10 project management challenges (and how to overcome them)

Projects fail much more often than they ought to — and when they do, inordinate amounts of money are lost. 

Ineffective project management is the main culprit for organizations around the globe collectively losing on average $2 trillion every year. 

These losses are the result of projects falling into the following problems:

  • Taking longer than planned (48%),
  • Overrunning their budgets (43%), or
  • Failing to meet their initial goals (31%). 

And yet, some high-performing organizations manage to successfully complete as much as 89% of their projects — compared to only 36% for low performers. 

What sets these high-performing organizations apart is their ability to adapt and successfully conquer the most significant challenges that trouble projects of all shapes and sizes.

In this blog post, we will: 

  • Talk about the 10 most common project management challenges,
  • Explain how they can affect projects, and 
  • Offer tips on how to overcome them.
10 project management challenges (and how to overcome them) - cover

Most common challenges in project management

Projects consist of many moving parts that have to click together to achieve the desired goal. Even the smallest hiccups can have far-reaching consequences and result in the failure of the project as a whole.

Unfortunately, there’s no telling where or at what point during the project these challenges will manifest. Therefore, it’s wise to keep in mind the most common project management challenges, so you can address them before they can become a problem. 

These challenges are:

  • Poor project estimates,
  • Lack of appropriate project management software,
  • Juggling too many projects at once,
  • Unclear project objectives,
  • Poor communication,
  • Scope creep,
  • Lack of resources,
  • Inadequate sponsor support,
  • Managing expectations, and
  • Insufficient project management training.

Below, we’ll go over each of these challenges and offer some suggestions on how to best tackle them. 

And, you’ll notice one important thing about these challenges — sometimes, overcoming one project management challenge may automatically help you overcome another challenge.

Challenge #1: Poor project estimates

Every project begins with estimates. A large margin of error at this stage could mean that the project is doomed from the start.

There are three major stages where estimates can go wrong:

  • Estimating the feasibility and importance of the project — Project managers are sometimes required to decide which projects are worth taking on and which ones should be scrapped, either due to low priority or poor chances of success.
    • Making the wrong decision at this point could not only mean throwing yourself into the fire by taking on an impossible project, but it could also make your organization lose valuable time and resources.
  • Estimating project baselines — This includes estimating the budget, scope, and project timeline. Poorly estimating one, or all of these three aspects, will:
    • Make it more difficult to measure progress later on — because there will be nothing to measure it against, and
    • Leave you with vastly inadequate resources — likely forcing you to ask for more funds, or an extended deadline further down the road.
  • Estimating deadlines — Even if you do everything right up to this point, you can put both yourself and your team under a lot of pressure by setting unrealistic deadlines. Instead, estimate the right amount of time needed to complete a task by looking at some of the previous projects you’ve worked on.
    • Free project management tools such as Plaky help make this really simple — by allowing you to easily set the beginning and end dates for tasks. You can even see the Activity logs for your tasks — to check when and why changes to dates were made.
Setting start and end dates in Plaky project management software
Setting start and end dates in Plaky project management software

Solution: Ask for help when making estimates

The good news is that there are steps even an inexperienced project manager can take to avoid a catastrophe related to poor project estimates:

Collect all the requirements — It’s impossible to make estimates on how long a project will take or how much it will cost if you don’t first understand what the client wants you to do. 

So, the first step is talking to all the project stakeholders and figuring out exactly what is required of you.

Talk to your team — The good news is that, with a lot of projects, you don’t work alone and don’t have to be an expert at everything. 

Once you have all the information, take it to the people in charge of creating the product. Chances are, that they will have a better understanding of the time and budget needed to complete the project.

Create a work breakdown structure (WBS) — A work breakdown structure is a visual breakdown of the entire project scope into its smaller constituent tasks according to hierarchy.

Work breakdown structure (WBS)
Work breakdown structure (WBS)

Estimating the time and budget for each of these individual tasks and then summing them up will create a much more accurate estimate of the baselines than trying to do it for the project as a whole.

The good news is that a WBS can be represented as a tree diagram, a list, or a table — depending on your preferences — so you can create it using any project management tool of your choice.

Example of a work breakdown structure (WBS) in Plaky
Example of a work breakdown structure (WBS) in Plaky

Learn from the past — Always do your research. Check for records of similar projects done in the past. See what they did well and where they could have done better. Make sure you copy their successes and avoid repeating the same mistakes. 

Challenge #2: Lack of appropriate project management software

According to Wellingtone, the lack of appropriate project management software is among the top ten project management challenges in all the 214 organizations they surveyed. 

This is not surprising — especially in post-pandemic times. 

The shift to remote work has been difficult, but contagious and permanent, according to Upwork’s Future Workforce Report. The report states that an increasing number of professionals are working from home — a number that’s expected to reach 40.7 million (28%) by 2025, in the USA alone.

A higher number of remote workers calls for increased use of project management tools that allow the dispersed workforce to organize and collaborate effectively. 

However, not just any software will do. Opting for the wrong software that doesn’t suit your team’s culture will only complicate things and may lead to enormous monetary losses. 

This is precisely what happened to the German grocery store chain Lidl, which lost €500 million while trying to switch to a different merchandise management software that didn’t suit its business processes — only to revert to its old system a few months later. 

Solution: Get a project management software that fits your team

To avoid situations like these, dedicate the same amount of time and care to choosing the best project management software as you would to choosing a new employee. 

Doing so will bring you a host of benefits, such as:

  • Effective task delegation,
  • A clear overview of the project’s progress,
  • Simplified management of multiple projects,
  • Security and reassurance that comes with ISO 27001, SOC II, and GDPR certifications,
  • Easy onboarding of new employees,
  • Effective deadline management, etc.

All of these things and more, are what you can do in a free project management software such as Plaky.

Delegating tasks in Plaky project management software
Delegating tasks in Plaky project management software

A PM tool doesn’t have to be complicated to yield results. It only needs to match the type of work your team and you are doing. And, when you find the right tool, you too will enjoy the boost in productivity and project success that digital transformation has brought to 61% of organizations worldwide.

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

To find a project management software that suits the needs of your team and industry, check out these lists:

Challenge #3: Juggling too many projects at once

According to some surveys, as many as 59% of project managers juggle 2–5 projects at the same time. But, managing several projects at once requires the project manager to multitask — which always goes awry, one way or another.

Project managers working on multiple projects need to:

  • Keep track of all the resources for each project,
  • Do separate documentation for each project,
  • Manage stakeholders on all fronts, and
  • Oversee the progress and teams on each project — among other things.

This is not something only one person can do without any help — and yet, it happens regularly to most project management professionals across the globe.

Solution: Delegate and prioritize

Projects rarely fail on their own. People fail. 

In his 2010 Recovery Project Management study, Harold Herzner, Ph.D., and Sr. Executive Director for Project Management wonders: “If there are people issues, can people be removed or replaced?” 

The answer is, of course, “yes” — and the best way to do it is to minimize human involvement in areas that don’t require a human touch. In other words, streamline, automate, and organize with digital PM tools, and put smooth-sailing projects on the back burner until the software notifies you of a significant event. 

Notifications in Plaky project management tool
Notifications in Plaky project management tool

While some aspects of the projects will still demand your personal attention, you can set up a system that will work perfectly fine without your constant surveillance. This is especially true if you primarily manage Agile projects, which are known for their effective self-management.

In addition to employing a digital PM tool to help you manage multiple projects at once, a good way to take the load off your shoulders is to prioritize your projects. This way, you’ll avoid being overwhelmed and know exactly which way to turn first when issues start cropping up.

If you’re persuasive enough with executive management, you might even be able to avoid working on low-priority projects altogether until high-priority projects are finished.

Challenge #4: Unclear project objectives

It’s not surprising that having a vague vision of the project goals was voted among the top four reasons (29%) for project failure in a recent PMI survey.

This issue is quite self-explanatory — if you don’t know where you’re going and what you’re trying to achieve, how can you ever expect to achieve it?

Solution: Be SMART and CLEAR about your objectives

Most people agree that project goals should be SMART or CLEAR, or a little bit of both.

SMART goals
SMART goals

The acronym SMART stands for:

  • Specific,
  • Measurable,
  • Attainable,
  • Relevant, and
  • Time-based.
CLEAR goals
CLEAR goals

The acronym CLEAR stands for:

  • Collaborative,
  • Limited,
  • Emotional,
  • Appreciable, and
  • Refinable.

Your exact goals will depend on one of these two things:

  • Your client’s goals or
  • Your organization’s goals.

This will, in turn, primarily depend on whether the project you’re working on is external or internal.

When it comes to external projects, the main source of your project goal is to talk to your clients and/or users. In other words, consult all the key stakeholders and understand their individual objectives until you have a clear understanding of what you’re working toward.

If you’re working on an internal project, your project goal will have to match the organization’s existing business goals and strategies. In this case, you’ll likely be involved in the pre-planning phases of the project along with executive management — to align the two goals.

Challenge #5: Poor communication

Communication in project management can take many forms — and all of them are as important as the next. When performed well, communication can make you feel like you’re on top of everything. 

When done poorly, it can lead to a lot of confusion and costly mistakes — due to:

  • Conflicts within the team,
  • Misaligned project goals,
  • Misinterpretation of roles and responsibilities within the team,
  • Misinterpretation of instructions,
  • Lack of adequate feedback,
  • Lack of a centralized information system, etc.

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

Good communication is the foundation of any successful business relationship. Learn more about why communication is important in project management and how it can boost your chances of success:

Solution: Create a communication plan

According to a recent survey, one of the key reasons gymnastic enterprises did so well during the pandemic was due to fostering open communication, collaboration, and empathic leadership. Through such efforts, they managed to boost transparency and trust, which eventually led to increased project success rates.

This is not easy to do — and it requires two things: 

  • Skilled leadership willing to engage with employees, show empathy, and build trusting relationships, and
  • A clear communication plan that everyone will be able to understand and adhere to.

Once information is available at the tip of your fingers, and everyone is on the same page, miscommunication can never again be used as an excuse for inadequate performance.

Once again, project management software is the perfect tool to help you with this issue. 

Project management tools allow your entire team to:

  • Have access to the same workplace at the same time, 
  • Share ideas, files, and feedback, and
  • Collaborate on projects as if they were sharing the same office.
Project management comment and file sharing section in Plaky
Project management comment and file sharing section in Plaky

Poor communication is probably the most important challenge project managers should learn to overcome — as it is one of the main causes of scope creep.

Challenge #6: Scope creep

Scope creep is a project killer and one of the biggest and most persistent issues project managers face regardless of the size or complexity of their project. 

The causes of scope creep are many and difficult to tackle. Some of the most common causes of scope creep include:

Poor communication with stakeholders — As a project manager, your job is to complete projects in a way that satisfies the stakeholders. But, it’s difficult to do that if they themselves don’t know what they want or what is possible with the resources at hand.

Unless everything is clarified at the beginning of the project, there’s a good chance that they will ask for some fundamental changes to be made once the project is well underway.

Excessive stakeholder involvement — Just as too little communication with stakeholders can cause scope creep, too much of it can also be the source of many headaches.

If there are too many stakeholders and your job is to cater to each of them, but none of them have overlapping objectives, that could pose a serious problem. Each of them will push their own agenda and the project will never get done.

Poor preparation — Under planning is pure foolishness. Thinking that there is no need to prepare and that simply winging it will somehow suffice when it comes to project management will always end badly.

If these issues are not addressed in time, the scope will creep and you and your project team will end up neck-deep in:

  • Overtime,
  • Overrun budgets,
  • Missed deadlines, and
  • Sinking reputation.

Solution: Do your due diligence

Just as there are many causes of scope creep, there are also different ways of attacking the issue, but they all boil down to preparation — knowing where the problems are likely to appear and pulling their roots before they have the chance to grow into something more sinister. 

To minimize the chances of scope creep, you can do the following:

  • Inform the stakeholders of the consequences of making major changes at later stages of the project,
  • Establish a bulletproof plan for managing changes,
  • Clearly define the scope at the beginning of the project,
  • Use one of the more adaptive project management methodologies such as Scrum, Kanban, or Scrumban, and, of course,
  • Always plan for the worst-case scenario.

Challenge #7: Lack of resources

Lack of resources refers to the lack of: 

  • Time, 
  • Budget, and 
  • Workforce to complete a given project. 

It is one of the most discouraging challenges in project management.

A lack of resources can happen for several reasons:

  • Poor initial estimates — We briefly discussed this at the beginning of this text. If you poorly estimate the time, budget, and scope of the project, you will have an inadequate amount of resources from the get-go and will probably have to renegotiate the terms of the project later on.
  • Poor resource management — Even if you start off with enough resources, poor planning and resource allocation will very quickly leave you wondering where all the money and time have disappeared.
  • Poor negotiation skills — Besides impeccable organizational skills, project managers also require a solid set of soft project management skills, and negotiation is one of them.

Good negotiation skills enable you to get exactly what you want into the initial contract. However, a weak presence at the negotiating table means you’ll be given the resources stakeholders decide to give you — instead of the ones you truly need.

Poor negotiation skills will also make it difficult to ask for deadline extensions or budget increases during the project if problems happen to arise.

Solution: Put together a resource management plan

Unfortunately, most of the skills needed to overcome these challenges are gained through experience. 

However, a solid plan can make up for a large part of the shortcomings a project manager might have.

A resource management plan is part of the collection of plans known as the project management plan — and it might be just what you need to put a stop to your poor resource management skills. 

Creating this plan is a time-consuming process, but a worthwhile one. If you wish to try it out you can hop over to our resource project management plan template and give it a go.

Budget tracking in Plaky
Budget tracking in Plaky

Challenge #8: Inadequate sponsor support

According to PMI’s 2018 survey on the causes of project failures linked above, 26% of organizations list inadequate sponsor support as the main cause of their poor project performance. The previously mentioned Wellingtone survey from 2021 shows that this hasn’t changed.

Inadequate sponsor support mainly refers to poorly trained project sponsors who don’t actively participate in projects.

A sponsor’s job is to use their influence to clear the road for project managers. They take care of the business side of the project and perform other work, such as: 

  • Ensuring that the resources arrive on time, 
  • Ensuring that the project is being adequately promoted, and 
  • Covering the majority of interactions with stakeholders.

The project sponsor is the first person a project manager turns to when something goes wrong. 

The lack of an active project sponsor leaves the project manager to juggle all the piling problems on their own. This is why 1 in 4 organizations claim that absent project sponsors are the main reason for their failed projects.

Solution: Reach out

Inadequate sponsor support is probably the most problematic of all project management challenges — simply because it causes many issues the project manager has very little control over.

Sadly, there isn’t much a project manager can do to force a lazy project sponsor to work harder — short of complaining to higher management. But, there are steps they can take to nudge inexperienced project sponsors in the right direction.

The same 2018 PMI survey mentioned above suggests three effective courses of action:

  • Create a culture that supports the relationship between project managers and executive sponsors, 
  • Develop a project roadmap, which includes skills and actions, for the executive sponsor, and 
  • Persuade the organization to provide training for executive sponsors.

That said, for any of this to happen, the organization as a whole must have a culture that understands and values project management.

Challenge #9: Managing expectations

This point refers both to managing client expectations and managing customer expectations.

Clients rarely have the right idea of what goes into managing a project and the logistics of creating the product they are requesting. If not addressed, the client’s high expectations are often crushed and their satisfaction plummets — to the detriment of both your project, reputation, and future business opportunities.

Customers, on the other hand, aren’t the ones to set the expectations in the first place — it’s you, the people who create the products the customers use. 

The customers’ expectations are set mainly through their first impression of your organization. Any deviation from those expectations may cause them to turn away from your brand or reject the newest product.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. There are a couple of great examples of this happening to popular companies such as Pepsi and Levi Strauss

In 1992, Pepsi tried to launch Crystal Pepsi — a completely clear version of their signature drink. The launch, however, was a complete flop due to the drink’s uncharacteristic appearance and slightly different taste than the customers were used to.

Similarly, in 2002, Levi started an expensive campaign to promote their so-called Type 1 jeans with large pockets and exaggerated features. Unfortunately, the product failed immediately upon launch, simply because it didn’t appeal to Levi’s target audience.

Solution: Set expectations and stick to them

To properly manage client expectations, you should keep an open dialogue with them. Do your best to understand what they want, explain to them the limits of your capabilities, and the limits of your available resources — and then, try to find the middle ground. 

Sometimes, what they want will truly be outside both your teams’ and the client’s reach. Other times, all it will take is a higher budget or more time. 

Whatever it is, make sure the clients know it before you begin working on the project and before they conclude your results don’t match their expectations.

Another good idea would be to explain to them the consequences of major mid-project changes — to avoid scope creep.

When it comes to managing customer expectations, the three best things you can do are:

  • Stick to your brand, or
  • Conduct extensive market research if you want to veer from your brand’s established image. 

Also, keep in touch with your audience through marketing.

As you can see, the core solution to successfully managing both client and customer expectations is open communication.

Challenge #10: Insufficient project management training

According to Wellingtone’s 2018 survey, poorly trained project managers were the main issue among the surveyed organizations. Their survey from 2021 shows no change in this worrying statistic. 

In fact, they found that 53% of the surveyed organizations’ projects were not run by professional project managers at all.

The reason for this is simple — people are often confused about what project managers actually do

The profession can seem rather vague — and this comes at a costly price. 

On top of that, people tend to believe that good organizational skills are all you need to run complex projects. 

This is why companies that don’t want to or don’t have the means to hire an experienced and certified project manager opt for an inexperienced one. Worse yet, they hire a random employee who happened to organize a nice company dinner one time.

As is clear from the many challenges on this list, project management is a complex profession, and those who walk into it unprepared will find themselves caught off guard.

Solution: Get professional project management training

The best way to learn to do anything is to gain experience. Good project managers often evolve from assistants or junior project managers — people who have already spent years watching and helping professionals.

Instead of this (or on top of this), you can also get accredited project management training. These are sometimes offered by the organization you work for, or you can apply for them of your own accord.

There are many courses to choose from depending on your industry, experience level, and preferred project management methodology. Each of these also offers a project management certificate that will give you a competitive advantage when job hunting and help you get a better salary.

Conclusion: Overcoming PM challenges is difficult — but not impossible

There is no magic cure or panacea for eliminating challenges from project management. Projects are unpredictable, and sometimes, no amount of planning can prepare you for some of the issues you may encounter. 

The good news is that, just like with any other profession, dealing with these challenges becomes easier once you accumulate some experience. 

But experience can’t be gained in a day — so we hope that this list of tips on how to deal with some of the most common challenges in project management has helped those of you looking for a more immediate solution.

JelenaSamolovac Jelena  Samolovac

Jelena Samolovac is a project management author and researcher with 1.5+ years of experience in tackling project management topics. After a long day of juggling multiple small projects at work, she likes to relax with a casual TV show and a bowl of ramen. Besides content marketing and research on boosting productivity, her latest interests include breaking down complex project management concepts into easily-digestible guides that will aid beginners in getting their first project management certification.