5 Key Challenges for Project Managers in Services Organizations

This post is from guest contributor Brad Egeland, a leading project management consultant and author. His website, bradegeland.com, is regularly lauded as a top blog for project management, PMO and Agile related topics.

Project management in any environment can be a challenge – there is no doubt about that. But when you’re involved in a professional services organization and working with shared resources and delivering on projects with tight budgets and tight schedule commitments – not to mention likely juggling four, five or even six or more projects at a time – it can get become a very daunting task.

While the list of challenges for project managers is definitely never ending, I’ve created my own ‘Top 5’ list that I’ve encountered over the years of managing projects. They are listed in no particular order of importance, but all can be devastating to your project if not managed well and responded to proactively and appropriately.

An unrealistic schedule

When someone other than the project manager who will be entirely responsible for the eventual implementation creates a draft project schedule for the client, you always run the risk of having an unrealistic initial schedule. Then this schedule goes into the hands of the customer and is eventually handed to the PM with the direction of ‘start with this.’ That’s simply not ok, but it happens all the time. Or executive management forces an unrealistic schedule on the project team in order to meet some arbitrary deadline that should not necessarily be setting an entire project and team up for failure.

I personally walked into an engagement with a major airline after sales had promised them a 90-day implementation. It was apparent during the first two hours of the kickoff meeting that we were up against an impossible task as the customer had not properly defined requirements or business processes in order to make that 90-day implementation even close to possible. But they had submitted a global PR statement to the airline industry announcing the project and the 90-day timeline. Once requirements were properly defined, the engagement began and was successfully implemented – approximately 180 days later. Over budget and outside the timeline – including two weeks over Christmas spent onsite with the airline customer – and I…and my delivery team…took most of the hit. It was certainly not the most enjoyable project I ever worked on.

No PM involvement at the time of customer engagement

As mentioned above this can be an issue and allow for the improper setting of expectations. This is always one of my personal pet peeves. The project manager who is handed a project without any upfront involvement in the original customer engagement, estimation and deal closing process may have a lot of work to do just getting the customer ready and expectations reset once the project actually begins. Setting and re-setting customer expectations like that can leave a bad taste in the mouth of a new project customer and it can really get a new project off on the wrong foot. In one particular case I had to actually halt the project and insist that the customer send key individuals for training on our solution. It was the only way we were going to successfully get our hands around their business processes and how those business processes were going to affect the overall requirements for the project.

Reining in the budget

Budget management is a big challenge and something that some project managers just never get good at. You have to be heavy handed with staying on top of project costs and scope creep that can eat through a budget almost undetected. When you find yourself two months from go-live and no money left in the budget to finish of the engagement – that’s when it becomes a real problem. Try telling a customer that you need more money and see how that sits with them. Or try telling your executive management that you will be $80,000 over budget just to finish off the project. The first thing they’ll ask is, “Why are you just now finding this out?!” And that’s a good question.

As the PM, the best thing you can do is ensure that the budget is closely monitored, that it is in the project team’s and the customer’s faces at every status meeting either as part of the weekly status report and meeting discussion or as a separate weekly report. Make a friend in accounting and get updated project actuals every week and reforecast your project budget each and every week.

Rogue project team resources

As project managers, we want the very best talent on our project teams whenever possible. However, I’ve been a developer and I’ve managed teams of developers in a large corporate environment for one of the largest casino gaming organizations in the world. I know that with good development talent comes the potential for much creativity and independent thought. That’s fine as long as it’s done within the context of the requirements as they are laid out for the project. It becomes not ok and potentially devastating for any engagement when developers start to work outside of the guidelines and requirements in order to gold plate their work or to accommodate egos and ‘small’ requests from the project customer they may be working closely with on certain tasks. It’s critical that the PM educate the project team on the critical nature of the requirements and scope for the project and that staying within those guidelines is the only way to keep the project on track financially.

Access to key resources when needed

We all know that good project resources can be hard to come by. They’re even harder to come by if your project is not quite as visible as the next project that just started, but you have a great resource that is wanted by the other project. You’re likely going to have to bow to executive direction to put that key resource on the more visible project and you’re also going to be the one to explain that to your current client and spend the extra time to onboard a new project member. Make the best of it – negotiate additional time for the departing resource to ‘mentor’ the new team member on the project for a few weeks and to remain on the weekly project meetings/calls for a while to let the customer know you’re not dropping the ball on them. A smooth transition rather than a sudden one will site much better with the customer and your executive leadership will usually agree with that approach.

Final thoughts

This is just my ‘Top 5’ as I see it at this moment. Ask me again next week and I may replace one or two of these because the fact is it should probably be a ‘Top 10’ or a ‘Top 20.’ There are just so many critical challenges faced by the project manager and team on any given project that it’s really hard to keep the list small.

What are your key challenges that you’ve faced along the way? What cause you the greatest concerns on your project or have caused you and your team to experience failures at some point. Let’s hear about your experiences and discuss.

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