3 Project Management Challenges That Are Killing Your Team’s Productivity (and How to Solve Them!)

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Sometimes, all it takes is one setback. A small, seemingly insignificant challenge comes and goes, but its negative effects reverberate throughout the rest of the project. Before you know it, a run-of-the-mill project management challenge has come to define the entire initiative.

As a project leader, this is a story you know all too well. Left unchecked, small issues can snowball, wreaking havoc on your team’s productivity and wasting time and money in the process.

To help you curb these seemingly innocuous problems before they damage morale, let’s look at the top three challenges project teams face and tips on how you can overcome them.

Top 3 project management challenges faced by project teams

As part of our project management (PM) software user research report survey, we asked respondents about the biggest challenges they experience while working on and/or leading projects.

Here’s what they told us:

chart showing the breakdown of respondent citing the three challenges addressed in article

We asked respondents to expand on these challenges, and explain why they found them particularly difficult. Several responses are quoted below.

For the full methodology for the PM software user report, go here.

Challenge #1: Inadequate/poor communication

“There’s always a problem when there’s a lack of information, but there’s also a problem when there’s too much information going around and things can’t be prioritized.”
-Claims adjuster

“Our greatest challenges come from addressing complex problems with vague guidance. Communication and collaboration are essential under those conditions, but are often lacking.”
-Director of strategy

“The priorities seem to shift depending on which manager you talk to. It leaves the team unsure which way to put our energies.”
-Technician

Why it’s a challenge

Ready for the harsh truth? Gallup found that just 13% of employees strongly agree that leadership communicates effectively with the rest of the organization.

What’s more, a pattern of inadequate communication and inconsistent messaging directly contributes to employee change fatigue, according to Gartner.

As the project leader, you’re responsible for communicating organizational goals, project requirements, and changing priorities to your team. Your team is responsible for completing the tasks assigned to them. When they have to stop working to seek out information and ask for additional clarification or guidance, it eats into the time they have available to actually perform the work.

How to overcome it

Take these three actions to improve communication on your projects:

  1. Align with senior management on a common message before cascading communication throughout your organization, and document that message and the rollout plan so leaders are on the same page.
  2. Remember that effective communication involves listening, not just telling. Create understanding by opening lines of communication and feedback loops throughout the organization—then act on the feedback you receive.
  3. Acknowledge when plans change and admit mistakes. This is essential for building social capital and creating a culture of trust—a hallmark of high performing teams.

How software can help

Use project management (PM) software to centralize documentation and house all project communication. This ensures an audit trail for changes, and increases transparency around task prioritization.


Challenge #2: Inaccurate task time estimates

“Time estimates for tasks are optimistic at best, which puts pressure on my team to complete work that realistically should be budgeted an additional 25-50% more time to complete adequately.”
-Consultant manager

“It’s hard to complete projects on a timeline set by people who are not actively involved in the work it takes to complete the projects. They have unrealistic expectations of how fast a project can be completed.”
-Research associate

“I think this is a pretty common problem in general with human beings. According to the planning fallacy, people tend to underestimate how long projects will take and how much they will cost, regardless of past experience.”
-Systems analyst

Why it’s a challenge

The final quote above is right on target. People tend to underestimate cost, time, and risk while overestimating benefits—even when they have experience to the contrary. When teams and leaders fail to accurately account for the time required to perform various tasks, it leads to project overruns.

Inaccurate task time estimates are often a symptom of a larger issue: Leaders not understanding optimal resource utilization, or the tipping point of productivity.

According to Gartner, there’s a sweet spot between under-utilized and overworked right around the 70-80% utilization mark. Working project teams above 80% utilization reduces employee effectiveness and actually costs your organization time and money.

How to overcome it

For an in-depth dive into Gartner’s insights, head over to our article explaining their research. For a quick summary of our five-step action plan to achieve optimal resource utilization, look no further:

  1. Start tracking time and estimating level of effort
  2. Identify bottleneck resources (roles or skill sets in short supply but high demand, that dictate the flow of work)
  3. Calculate availability for project work and 80% utilization
  4. Institute thresholds for project teams
  5. Plan at 80% and manage at 80% to get 100% of planned work done

How software can help

Take the guesswork out of estimating level of effort and drastically improve the accuracy of task time estimates by investing in time tracking software. If you’re on a budget, check out these top-rated free options that are highly rated by project managers.


Challenge #3: Poor workflow management

“Our company has too many hands in the pot. Without [the ability] to confidently know who has the final say, everyone thinks they have latitude that is not [as] far-reaching as they think. This creates chaos at some points and oftentimes confusion as to who can do what.”
-Assistant manager

“Everyone is so busy with their tasks that there is little time to worry about workflow and communication. … We end up with informal and haphazard workflow and communication, which ends in errors, frustration, and poor results.”
-Web development manager

“To be effective and efficient, there needs to be an order to workflow and open communication that follows set norms. Usually, things start right and then people go off on their own paths and things become muddled.”
-Senior marketing associate

Why it’s a challenge

There’s a growing misconception that planning and processes are mutually exclusive to “getting stuff done.” This has been popularized by the false notion that “being agile” means “no planning” (which couldn’t be further from the truth).

While process-heavy teams can sometimes become too rigid in their approach, the solution isn’t throwing out workflows and processes altogether.

Workflow management is a critical component of planning that makes it easier to manage change when projects deviate from initial plans. Workflows help create transparency and increase accountability as teams know what they’re responsible for, who signed off on it, and where it goes next.

Failing to establish workflows leads to inconsistencies in execution, as well as ineffective communication.

How to overcome it

To paraphrase Eisenhower, “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Here are a few best practices to improve workflow management on your team:

  • During project planning, create a visual workflow of the project timeline, process, and critical path.
  • Identify bottlenecks and leave slack in the system to account for delays.
  • During project execution, use PM software to organize tasks/activities and map out workflow stages so users can immediately see what the status of each task is, who it’s assigned to, and where (and to whom) it goes next.

How software can help

There are various tools you can use to map workflows and a project’s critical path (e.g., Gantt charts), as well as solutions to help automate the steps in your workflow. The latter would include features for workflow configuration, approval process control, and task management.

Additional project management problem areas to keep an eye on

The three issues above are the top challenges faced by project teams, according to survey respondents. But any good project leader knows that fixing these three areas certainly doesn’t cover all your bases.

There’s any number of things to keep an eye on to make sure your team’s productivity isn’t negatively affected, including:

  • Too many meetings (cited as a key challenge by 20% of respondents)
  • Too many emails (cited as a key challenge by 18% of respondents)

Stay on top of these issues by conducting productivity health checks to see how the number of meetings and emails are impacting your team’s ability to get their work done. This check-in can be as simple as a recurring survey to get honest feedback on how effectively project leaders are using meetings and email to communicate with the team.

For more information on optimizing team effectiveness, check out our related research:

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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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