3 Common Project Collaboration Challenges and How to Avoid Them

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Avoid these project collaboration pitfalls to improve not just team effectiveness but client satisfaction as well.

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At its most basic level, project collaboration is when two or more people work together to achieve a common goal. It seems simple enough, right?

In theory, yes; in execution, it almost never is. Why is that, though? You’d think after years of working in teams at school and at work, we’d all be aces at collaboration. So what’s the deal?

The truth is we’re not as good at collaborating as we think we are. We assume someone knows what we’re talking about without checking for understanding, or we get excited and skip a few steps and then have to backtrack.

And more often than not, we don’t have the right tools for the job and spend far too long “making do.”

At best, collaboration challenges cost us a few days. At worst, they can result in budget or schedule overruns that may cost us the project, tanking team effectiveness and client satisfaction along the way.

To help you avoid a similar fate, let’s look at three of the most common collaboration challenges people face on projects and solutions for how you can overcome them.

How to overcome 3 common project collaboration challenges

To create this list, we researched common collaboration pitfalls and reached out to project leaders to learn their best practices for overcoming these issues.

1. Poor communication

Miscommunication, misinterpretation, misunderstanding: Every time we collaborate with someone else, there’s potential for one or more of these mishaps to occur.

Here’s why: Similar to how we overestimate our ability to collaborate effectively, we tend to be overconfident in our communication skills as well.

We assume that everyone is on the same page, so we don’t take the time to check for understanding. Or, we presume people have the same knowledge or perspective as we do, so we leave out contextual details. Or, maybe (but hopefully not) we view communication as one-sided and don’t seek buy-in from stakeholders.

In our research, we’ve learned that inadequate or poor communication is the No. 1 challenge faced by project teams. And Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report found that only 13% of employees strongly agree that leadership communicates effectively with the rest of the organization.

 THE SOLUTION: 

Check for understanding by engaging in two-way communication. Communication involves listening and adjusting as well as telling.

Breakdowns in communication almost always stem from the sender assuming that the message was received accurately and failing to seek feedback from the receiver. However, responsibility also falls on the receiver to ask questions if they aren’t clear on or if they have concerns about the message they received.

Gartner recommends the following approach for effective communication in the workplace. (Full report available to Gartner clients.)

  • Share multiple times through multiple methods (i.e., over-communicate). Convey the “what,” “why,” and “how” in your message.
  • Listen. Check for understanding. Ask for feedback, answer questions, and confirm that everyone is on the same page.
  • Adapt the plan and/or the approach as needed based on the feedback received.

Dary Merckens headshot

Case story


Dary Merckens, CTO of Gunner Technology, shares his story about poor communication and how the company overcame this project collaboration challenge:

“In the past we would lose a ton of time because a client wasn’t communicating clearly, or we weren’t understanding what they were asking for, or (usually) both.

We overcame this by prioritizing fast and clear communication. This means responding quickly to questions or requests, and also checking for understanding so everyone is on the same page.

Secondly, we started tracking everything. Good project management software is a must, and you have to capture all relevant information in the tool (we use Redmine to track everything). Anything that’s said that needs to be remembered should go in the software. Human memory is too fallible.”

2. Lack of proper planning

Every work effort, big or small, requires planning. This helps create a shared vision for everyone involved, which is essential for smooth collaboration.

If you skip this step—or if you think you can figure out the details as you go—you’re setting yourself, your team, and the project up for failure.

Lack of proper planning leads to miscommunication, misunderstandings around what people’s roles and responsibilities are, and conflicting priorities (about the project goals, about level of effort, about how to prioritize this initiative alongside other work, etc.).

Particularly if the initiative involves working with other teams or departments, you need to plan accordingly so managers know how to help their employees prioritize this initiative along with other ongoing work.

 THE SOLUTION: 

Do not start any work effort until you conduct a kickoff meeting to align on the following:

  • Objectives/goal: What are we trying to achieve or what problem are we trying to solve?
  • Scope, timeline, budget/resources: What tangible or intangible product or service do we expect this to deliver, and what work needs to be done to do so? How long will it take, how much will it cost, and what resources (i.e., people, roles, skills, departments, etc.), are needed?
  • Success criteria: How will we measure the success or failure of this work effort?
  • Stakeholders: Who are the stakeholders in this work effort? What is their role, level of involvement, level of influence, etc.?
  • Standardized process: What process or workflow will this initiative follow? What tool(s) will we use to communicate, collaborate, and track our progress?
  • Internal and external dependencies: What conditions or bottlenecks may impact the scope, timeline, and budget/resources of this initiative? For example, other ongoing projects, bandwidth of key resources, upcoming holidays or vacations, working with vendors/clients, etc.

Sandeep Kashyap headshot

Case story


Sandeep Kashyap, founder and CEO at ProofHub, shares his story of poor project planning and how the company overcame this collaboration challenge:

“The biggest collaboration challenge for us was not having a single source of truth. Sometimes, the designers would create a design, but the content team would not find it up to the mark for the message being conveyed.

They were not following a common vision. Both teams were getting instructions from different sources.The design team was not aligned with what the content team was actually aiming for. And this happened in other departments too.

So we created ProofHub. It became our central location for all our project-related discussions, files, and proofing. Now, all team members provide their input and reach one valuable common ground before they start working.”

3. Not using the right tools

Email, spreadsheets, carrier pigeons— these are the wrong tools to use for collaboration. For starters, these tools don’t bring people together. Instead, they keep information and individuals extremely siloed.

They also contribute to miscommunication (e.g., long email threads thanks to “reply all,” or forgetting to hit “reply all” and leaving people out of the loop) and they don’t provide workload visibility.

Basically, they’re just messy (pigeons especially).

Consider this: The No. 1 pain point that leads first-time buyers to purchase project management software is the need to improve transparency and accountability, followed closely by the need to improve collaboration and break down silos.

 THE SOLUTION: 

First, invest in the right tools, then create a communication plan for using them.

Here’s what we recommend to find the right tool:

  • Evaluate your needs. What pain points exist with your current tool(s)?
  • Identify your must-have versus nice-to-have features.
  • Create a short list of products based on functionality and team requirements (you can use our directory and filter the product list by specific features you’re looking for).
  • Have end users demo products and score them based on your tool requirements.
  • Invest in the solution that best fits your needs.

The second part to this solution is creating (and enforcing) a communication plan and tool hierarchy.

What does this mean? Well, for example, you’re never going to get rid of email. But you can create rules around how it’s used.

This means that if someone emails you about a project, ask that they transfer their question to your shared tool so all project-related communication is stored in the same place. Save email for non-urgent or non-project related communication.

David White headshot

Case story


David White, senior project manager at Best Response Media, shares his story of not having the right tools and how the company overcame this collaboration challenge:

“One of the main challenges we faced was the barriers for people, especially remote teams, to communicate and share small pieces of information quickly and often.

To overcome this issue, we started using Slack company-wide, and also with our clients. Quick questions could be asked and answered in minutes instead of waiting for the next stand-up or sending email after email.

Once fully implemented, we saw wireframing, design, and development times shrink by almost 10%. We also saw client satisfaction ratings rise considerably. They felt more engaged in the process and perceived us to be more responsive to their needs.”

Additional resources for project leaders

If you want to learn more about improving project collaboration, here are some additional articles on that topic:

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About the Author

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Eileen O'Loughlin

Eileen O’Loughlin is a Senior Project Management Analyst for Capterra. Her research helps small businesses leverage the latest technology and trends to solve key business challenges and achieve strategic goals. Her work has been cited in various publications, including CIO.com, ProjectManagement.com, ProjectsAtWork and DevOps Digest.

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