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Five key challenges project leaders face

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Project managers are constantly facing challenges that threaten the success of the projects they lead and the teams that they manage. My list of those challenges based on over 20 years of leading tech projects is never-ending, but I’ve narrowed it down to five for the purpose of this blog. As you read, please consider your own challenges to share and discuss.

Financial management/budgeting. Managing 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. 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 project manager, the best thing you can do is ensure that the budget is closely monitored; that it is in the project team’s, and the customers’, faces at every status meeting. This can be part of the weekly status report and meeting discussion or as a separate weekly report.

Lack of project manager involvement during the sales process. I’ve not hidden in any of my posts that this is critical in my opinion. I’ve witnessed first-hand what can happen 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 kick-off meeting being forced to worry about damage control before the engagement has even begun. For example, one place I led projects sold an out-of-the-box tech solution that project teams would configure to fit the needs of the client organisation and processes they were changing and using the solution for. Once the business analyst and I began functional design with the client it became obvious the client lacked the necessary knowledge of solution to help us match requirements with the needed functionality. The bigger problem was that the client had been sold a software license that didn’t include any training. I worked a scenario for a trainer to come onsite to bring the customer up to speed – at no cost to the customer. It set the project back a couple of weeks, but once the training was over the requirements session was more productive. Had I or the business analyst been involved in the sales process, that scenario – including “free” training would not have been necessary.

Unrealistic schedule expectations. This can sometimes be another pitfall of the lack of project manager involvement in the sales process as mentioned above, or it can be the result of the account manager not being technical enough to adequately understand how to map out high level requirements and ask the right questions to get to a real estimate and price. Many customer expectations are set during the sale and usually an initial project schedule is drawn up and included in the sales documents. I 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 kick-off 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 statement announcing the project and 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. 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.

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 a while to let the customer know you’re not dropping the ball on them. A smooth transition rather than a sudden one will sit much better with the customer and your executive leadership will usually agree with that approach.

Summary / call for input

That’s my list; at least that’s my list for today. How about our readers? What are some of the key challenges you’ve faced on your projects? What do you consider to be major challenges that project managers often face on their projects that threaten project success?

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  1. Scott Crittell
    Scott Crittell 22 August 2019, 03:08 PM

    Thanks Brad, Many of these ring true in my experience. I would expand on the resource to include that often you may need to direct an the PM a number of the clients own staff who are embedded in the project. Often these staff are not project experienced, know each other but not you and see you unsurprisingly as transient for the project whereas they are not. Your project may not succeed without them and failure to bring them into the team will result in unwanted feedback within the client business that will travel upwards. I haven't found a magic solution here other than patience. You need to find identify the key individuals and work to bring them into the fold. This means spending time selling yourself to them so they trust you and feel you are adding value. This doesn't come easy but once achieved it means that message will fan out and you will get positive traction rather than finding a knife in your back.

  2. Lynda Rawsthorne
    Lynda Rawsthorne 01 September 2019, 05:50 PM

    Agree with those identified but would add changing scope, just when you have your project plan complete the client wants to be make another small change... it is challenging getting over the impact that shifting sands can have especially if you have already bought a contractor on board...