The challenges with project management

Navigating the complex nature of project management can be difficult. Typically a project management process follows the cycle of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the work of a team to achieve a particular outcome. Projects running late, problems that cannot be solved or running over budget can all be a project manager's nightmare. When organisations implement strategies, a project manager must have the skills to carry them out. However, sometimes even the most forward-thinking strategies fail. According to the Project Management Institute report less than half of organizations report high alignment of projects to the overall long term strategy. When projects do not align with the overall strategy of the organisation, the outcome can be costly for the company, sometimes to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Challenge one: Communication

Effective communication serves as the bedrock of business. It is a core competency for project management that, when properly executed, connects every member of a project to a common set of strategies, goals and actions. When communication is ineffective, misunderstandings proliferate, the outcome is jeopardised and risk is incurred. Research conducted by Forbes, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Tower Watson indicates that organisations are well aware of the impact communication has on projects and subsequent business success.

However, according to PMI’s in-depth study of the role of communications in project management, for every billion dollars spent, 135 million dollars are at risk due to ineffective communication. Organizations cannot execute initiatives unless they can effectively communicate their alignment with overall strategy and business benefits. Effective communication leads to more successful projects, allowing organizations to become high performers (completing an average of 80 percent of projects on time, on budget and meeting original goals). These organizations risk 14 times fewer dollars than their low-performing counterparts who demonstrate ineffective communication.

Yet successful communication, both inside and outside the organization, remains a rarity. Most project inefficiency comes down to difficulty in communicating with appropriate clarity and detail. Pulse findings reveal that 63 percent of business owners and 60 percent of executive teams perceive themselves as communicating strategic alignment and business benefits effectively. However, only 43 percent of employees and project managers agree with that assessment.

Organizations have difficulty communicating with the appropriate levels of clarity and necessary detail. This difficulty is likely to be exacerbated by the divide between key stakeholders and their managers. Project managers and their teams must effectively communicate how the project will deliver results and learn/teach the language of business. To bridge the communication gap, the evidence indicates that organisations can help everyone learn to communicate effectively.

For all communication, the medium must be as strong and clear as the message. Some prefer lengthy emails filled with spreadsheet attachments, while others prefer simple text. To streamline the information-collection process, executives should work with project managers during the initial planning phase to define their preferred communication style, frequency and format.

When du Telecom, a UAE telecommunication company, partnered with organizations in China, India and Qatar to launch a global connectivity program in 2013, it was vital that nothing was lost in translation. That meant adapting to the norms of the different cultures. First dates had to be hashed out. India has a lot of public holidays, compared to the Middle East and scheduling them into the calendar ensured smooth runnings of the operation. In the United Arab Emirates and Qatar it is traditional to take Friday and Saturday off. Scheduling meetings during the mid-week overlap solved the challenge in the beginning, until the company faced an unplanned crisis.

An undersea cable was cut near Italy, which subsequently slowed down network data transmissions across all of Africa and the Middle East. The project had contingency plans to switch to a backup network in India. However, the fault occurred during an Indian public holiday. No one was available at the partner company. To keep all channels of communications open, the project managers immediately organised a high level meeting: All key stakeholders were informed that the company had its highest executives working on the problem.

It took a day but the du Telecom team eventually got through to the Indian team to make the switch. Despite the delay, the client made no formal complaints. The executives at du Telecom realised that by keeping the channels of communication open to key stakeholders, they deterred any complaints and challenges were resolved quickly.

Challenge two: Inadequate skills for the project

Projects outcomes come down to the effectiveness of people: From the CEO to the project team member, the portfolio of talent determines the success or failure of the assignment.  In 2012 IBM sought to understand what made key projects successful and it was found that 71 percent of CEOs said they saw human capital as a key source of sustained results. Organisations must ensure that their project managers have the appropriate skills and technical prowess, as well as the leadership, strategic and business management skills necessary to get the project done.

Building a talent portfolio that is aligned with the strategic objectives of the project means that the right people are on the right task at the right time. Executives who have the ability to weave talent management into the fabric of the project enjoy more success than those who do not. Organisations in which talent management is aligned to organizational strategy have a project success rate of 72%, versus 58% for those who don’t make sure of this.

Effective talent management leads to satisfied employees, and more importantly, better project results. Employees who were the most committed to a project gave 57% more effort and were 87% percent less likely to resign. NASA has seen a direct correlation between talent management and the success of their projects.

NASA’s talent management program involves four phases, with a focus on hands-on experience supplemented by training. Employees typically begin their careers as part of a project management team, bringing their expertise and experience to support a larger project. This process serves as an early testing ground of employee capabilities and learnings. If the team member is successful at this stage, they then move onto bigger projects or become project leaders themselves.

At any time, a team member can request assistance for a project via an online assessment and a three-day workshop tailored to that team's requirements. According to a NASA spokesperson, they didn’t always realise the importance of having a support structure in place. The academy brings project management experts into functioning teams to help them identify problems and iron out challenges, thus improving the overall performance on the project. It's critical that team members have the expertise readily available because how well teams work together determines the success or failure of a project. Ensuring the correct skills are developed or nurtured from an early stage, helps NASA run successful projects.

Challenge three: Lack of Stakeholder engagement

Stakeholders or “project leaders” are often seen as disconnected executives whose main responsibility is to secure the  project fund and then show face only once the project has come to an end. But an engaged stakeholder - with a vested business interest in the project from kickoff to close - can make the difference between success and failure. According to KPMG's project management survey, most projects fail because of lack of executive and management buy-in. What’s more, according to the PMI Report, 81% of project managers in US government agencies said that strong support from at least one executive stakeholder had a big impact on the project’s success.

Stakeholders’ key responsibilities are: Providing clear direction for the project and how it links with the organisation's overall strategy; securing resources; ensuring the project is on time, on budget and in touch with the overall objectives; providing feedback on status reports and making sure they reach the necessary stakeholders; and, championing the project at an executive level to secure a buy in.

Despite the importance of having active sponsors in the project, 68 percent of companies don't always have an effective stakeholder. In many cases, employees are simply too busy. Often stakeholders have another day job that they must attend to on a daily basis. But the fact that they do not monitor the overall success of the project can be fatal. Key stakeholders can have a big influence on the outcome of the project. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, in which economic fluctuations occur frequently, project stakeholders cannot afford to take a hands off approach.

Looking to improve its retail experience, New Balance, launched a project to develop an application for in store iPads that would make product information readily accessible. The app needed to coincide with the opening of a new store, which meant the deadline was unmovable.

“It was imperative that the sponsor play a key role,” said Jessica Janko Prior, PMP, senior project manager. “The project had absolutely no room to miss these goals. With a tight timeline and the entire project team being dispersed across the country, aligning the team was a challenge”.

At the kickoff meeting, the key stakeholder began by communicating a clear business case for the project, backed by objectives, benefits, contingency plans and training guides to each project manager and his team. Throughout the project, the stakeholder was continually looking at expectations and making sure that they were all aligned with the processes the project team would implement. The stakeholder also made himself accessible to the team throughout the project and attended all project-related meetings to make sure the team saw his commitment. When the project came to a successful close, the sponsor publically recognized the team for a job well done.

The most important role for a stakeholder is to be a project advocate. As such, the stakeholder  must know how to convey the project vision to anybody who can influence the outcome. Another facet is supporting and motivating the project team through the good times and the bad. Stakeholders should not take all of the credit when things go right and they should not allow the project manager and the team to take all of the blame if things go wrong. What's more, stakeholders should have consistent interaction with team members, including at project team meetings. Not only will that help sponsors stay on top of the project's progress, but it will also demonstrate to the team that the organization is invested in the project.

Solution: Impraise

Project management is a difficult process, with many facets affecting the overall outcome. To ensure projects have the highest chance of success, organisations must turn to project managers to deliver results. Investing in skilled project managers improve project efficiencies, lowers the costs of the overall project and creates a sustainable competitive advantage. Project management skills include communication, leadership and team management. From stakeholder to operations managers, it’s essential that challenges are dealt with in an efficient and effective manner. Platforms, such as Impraise, allow organisations to create both upward and downward communication. Impraise is a tool that allows employees to give feedback on a continuous basis. At any point throughout the project duration, both managers and employees can solicit feedback. As stated above, it’s also essential to identify the skills needed for the project. By implementing feedback tools, companies can assess exactly where their key skills lie for each project, and subsequently assign key team members. What’s more, companies can easily see which skills are necessary and either implement training programs, or bring other employees onboard to assist the project.

Photo Credit: Lloyd Chapman