work done. They simply don’t take responsibility for their own contributions.

The way that project managers can get around this challenge is to put much more emphasis on the human aspect of the project rather than seeing it as a plan with lots of tasks that need to be executed by resources. Team members are people with human needs and desires. They are not just resources with the sole purpose of executing a plan. As a coach I help project managers connect better with their teams so that they feel more motivated and responsible for the work they are doing. It’s a question of properly building the team right from the beginning and to continuously engage and involve the team. Specifically, project managers can have one-2-one conversations with team members about their goals and aspirations and how their skills can be best used on the project. They can also create a team charter where the team collaboratively discusses and defines how they would like to work together and how they will hold each other to account. Planning collaborative is yet a third way in which project managers and engage the team and make them feel more inspired by and bought into the project. 

Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor is the author of the number 1 bestselling project management book ‘The Lazy Project Manager’ and has delivered over 300 lectures around the world in over 25 countries.

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The number 1 challenge is that we are in the age of the accidental project sponsor!

It is said that a project is one small step for a project sponsor and one giant leap for the project manager. Wouldn’t you feel so much better if you knew that the project sponsors’ one small step made sure that your giant leap offered a safe and secure final landing?

There is a lack of personal development, support, sources of information, training and guidance for project sponsors and it is needed urgently I believe. Which is why I launched the ‘Campaign for Real Project Sponsors’ where I hope we will quickly see real investment in anyone who acts in such a key role.

Researching the book ‘Strategies for Project Sponsorship,’ myself and my fellows authors found that 85% of companies had sponsors, 100% of companies thought that having good sponsors was important, and yet 83% of organisations surveyed did absolutely nothing to help their sponsors! Madness!

A recent organization I worked with recognized this issue and took an interesting approach by scheduling a lunch with project managers and project sponsors to meet, mix, mingle and to discover ways to make sponsorship more effective inside their organization. It was a brave decision led by the PMO, but it worked. Through some structured and yet open conversations (led by some key statistics from outside expert sources, such as Gartner, KPMG and PMI), the discussion flowed and a small number of actions were agreed on to move the needle on professional sponsorship.  It had the added advantage of the project managers appreciating the challenges sponsors faced in being ‘sponsors’. Time will tell if this works, but it was a great start and one that many other companies could well consider.

Bert Heymans

Bert Heymans is a professional project manager at PHPro with experience in leading web production projects, digital marketing, social media projects and a strong background in software development.

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From your list, there is absolutely contention for limited resources. Almost everywhere I’ve worked I see that efforts are wasted on resource allocation disagreements. Every department or team has a tendency to compete for the most experienced people, and in many ways that’s natural, everybody wants their project to succeed. However, if the distribution of skills gets skewed the company will suffer as a whole. It leads to overallocation of resources and panic switching, resulting in lowered throughput and unhappy customers. So definitely, people competing over resources without having a clear view of what the effects are is very toxic and certainly a challenge for many professionals. 

On a particularly complex project, we were faced with a situation that required someone on our team with very unique skills. He was very high in demand in the project management team because he was good at about anything else too. He got pulled off projects pretty often to work on emergencies and had to do a lot of context switching. We were growing too dependent on his skills and he wasn’t getting work done anymore, which caused a total gridlock. We fixed this by installing a few policies for planning Fred (not his real name). He was never to work alone on a task or small project anymore and he was only allowed to work on 2 projects at a time (or at least we tried to only plan him on 2 projects). This worked really well.

Bruce Harpham

Bruce Harpham, PMP, is the founder of Project Management Hacks career consultancy.  In 2016, TimeCamp named him as one of the top 123 Top Influencers in the Project Management Industry.

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Managing expectations about budgets and schedule. The root cause often lies in two points: ineffective estimation at the start or poor project governance regarding changes.

The challenge on budgets happens all the time. I can think of a change where a project change request went through to an external vendor. The vendor immediately put the change into production because it was important to meet a deadline. However, this rush to achieve good customer service came at a cost – there was no effective discussion with the business on the cost for the change. Project managers need to push to be clear and transparent on cost issues. If they do not understand their costs, how can they answer questions from executives? 

Erik van Hurck

Erik van Hurck is a senior PPM consultant at Projectum, the Microsoft partner of the years 2015 and 2017 for Project and portfolio management.

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What I believe to be the #1 challenge in Project Management is inaccurate or insufficient project reporting. Why?

If reporting isn’t good or is completely lacking, it’s like a ship without a captain (or a blind one at least). If you don’t know what course you should take, there’s no way you get to the right spot, right?

Basically every time I do a training course for the tools Microsoft Project or Project Online. The trainees want to know how to effectively tell their managers about the status of the project. They will only be able to do this with good, clean reporting and communication. I’ve given a number of examples of good project reports on my blog you might like to look into.

Kiron Bondale

Kiron D. Bondale, PMP, PMI-ACP, PMI-RMP, CDAP, CDAI is a trainer, trusted advisor and speaker with over 20 years of project management experience.

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One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen project managers struggle with is an inability to tailor their project management approach and discipline to the context, culture and needs of a given project. Without appropriate tailoring, either too much or too little effort gets expended, resulting in increased delivery risk or increased costs and team member frustration. Experienced project managers understand how to adapt their organization’s standards and methodologies, as well as their individual leadership approach, to fit a project’s specific context.

In my last job, I was responsible for my organization’s enterprise project management standards. Our EPMO had frequently received complaints from our project managers and other stakeholders that our standards were “too heavy” and were primarily using total project investment to determine what practices and level of governance was applicable. We undertook an initiative to incorporate an assessment of complexity using objective criteria into the equation, which resulted in teams having to complete fewer required documents in most cases.

Andy Claughton

Andy is a project management consultant and trainer, and helps organizations to deliver their projects on time, in full, with lower risk.

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I believe that resourcing is the number one challenge facing project managers and team members. The first 3 bulletpoints on your list are all shades of the same issue, in my view. Project team workers often have conflicting priorities, across multiple projects or within the same project, and they naturally procrastinate whilst trying to decide what to do next. They will then often pick something easy and/or enjoyable to do, which is probably not the most critical thing for the project. This is human nature. Also, multitasking, which is nowadays usually seen as a valuable skill, actually slows progress on all projects, and burns up resource as individuals flit from one task to another. In so doing they drive inefficiency by ramping up and down on each task, and make slow progress. But look at them, or ask what they have achieved, and the illusion of productivity will be observed.

I struggle to think of an occasion when this challenge was successfully dealt with. One situation which springs to mind is when I was leading a major project, and there was a sister project involving some of the same resources which was due to launch sooner than my project. Although both projects were critical to the success of the company, senior R&D management made clear that the other project had priority, as it was launching sooner. This helped enormously when resource conflicts occurred, but we still needed to manage the situation closely so that non-critical tasks on the first project didn’t slow down critical tasks on the second.

What would you say is the biggest challenge in project management?

Share your thoughts and questions for our experts in the comment section below.  For more information, check out the “2017 Project Management Software Trends” report for an in depth look at the top challenges leading professionals experience in project management, as well as other interesting data points related to working in the field.

Thank you to all of the experts who participated in this roundup.  Your experience and insights are invaluable to our team and readers!

Interested in more Mavenlink content?

Check out our recent ebook, Project Management

SOS: How to Rescue an At-Risk Project

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