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Common Challenges Project Managers Face

By Rick Cusolito

Regardless of your experience as a project manager, projects will consistently challenge your ability to use a little art, a little science, and a little sleight of hand. This article lists some of the top project management challenges, along with suggested solutions.

1. Unrealistic deadlines - Many project managers lament the fact that they are assigned projects and given deadlines. Of course, there are absolute deadlines for projects such as regulatory compliance or marketing events, but many dates are tied to factors unrelated to a project's scope (i.e., end of quarter, budget cycle, boss's vacation).

For projects that do not have "absolute" time constraints, there are ways to manage the schedule. First, manage the stress of the project deadline and the project issues with creative planning, alternatives analysis, and communication of reality to the project stakeholders. Then, determine what deadlines are tied to higher-level objectives, and establish links to schedules of other projects in the organization.

2. Scope changes - One of the rules of project management is that change is inevitable. What does not have to be inevitable is uncontrolled change, also known as scope creep. Project managers should analyze each request and then communicate the impact of each change and the alternatives, if any exist. You can't eliminate change, but you can make your stakeholders understand how the change affects the schedule, cost, scope, and quality of the project.

3. Failure to manage risk - Many project plans have a list of risks, but no further analysis or planning happens unless triggered by an adverse event during project execution. Once a project team has defined the risks, team members can attempt to determine the probability and impact of the occurrence for each risk. At that point, they can either act to avoid the risk through alternatives analysis, reduce the probability and/or impact with mitigation strategies, or plan a response to the risk event after it happens.

4. Insufficient team skills - To quote a colleague, "Availability is not a skill." Unfortunately, the busiest people also tend to be the most highly skilled. Finding out that a team member is incompetent can be very difficult since most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

First, do not blame the worker, who is probably trying to do what's right. Chances are he or she was not given the proper training or direction to be effective in his or her position. Second, starting with the project manager role, document the core set of skills needed to accomplish the expected workload and honestly compare each person's skills against your list. Using this assessment of the team, project managers can guide the team toward competency with training, cross-training, additional resources, external advisors, and other methods to close the skills gap.

5. Customers and end users are not engaged during the project - Project teams become so focused on internal deliverables, deadlines, and processes that external stakeholders are not given input during critical phases. Planning status meetings that will be attended by customers and end users keeps them informed. Using these meetings as forums for information gathering will help ensure that the final product will meet the expectations of all your important stakeholders.

6. Vision and goals are not well-defined- Goals of a project (and the business needs being fulfilled) are not always clearly defined. Communicating these vague goals to the project participants becomes an impossible task. Overcoming vagueness is particularly difficult when the project manager has also been given unclear instruction.

Here are some possibilities. Determine which parts of a project are not understood by the team and other project participants and ask them for feedback or note feedback and questions that come up. Check the project documentation as prepared and tighten up the stated objectives and goals. Each project is, ideally, tied into the direction, strategic goals, and vision for the whole organization, as part of the portfolio of projects for the organization.

There are an infinite number of reasons why projects are challenged, but the solutions always seem to come back to one thing: good communication, which brings us to . . .

7. Ineffective communication - Thanks to technology advancement, there is no shortage of information flow. The problem is that we do not provide the right information to the right people, partly because our organizations do not cultivate good communication and partly because we don't know what and who are "right." To solve this, determine the communication, "whom," "what," "when," and "how," for each project. Find (or create) some templates for agendas, minutes, reports, and plans, and reuse them on every project. The outcome of each project is unique, but good communication should become a habit.

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