The year 2020 delivered some pretty unique project management challenges! While you’re managing projects amid the unpredictable events of this year, you’re also managing the changes among your teams, deadlines, budgets, stakeholders, and scopes.
Plus, each organization has its own processes and procedures, as well as different personalities and management styles—the usual project management challenges.
As you have probably experienced, this presents a wide variety of unique project management challenges that can get in the way of a successful project.
Our recently completed project management survey received 396 survey responses, with questions ranging from salary to location to interests in particular areas of project management, such as communication, team management, and best practices.
We also included a question around the biggest challenge faced by project managers.
When we took a deep dive into the resulting data, we found some pretty interesting trends surrounding what project managers consider to be their “biggest” challenge.
Stop right now and guess:
What do you think was the biggest project management challenge of 2020?
In this article
Our Survey Methodology
From our 396 survey responses, we identified a variety of project management challenges ranging from budget challenges to resource challenges to challenges with vendors and service providers.
We categorized responses by challenge type, letting the responses guide the categories.
Here’s the broad categories we ended up with.
- People Problems: The majority of the challenges (27.0%) fell under this category, which included challenges with stakeholders and project team members.
- Project Problems: This category was close behind People Problems at 24.0%, and included challenges with things like budget, deadlines, and resources.
- Other: This category made up 14.9% of responses, and included challenges that didn’t seem to fit into any of the other categories (more on this later).
- Organizational Problems: Responses that fell under this category made up 12.9% of the total responses. This category included change management and other processes, as well as challenges with management and executives, and a misunderstanding of the project management role within the organization.
- Personal Challenges: Responses under this category made up 11.6% of the total responses. It included challenges with an individual project manager’s lack of personal or organization skills, as well as motivation among the team and themselves.
- Mix: This category included all responses that named two or more challenges in their answer. 9.6% of responses fell under this category. More on this category later as well.
Breaking down the categories in this way provided some general insights into the challenges that project managers face. For example, the majority of a project manager’s biggest challenges tend to be either with people involved in the project, or with the project itself.
However, these broad categories don’t provide much insight into the specific kinds of challenges or allow us to get into a nitty-gritty analysis of patterns and trends in challenges. So, we broke our categories down into more granular subcategories (with the exception of the mix and other categories).
Here is the breakdown of our broader categories into subcategories:
Some subcategories are self-explanatory, such as budget and deadlines, while others had more nuance in the way they were categorized.
For example, the resources subcategory included responses that specifically noted a lack of resources, as well as responses that noted a lack of time or team members.
The expectations subcategory covered client expectations, while the management subcategory included things like management expectations and styles.
Third Place: Personal Skills
The Personal Skills subcategory included responses that noted project management challenges around the desire to better one’s skills, including:
Several respondents noted a lack of confidence as their biggest challenge, and three responses, in particular, noted being new to project management.
This is a tricky transition for project managers, as processes that work for them can be harder to follow when there are more projects and less resources.
The same is true of the ever-changing digital space. One respondent noted that “rules and possibilities are evolving and changing so trying to keep up with best practices and capabilities is challenging.”
The takeaway is that project managers need to stay flexible, no matter the type or scale of the digital project they are managing.
Improving one’s personal skills is an ongoing process, one that project managers don’t always have time for between the multiple projects they manage. As busy as project managers are, having time for personal learning in project management training, as well as in soft skills and other skills such as effective communication skills, is critical to one’s continued growth and to project success. This explains why it factored so heavily into responses to our survey.
Plus, it’s always nice to have a bonus or niche skill that you can use to your advantage for the successful completion of projects. Maybe you’re interested in learning agile methodologies or more about Gantt charts.
Second Place: Resources
The Resources subcategory covered project management challenges in:
- allocating resources for projects
- team members being split between competing priorities
- staying productive
- projects running concurrently
A large number of these respondents noted that not having enough time was their biggest challenge. This isn’t surprising in a fast-moving field like project management where burnout is a real struggle for many PMs.
One respondent likened their organization to “a marketing project ER,” and went on to note that while they have set processes in place, they don’t always have the time to follow them while completing project work and deliverables.
As agencies, in particular, tend to be deadline-driven, this is not an unheard-of phenomenon.
This was corroborated by another respondent, who noted that “wearing many hats is the rule” for their agency, with “the challenge being allocating focused time when there are several projects choking bandwidth.”
For large and small organizations, having enough time and resources to complete all projects is a major challenge.
While some of this can be solved by proper project planning, some of this 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.
Some common challenges noted by respondents included finding a good team at all, others noted toxic climates or clashing personalities, and others noted a lack of accountability within the project team in general.
It’s a project manager’s job to lead the team and complete the project on time and on budget, while meeting key performance indicators (KPIs). Keeping team motivation high is also important.
Part of overcoming these challenges comes down to how well-versed in leadership a project manager is, as well as whether there is a clear hierarchy and system of accountability in place.
As one respondent noted, their biggest challenge was “understanding and being consistent with the hierarchy of a project management team.”
They also noted that navigating individual responsibility and accountability within that hierarchy was particularly challenging.
We know that teamwork and collaboration play a huge role in project success. After all, people make projects happen.
When teams are experiencing poor communication or miscommunication issues and are not collaborating at the appropriate level, this can result in project failure.
Closely related to challenges involving the Project Team, challenges around Collaboration were also a common response in our survey.
The critical impact that both project teams and collaboration have on project success likely contributed to the prominence of Project Team challenges in the survey results.
Other Honorable Mentions
Which category of the project management challenges survey had the most responses overall?
The “Other” and “Mix” categories
Many responses did not fit neatly into any of the above categories. The “Other” category included everything from project unknowns to company politics to issues specific to a particular project that the respondent was working on.
There were also many responses that included two or more challenges, which we categorized under the “Mix” category.
Facing so many project management challenges, it can be difficult for project managers to narrow down their biggest challenges to just one. This category included mixes of the categories we identified, as well as challenges that would best fit in the “Other” category.
5.3% of respondents 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 processes and that it fell to project managers to create and implement these processes.
Others were frustrated by a lack of others following established processes.
3.8% of respondents said that scope was their biggest challenge.
One response noted the waterfall effect that scope changes have and the ensuing stakeholder management that occurs when scope changes require budget or timeline changes.
The biggest project management challenges, according to our survey, are challenges with project teams, resources, and personal skills.
While we don’t have enough data to generalize across the board, we did have a substantial number of responses, which has allowed us to note the above trends.
While each challenge faced by a project manager is unique, noticing these trends can help project managers discuss and share solutions, and work together toward project success. Project management software and updates in PM technology can help address some of these challenges, but it’s also critical for project managers to work toward finding the best solution with their team, and come up with a contingency plan to address the unique challenges of their team.
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