The Definitive List of Project Management Challenges (And How to Solve Them)

project management challenges

Project managers frequently juggle multiple priorities and manage challenges like delays, unexpected events, or cost overruns to bring projects to completion. This guide covers the most common project and process management challenges PMs face and discusses how each challenge can be solved without negatively impacting priorities. 

Each challenge will include an example of how it may manifest in the real world and give actionable tips and tactics to skillfully navigate each issue and overcome the challenge.

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11 common project management challenges

As a PM, you’ve likely experienced some iteration of these challenges listed below at one point or another in your career. Whether these are new or consistent project pain points, learn how you can rise to the occasion and resolve each challenge with minimal impact, delay, and cost.

1. Communication

We all know how important communication is to collaborate and complete any project successfully, but how often do we really focus on establishing proper communication systems to ensure teams are set up for success?

When members of your team, vendors, or stakeholders fail to communicate and make their issues known as fast as possible, small problems with quick resolutions can rapidly snowball into larger issues which can potentially derail entire projects.

Example of poor communication

You’re working on a project with a strict deadline and one of your suppliers fails to inform you the lead time for your primary component has just increased by several months. This leaves you in a time-sensitive bind that requires additional time and money to solve. 

The solution

The most effective solution to communication challenges is establishing communication systems and workflows from the beginning. You can also implement various tools and software to make communicating with your team more straightforward.

2. Scope creep

The scope of a project is essential to understanding what needs to be accomplished, how, why, and when. It defines project requirements and specifications, and serves as a framework for budgeting and allocating resources.

But when a client reaches out and tells you they want several additional features added as soon as possible to an already defined scope, this scope creep can complicate the project, budget, and resources.

Example of scope creep

You’ve started working on a project and defined all your requirements and specifications, plus you’ve already budgeted and allocated resources for the task. Then, one of your clients or stakeholders changes the requirements, decides to add additional details, or makes ad hoc requests throughout the project. This is an example of scope creep.

The solution

You can prevent scope creep from interrupting your next project by ensuring all of your specifications are written down and documented in your current contract or project agreement. Furthermore, project managers can define additional costs incurred to clients for extra features they wish to add to the current project. This forces them to think twice and only add to the scope if it’s truly required.

3. Budget restrictions

An unlimited budget would solve many project management problems, but unfortunately, this usually isn’t the case. Depending on the size of your budget, this project management challenge can either be a blessing or a curse, so it’s important to understand how to navigate budgets of all sizes.

Example of a limited budget challenge

Your company only allocated a certain amount of money to the project you’re managing, and you’re faced with ensuring the resources you need will fit within that budget. This can limit your capabilities and make it more challenging to achieve optimal results within your project’s means.

The solution

When faced with a budget restriction, you should first verify that you will be able to complete the project with the amount allocated to you. If the budget allocation is unrealistic or impossible, you should always inform the client or stakeholder to make them aware as soon as possible. 

Another solution is finding ways to minimize project costs whenever possible. For example, rather than outsourcing certain elements, bring them in-house to reduce spending. Or, if a specific product or material is needed, source for alternatives that are less costly but don’t affect the quality required. 

4. Skill gaps

Teams are made of various skills, talents, and experiences. While this is beneficial to getting projects done, it can also be a challenge to balance and manage if certain skillsets are lacking. Project managers must be able to navigate skill gaps and have a plan to backfill when possible.

Example of skill gaps

If no one on the team can backfill a position or role when an essential member of the team goes on vacation or takes a sick day, then that team member’s absence can derail a critical project schedule.

The solution

Sit down with your team and map out everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. Go over the list of required resources and skills to ensure there are enough people with complementary skills who can backfill and assist one another regularly. If a gap is found, either train members of your team to be able to fill that role or hire additional personnel.

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5. Lack of resources

Whether it’s because of poor planning or lack of insight, sometimes your project isn’t given enough resources to complete the task at hand successfully. 

Example of lacking resources

The team responsible for putting together a new widget doesn’t have all of the resources they need to complete the design on time, the timeline of that project will undoubtedly run into problems further down the line and delay the product’s rollout or approval.

The solution

Before starting a project, always take the time to ensure you have all of the resources you need to complete a project. Schedule a kick-off call with both clients and internal teams to establish what or who is needed in order to successfully complete a project, and whether budget restrictions may affect those needs. 

6. Unclear goals and objectives

Clarity is essential, especially for complex projects with hundreds or even thousands of moving parts.

Example of unclear goals

If your client or stakeholder is unclear about the vision they have for their project or effectively communicating their needs or wants, they’ll undoubtedly be dissatisfied with your work. 

The solution

It’s essential to establish clear goals and objectives. When starting work on a project, take some time at the start to read back the requirements and specifications your client or stakeholder asked for and confirm that you (and them) understand their goals correctly. If possible, build in formal check-ins with clients to ensure that goals and objectives are being met as the project develops. 

7. Risk management

Unexpected or worst-case scenarios can occur. But if you don’t plan for them or understand how to minimize risks associated with your project, they can lead to significant delays and obstacles.

Example of poor risk management

One of the most challenging aspects of project management is trying to map out and plan contingencies from the beginning. Imagine an engineering firm building a power plant without accounting for a seismic fault line or flood zone. If these risks aren’t managed and discussed initially, your project can end with catastrophic results.

The solution

When a new project is started, you and your team should get together and think through every possible worst-case scenario that could go wrong. If you don’t have a plan for each of these scenarios, you’ll be out of luck if they do occur. Establish better risk management practices by having a response workflow and a working system for identifying and planning for contingencies. 

8. Planning errors and unrealistic expectations

When we plan, we envision a perfect project scenario where everything goes exactly as planned — but that’s hardly ever the reality. Unrealistic expectations and planning are common project management pitfalls that most people don’t catch until it is far too late. 

Example of unrealistic expectations

You want to build a new networking center for a branch of your company but realize the area you’re building in cannot accommodate fast internet speeds without a significant rework of infrastructure, therefore the plan and budget were unrealistic from the beginning.

The solution

Unrealistic expectations and planning errors can be resolved by soliciting feedback from your peers and conducting reviews or consultations with subject matter experts. You don’t know what you don’t know, and asking someone with the proper experience and insight for advice can potentially save your project further down the line.

9. Workflow management

No matter how much planning goes into it, sometimes the workflows and systems designed and mapped out for a project don’t lead to the intended results. 

Example of challenging workflow management

If a manufacturing plant has an automated assembly line designed and installed for the first time, they might not know precisely where potential blockages could be that require human intervention. People would have to step in and monitor this workflow and process until it reaches a smooth, fully automated level of functioning.

Or, if a process that’s designed to streamline client review results in delays rather than speedy approvals, then it’s a sign to reassess or redesign the process to resolve the delays. 

The solution

The solution to workflow challenges is carefully watching new systems right after implementation and fixing any issues that crop up immediately. By doing so, you’ll be able to overcome workflow issues and ensure your processes are working as smoothly as possible. 

A workflow management tool, like a low-code automation solution, can help you easily identify problem areas, resolve workflow or process bottlenecks, keep on top of key performance metrics, and integrate existing processes or tech seamlessly.

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10. Ambiguous contingency planning

When your team has the foresight to plan for contingency and scenarios that could go wrong, don’t make the mistake of not communicating or documenting the plan clearly and in detail. The goal here is to minimize risk or damage when plans take a turn. 

Example of ambiguous contingencies

A project manager has walked their team through the worst-case scenarios of an upcoming product launch, but failed to document and share the contingency plan. While everyone was clear on what to do when plans go off script, the team struggles to resolve an issue in the moment because they can’t recall the plan. This increases the chance of mistakes and increases project risk. 

The solution

Ambiguous contingency planning can be solved by ensuring your contingency plans and any related documentation are rigorously reviewed by your team and easily executed by someone who isn’t intimately familiar with the project. If someone with no knowledge of the project can easily execute your contingency plan, then it is in good shape. 

Consider using a project or process management tool with document portals so that this information is easily accessible by anyone on your team.

11. Competing priorities

Juggling multiple priorities is a typical occurrence in the life of a project manager, but what if it gets to a point where priorities conflict and collide?

Example of competing priorities

A project manager realizes they have to finish talking to vendors to resolve a delay with critical parts and simultaneously has to train a brand new team on operations and execution. Both priorities are critical to the project’s success, and a delay in either derails the deadline.

The solution

When competing priorities seemingly collide, the best action is to reach out for help and delegate. If delegation to another is impossible, you need to open up a conversation with the client or stakeholder immediately and ask if they have the necessary resources to help you.

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