Robert Burns’ poem To a Mouse tells the story of a man who accidentally destroys a field mouse’s nest, yielding the legendary quote “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
In other words, no matter how carefully you plan, plans change.
To a project manager, this concept is more than just a saying; it’s a mantra that they use to approach project management challenges.
While there are countless forces beyond our control that could delay (if not derail) a project entirely (say, for example, a global pandemic), projects that succeed do so by identifying potential project management challenges and proactively avoiding them.
That’s why it’s important to have a framework of practices around projects to prevent issues before they arise, as well as deal with inevitable changes that are ultimately unavoidable.
This article will help you build this framework of best practices based on common mistakes and hurdles to ensure that challenges in project management (short of a large-scale catastrophe) don’t make your project flounder.
5 most common project management challenges & their SMART solutions
If we were to pull up a list of all the possible project management challenges, we would be out of words. The greater your understanding of project management, the more potential difficulties you will discover.
So here, we have included the five most common challenges in project management and their smart solutions:
1. Unclear scope & objectives
There are a lot of risks in project management. So you need to plan properly. Projects can only succeed when their purpose is clear from the outset.
Unclear objectives lead to project uncertainties — including the time, costs and efforts required.
It seems extremely intuitive to define a project’s goals before getting started, yet it remains one of the most common project management challenges that ultimately cause projects to fail since they had no clear way to define success.
How to create an impactful scope
Like goals, scopes operate best when they’re clear and attainable.
Whether you’re building a product, running a campaign, implementing a solution, or something entirely different, successful projects are built around scopes that are:
- Specific in their details.
- Measurable in the outcome.
- Attainable in breadth.
- Relevant to the goals of the project.
We love a good acronym! SMART is an effective lens through which you can access your project’s scope. If there are critical details missing from the outset, don’t assume that those details will reveal themselves once you’ve kicked off the project.
A great way to ensure that everyone is in lockstep of project requirements and goals is to build your scope as a document inside of your project (as Nifty allows you to do).
Collaborating on a scope within your project management solution makes sure everyone has input, reducing questions and uncertainty once the project starts while making the scope readily available for review.
Once the scope is thoroughly reviewed and approved, all project members' expectations of project goals and deliverables will be aligned as the project moves forward.
2. Inability to manage scope creep & project changes
As mentioned at the outset, no matter how effectively you plan or how thorough your scope is, your project will probably deviate from the original timeline.
This happens for a lot of reasons. Maybe a client wants to change or add content to the scope, or discovery during the project process leads to more work than you thought.
No matter the cause of this project management challenge, a framework that manages the unexpected will dramatically increase your project’s chances for success.
How to project and communicate project changes
Change management has two key parts:
- Taking in the change based on the details we have.
- Communicating the result of the change to project stakeholders.
If either is done inadequately (or not at all), communication and expectations can suffer.
While some projects will emphasize the cost more than others, virtually all project parties will want to understand how the change impacts project timelines.
Made popular by Scrum teams (though used by companies of all kinds), Story Points are a predictive tool to show how long a task will take.
By assigning the number of days, teams can then predict how many days have been added to the project based on the change.
However, project change isn’t a challenge in agile project management alone; pretty much every industry will find that their projects go off schedule. That’s why it’s helpful to visually represent the project’s timeline.
The easiest way to convey project timelines is with a handy Project Roadmap.
In this case, you break out project phases into milestones and indicate the completion percentage by the number of completed tasks.
Adding tasks to a milestone and shifting a Milestone’s deadline (which can then shift other milestone and task deadlines if you set dependencies) will impact the timeline and deadlines of the project accordingly in a visual, easy-to-read format.
The strategic roadmap’s updated timeline and milestones’ completion percentages show how the change impacted the project timeline and progress. You can use this to align on the new trajectory and expectations.
In short? Project roadmaps lead you to success!
3. Lack of clear accountability
Accountability issues are almost always due to a lack of clarity.
Create clear assignments while providing feedback and clarification channels to make sure everyone completes steps on time.
This accountability extends to all project stakeholders, not just team members.
Often, you need key documentation or assets to ensure that the project can proceed on schedule — so stakeholders should also invest in communication.
How to create clear accountability
Nifty’s solution for this accountability is the My Work screen that all project collaborators have access to upon opening the solution, whether on a browser, desktop, or mobile.
For your team, this will aggregate all the tasks assigned to them across all the projects they’re a part of. That way, they can focus on completing assignments without needing to search for their duties throughout the platform.
External stakeholders collaborating as a guest within the project will also have their own My Work screen to refer to, so they can find materials or approvals necessary to keep the project moving.
Make sure to also align on accountability by confirming how project members should plan to communicate.
4. Scattered or undisciplined communication
From project kickoff to completion, everyone needs to communicate. Note that success is hinged on communication effectiveness — not the amount.
We’ve all been to a meeting where a lot is spoken, but little is said. Time is precious!
How to create a communication guide
A communication framework is extremely helpful and should include:
- How assignments are given.
- How clarification is sought out.
- How feedback and approvals are managed.
- How reports, updates and changes are delivered.
Done correctly, these core parts of project communication will generate a project knowledge base on its own. Done poorly, and your project manager will be spending hours playing catch-up.
A communication guide can help you address the above items with a defined process:
- Assignments, clarifications, feedback, approvals: Handled in Task Comments.
- Extemporaneous project updates: Refer to Roadmap.
- Planned progress reports: Conducted in project Discussions Monday 9am.
With this framework in place, everyone has a standardized procedure for communication, updates and reports on the project as it unfolds.
Communication outside of the intended channels can quickly snowball into quite the challenge with scattered feedback, so stay disciplined with project communication.
5. Lack of skill set & bandwidth
Teams juggling multiple projects can run into a resource crunch, especially when they have few, highly skilled personnel who are critical for a specific phase within a project.
As one of the biggest challenges in project management, this obstacle can be particularly frustrating. Changes to another project within your organization can suddenly cut into your progress, even if your project was sailing smoothly.
While some teams solve this with a dedicated resource scheduling solution, this creates a tech stack challenge if updates to their assignments in their project management solution don’t reflect in their schedule (or vice versa).
In addition, now you’re looking at an additional software subscription, as you use one solution to manage your projects and another to manage resources.
How to manage resources across projects
There are two powerful ways to support this, and they both involve finding the right tools.
For example, are you struggling to get team members up to speed? Are your SMES stacked with meeting after meeting?
Scribe is a process documentation tool that makes it easier than ever to turn any workflow into a step-by-step guide. That means your SMEs can create visual instructions seconds, and turn the rest of your team into experts.
Just turn on the Scribe extension and run through your process — Scribe does the work for you! And with Pages, you can combine Scribes with video, images and more.
The next solution? A project management tool that has an integrated Workloads feature. This can help you filter your employees by skillset or other custom tagging so you can identify resource bandwidth and schedule intelligently without hindering other projects in the process.
You can also align the skill levels with the task at hand.
Using less-senior resources on non-intensive tasks is a great way to ensure that these items go with the appropriate skillset and keep the senior, highly-skilled resources for more intensive assignments.
You won’t need to delay projects for a time crunch if you better align skill levels with the tasks at hand are secretly one of the largest cost drivers in mismanaged projects.
Plan & prepare for unplanned troubles
Successful project management orbits around control; the more variables you can identify at the outset, the more you can plan to iron out issues before they happen.
But, as we’ve touched on, there’s no way to plan for all of the challenges in project management, which is why it is crucial to have processes in place to adjust your project
Building bulletproof scopes, creating project change processes to generate impacts of the update and providing communication guidelines are just a few ways to template your process for future success.
A project management solution that combines phases and functionality is a major advantage in forging processes. All project collaborators can refer to a single place for anything on the project. And everything gets done on time.
By combining your processes, you can plan – and prepare – for any project management challenges your projects or team may face as they unfold.
Let’s go back to Burns’ poem. It becomes a narrative of reflection and regret as he laments the difficulties and tragedy of existence — but we’ll give it a different take.
Let’s give our field mouse the chance to prepare and win when the plan inevitably goes awry.
Author: Luke Henderson
Luke is a member of the Nifty marketing team and is passionate about all things productivity related. In Luke’s spare time he enjoys hiking skiing and hanging out in the great outdoors. Say him hello on LinkedIn