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Projects are unpredictable even in the best circumstances, and come with a whole host of project management challenges you'll have run into at least once (but likely more than once).

Whether your projects are always running over budget or getting derailed by project risks you didn't account for, there are some common solves for these challenges that will make them easier to manage (one of which is implementing project management software).

Most Common Project Management Challenges

Here are the most common challenges that project managers are facing as they get into the nitty-gritty of their projects. 

Throughout this article, you’ll see references to a recent survey, which was conducted in 2020 and asked respondents what their biggest challenge at the time was. Not all the challenges covered here were included in that survey.

1. Conflict Within The Project Team

Conflict within the project team might be driven by, as some respondents to our survey noted, toxic climates or clashing personalities, as well as a lack of accountability within the project team, which also discourages collaboration and teamwork.

When teams are experiencing poor communication or miscommunication issues and are not collaborating at the appropriate level, this can result in project failure.

According to the Harvard Business Review, 39% of conflicts are caused by communication differences, and 22% are caused by unclear expectations.

Effective communication and setting expectations are two key areas that project managers are responsible for, meaning they can reduce the risk of conflict occurring at all (as well as using conflict resolution tactics when it does arise).

How To Overcome It

  • Get specific training in project leadership and conflict resolution, which can provide tools for approaching conflict and other less-than-ideal scenarios. 
  • Establish a clear hierarchy, SMART project goals and project objectives, and a system of accountability. Set up regular check-ins with team members, and hold them accountable to deadlines and quality standards.
  • Implement proven tactics to increase psychological safety. This ensures team members feel heard and respected, which helps reduce conflict.

2. Limited Resource Availability

Project managers struggle to allocate resources to their projects, especially when projects are running concurrently and teams are split between competing priorities.

byu/beachbabe74 from discussion

While some of this can be solved by a proper project planning phase, it also comes down to the project budget. Smaller budget projects often have fewer dedicated resources, even though they may have a scope of work that requires more resources.

How To Overcome It

  • Familiarize yourself with key resource management tactics like resource leveling and resource smoothing. Both can help balance resource loads amongst team members, but use resource smoothing when you have a hard deadline that can’t be changed. 
  • Improve your resource forecasting capabilities. The farther in advance you know what resources you’ll need, the earlier you can book them out, ensuring you have everyone you need.
  • Use resource management software. This is the easiest way to change assignments around, monitor the team’s capacity and workload, and estimate what resources you actually need.
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3. Lack of Training or Project Management Skills

Project managers are often dropped into the role without any formal training (although that tends to come later) or the project management skills, technical skills, or soft skill set that would set them up for success.

Several respondents to our survey noted a lack of confidence as being their biggest challenge, and three responses, in particular, noted being new to project management. One respondent noted they were “having trouble expanding [their] skills from basic managing to managing small scale projects.”

How To Overcome It

4. Lack of Clear Processes

Many respondents to our survey noted that their biggest project management challenge was with processes, whether specific project processes or company processes. Several responses noted that their organization was lacking workflows and that it fell to project managers to create and implement them.

Others were frustrated by a lack of others following established processes.

byu/wookiedaywalker from discussion

How To Overcome It

  • Use templates when creating process documents. This will save you time and confusion, as you can simply edit an existing process document instead of creating one from scratch. You can create templates from your existing documents, or there’s plenty of free and paid templates out there that can provide a starting point. 
  • Create a change management committee to roll out new processes and changes to existing processes. Include team members from different departments so everyone can have their say and buy-in to the new process.

5. Staying In Scope

Several respondents said that scope was their biggest challenge: specifically staying in project scope, avoiding scope creep, and managing last-minute changes to scope. Scope creep mostly comes from clients (“I was just hoping…” “One more idea…”) but it can also come from team members who really want to impress. 

One response noted the waterfall effect that scope changes have and the ensuing stakeholder management that occurs when scope changes require changes to the project schedule or budget as well.

How To Overcome It

  • Refer back to the statement of work and/or project scope statement. If a client asks for something not outlined in either of those documents, refer them back to the document to take a look. 
  • Implement a change request process. If a client wants a feature that wasn’t originally scoped, for example, fill out a change request that outlines the implications that creating that feature will have on the budget, timeline, and resources on the project. They might review the change request and decide not to proceed, but if they do, you can then adjust the project timeline or budget as appropriate.

6. Lack of Visibility on Progress

Project managers often complain about being unaware of project delays or issues until it’s too late, as well as not having visibility into how much work has been completed in relation to how much budget and time have been spent. 

Not to mention, without a proper reporting solution in place, the process of tracking down this information is a huge time-suck: 

by from discussion

How To Overcome It

  • Use project management software. It allows you to create dashboards for tracking metrics like how much budget has been used, what each resource’s capacity is like, and what percentage of a task or milestone is complete. It will also allow you to see what other projects your team members are working on, so you can assess priorities and adjust as needed. 
  • Calculate earned value. This is a metric that assigns a dollar value to your project progress, so you can directly compare the amount of time that’s been spent vs the budget that’s been spent. 
  • Check in with your team members regularly. Hold regular one-on-ones to get the full picture of their workload, any blockers or challenges they are coming up against, and how you might be able to better support them. 

7. Managing People Who Don't Directly Report To You

Project managers often aren’t the direct managers of the team members that are working on their projects.

They don’t necessarily have authority over their schedule, their working hours, what process they follow, or how they work. This can lead to conflicts between the project manager and team, between project managers and other managers, or conflicts between different team members. 

How To Overcome It

  • Build a good rapport with your team members, so they feel like they can come to you with concerns about their workload. Getting to know someone as a person will make it easier to have difficult conversations with them. 
  • Set up regular (weekly, biweekly, etc.) meetings for all managers (project and otherwise) to discuss priorities and ensure alignment so that team members aren’t hearing different things from different people, which can cause frustration and confusion. 
  • Ask open-ended questions to team members about their workloads or preferences, and avoid leading or condescending questions.

8. Competing Priorities

Orgs have lots of projects on the go, and the resources that those projects require can be scarce, as discussed above. Team members are often spread pretty thin, which can reduce morale and motivation. Not to mention, project managers are often spread thin themselves between multiple projects with different levels of priority.

This sums it up pretty well: 

by from discussion

How To Overcome It

  • Implement task management software and project management tools or apps. These can help you keep an eye on what your team members are working on and what other projects and tasks are assigned to them. 
  • Create a prioritization matrix and categorize tasks by how important or urgent they are, and cut anything that’s both unimportant and not urgent. 
  • Learn how to delegate. While project managers are accountable for work getting done, they don’t necessarily need to be the ones doing it. Get the team involved in brainstorming risk management tactics or contingency plans.

9. Getting Accurate Estimates

Estimating the amount of time that a task will take, and therefore how much budget it will use, is always a struggle for both project managers and team members.

Project managers aren’t the ones doing the work, and team members can be hesitant to commit to a specific amount of time, especially if they don’t have all the information, which is sometimes the case.

How To Overcome It

  • Use estimation techniques like analogous estimation, parametric estimation, or three-point estimation. Analogous estimation uses data from previous projects, and parametric estimation takes specific variables from similar projects and applies them to the parameters of the current project. Three-point estimation takes the average of the best case scenario, the worst case scenario, and the most likely scenario.
  • Use our project estimate template (available through DPM membership). Access our template and checklist to make sure you’re presenting the most accurate possible estimate to clients. 

10. Lack of Communication

When team members aren’t communicating to each other, or project stakeholders aren’t providing the right information or approvals to keep the project moving forward, the potential risk of project failure becomes more likely.

byu/wookiedaywalker from discussion

How To Overcome It

  • Create a clear communication plan. This outlines how the project team, project manager, and stakeholders will exchange information throughout the project. Include what channels you’ll use and how often you’ll communicate, as well as how often you’ll have check-in meetings (whether in-person or over the phone). 
  • Hold a proper project kickoff, as well as a pre-kickoff meeting between yourself and the client. This will help to build rapport, so you can communicate well throughout the rest of the project, and will set expectations for the level and frequency of communication throughout the project. 

11. Teams Working In Silos

When team members are working in their own little worlds and feedback loops are non-existent, the quality of work suffers, work gets duplicated, and it’s not clear who is responsible for what.

This ultimately causes a lot of frustration amongst the project team and for stakeholders, lowering morale and motivation, and disengaging the team from the work. 

How To Overcome It

  • Implement a RACI chart. This clarifies who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed on particular project tasks and deliverables. Fill in the chart strategically to reduce silos and make sure that the team members in the “consulted” role are the right people to be giving feedback.
  • Establish a feedback loop. This includes getting feedback on the work itself, but project managers should always be asking for feedback on processes, blockers, and how the project as a whole is going as well. The more you improve processes and find ways to break down silos, the more morale and the quality of work will improve.

What's Next?

For help with effective project management and solving these and other common project management challenges, sign up for our membership community and join the conversation in Slack with 100s of other digital project managers.

Nuala Turner
By Nuala Turner

Nuala is the Editor of The Digital Project Manager. Her background is in content strategy, content production, and managing projects. She brings a strong editorial eye and a passion for connecting with experts in the field and teasing out their stories, as well as ensuring digital project managers are winning at work and smashing projects out of the park.