7 Common Project Management Problems (And How to Solve Them)

Feb 4 2011 by James Clear | 26 Comments

It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you can’t manage your projects, then you will struggle to achieve success.

To help you avoid that undesirable outcome, here are seven project management problems that designers and developers often face, as well as how to deal with them when they arise.

1. Your Client Gives You Vague, Ever-changing Requirements

Fickle clients can be a huge hassle. If a client doesn’t know what they want until a certain stage is complete, then schedule those decision points into the project as milestones. It is important to have a clear path mapped out from start to finish because it forces the client to be specific with their requirements, as well as keeping the project on track.

Be clear at the outset about what your task is going to be on the project and how much leeway is available. If you will need to be compensated for big revisions or changes in direction, then set a clear outline about the number of adjustments you can make before you need to charge more. If you can, quantify these adjustments with a number; it makes it much easier to keep track of things.

2. Your Client is Slow with Communication

People are busy, but it’s tough for you to move forward on a project if you can never get answers from the person you’re working with.

The good news is that you will drastically increase your response rate if you do a little bit of work ahead of time. Instead of waiting for the back-and-forth discourse to finally take place, simply start moving in the direction that you think is best and then seek verification. This strategy makes it easy for your client to quickly say yes (or no).

Here is an example:

Hi Mark,

Last time we spoke, you mentioned that we needed to make a decision on task X. I went ahead and started doing Y since that sounded best based on our previous discussion. If you’re happy with that, I can move forward and we can review the progress as scheduled on Friday.

Sound good?

- John

The beauty of this framework is that it shifts the client’s mindset from, "What decision am I going to make?" to "Should I say Yes or No?" Saying yes or no is much easier than thinking up a new solution (which, as the hired professional, should be our job).

Additionally, you will get a response much faster because there is now a time constraint on the work. If they like what you’re doing, then they will give you the go-ahead. If they don’t, then they know that they need to get back to you right away because, otherwise, things will be moving in the wrong direction.

However, it’s very important to use sound judgment. Obviously, you won’t be able to work ahead and then ask for approval on all aspects of the project, especially those that will cost a lot of time and resources to update should the client say no. That said, you’ll be surprised how much quicker things get done by making it easy for your clients to say, "Yes."

3. The Project Doesn’t Start On Time

Maybe you had a slow go of it last month, but now, you’re swamped. You know you need to take on the work when you can get it, but now you’re worried that you won’t be able to start all of your projects on time as you promised. Or perhaps your client says you’re a top priority — but tomorrow a different project becomes more important.

If the hold up is on your end, then it’s important that you do something to jump-start the project — even if it’s in a really small way. Give the client a call to discuss their expectations and set a more realistic timeframe for the first milestone. This could take as little as a few minutes, but it makes the client feel like things have started. However, beware of doing this more than once. That’s known as stringing the client along — they don’t take that too well, and for good reason.

If the hold up is on their end, then you need to communicate very clearly how that alters things moving forward. Be sure to let them know exactly how this change affects the completion dates of future milestones and you should check the revised schedule against other commitments with other projects.

4. You Try to Manage Every Project the Same Way

There has never been a project that has the same circumstance, requirements, and needs as another project. Situations, people, and goals change over time.

Instead of squeezing every project into the same template, spend some time crafting milestones specific to the needs of each project. Every job requires specific milestones that meet the schedules of all parties involved. Resist using the standard "2 weeks until X" type of thinking.

To put it simply, your schedule changes all the time, right? That means the way you plan your projects needs to change as well.

5. The Client Doesn’t Like What You Created

If this happens often, then there is a communication issue that needs to be addressed. Make sure you understand not just the technical requirements of a project, but also the underlying rationale of your clients. Why did they decide to do this in the first place? What are they hoping your work will enable them to do when all is said and done? How do they see your project fitting in with their overall strategic vision?

Good project managers create a shared vision between all parties. It’s your responsibility to understand the direction of your particular project as well as the overall strategy of your client — and then to make sure those two items match up.

6. Your Point of Contact Doesn’t Seem to Care About Your Project

Working on a project that isn’t high on a client’s priority list can be frustrating.  In some cases, the person responsible for communicating with you has little to no interest in your project. The completed product will have no direct effect on their job, they are hard to ask questions to, even harder to get answers from, and they provide minimal guidance.

This issue is best solved ahead of time.

When screening potential clients, do your best to find out if the contact person has a vested interest in the project. Pay attention to their awareness about potential problems or risks you could run into, their level of urgency when scheduling this project in their calendar, and their desire to communicate with you quickly and consistently from the beginning. If they brush these issues to the side, then it is worth your time to talk with someone else and establish a second point of contact before deciding whether to take on the project or to avoid the project all together.

7. Too Much Time is Spent Solving Problems After Projects Are "Live"

There are bound to be a few bugs here and there, but this is a classic problem caused by focusing too much on production, and not enough on testing. If this continually becomes an issue, then there are two possible solutions.

First, schedule in more time to test your projects from the start. Double your typical testing time if needed. Yes, it will stretch your schedule further, but in the long run, it will save you from the countless little problems that prevent your days from being productive.

Second, if your ongoing issues are a result of clients constantly wanting you to tweak something here and there, then you need to be clearer about what you do and don’t provide with your services. When you set guidelines with a client at the beginning of a project, you need to state very clearly that your work ends after the final product is created and handed off. This can be avoided by outlining boundaries at the beginning of a project that explicitly state that additional service after delivery will cost extra.

Putting It All Together

There are literally countless reasons a project can run into issues, but the vast majority of them can be solved with clear and frequent communication.

While it is easy to point blame in the direction of your client, it is your responsibility to consistently initiate contact and keep the line of communication open. This is about more than just talking to your client. Consistent communication is only created by active effort on your end. It doesn’t just happen naturally.

One excellent practice you can implement right away is to send your client a progress report every Friday. This could be a full report or just a short email. You should detail what you accomplished this week and what you plan to do the next week. Do this every week, whether your client asks for it or not.  Not only does this practice solve problems before they become too big, it will also make your clients love you.

Further Reading on Project Management Problems

What are some project management problems you have faced? How did you solve them? Share with us in the comments!

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About the Author

James Clear is the founder of Passive Panda, a site about earning more money, more time, and more freedom. Join Passive Panda’s Free Newsletter on Earning More to receive the 7-part Freelancing 101 Course and proven tips for earning more. Connect with Passive Panda on Facebook.

26 Comments

Vivek Parmar

February 4th, 2011

When you are working on a project and client does not contribute to you or do not offer his 100% commitment then it becomes hard to work on that project

Mark @ Alchemy United

February 4th, 2011

For me the key is commitment and willingness to participate. That is, either a client is or he/she isn’t. If there’s an expectation that you’re somehow going to channel their vision without then just back off. It has been my experience that having patience and waiting for their epiphany is ultimately going to yield the best results.

It’s also important to be sensitive to expectations and setting precedent. If you over-accommodate (in the name of moving forward) to the point of enabling them (to not commit and not participate) then that’s not good either. For example, in #2 I’m not so sure making it easy for them to make a decision is going to yield the best decision. But it’s the best decision that’s going to prevent #5, right?

Let’s face it, we’ve all gotten to the finish line only to hear, “But this isn’t really what I wanted.” Ironically, those are often the most time/resource consuming, eh? Rare is the client who will admit to subverting their own project. I don’t want to come off as negative—just realistic—but the fact is they’re going to point their finger elsewhere. And I think we all know where that is.

Cheryl Ellemberg

February 4th, 2011

Great article! It is so difficult when you face these challenges. Practice and experience helps. I love that you pointed out the problem and the solution. This is often how I look at the situation. Thanks for posting!

a_blogger

February 4th, 2011

I believe that quite a few of the problems we encounter in the projects can be solved with better communication skills, as you outline in your article, as well as with good people skills – adapting your style to the other’s is crucial in reaching a common understanding – http://projectmanager1.blogspot.com/2010/10/project-management-needs-people.html

Thomas Romel

February 4th, 2011

A lot of problems also arise out of software being used, i.e. a variety of different applications that don’t integrate. When there’s a lack of integration, there’s often a lack of workflow, and the chance for errors when crossing information over to new systems.

One way to prevent this is through consolidation, i.e. getting an application that combines more aspects necessary to the business at once. WORKetc is an example of this, combining project management tools with other business management tools to save users time and money.

James Clear

February 4th, 2011

Mark and Thomas – You both raise really good points.

@Mark – I don’t think you’re being negative, but rather very practical about it. Setting a precedent is huge in managing expectations moving forward on a project. You need to draw the line before you start projects and make it clear what is part of the package and what isn’t. In the end, I think the best way to prevent the issues you raise is to determine high-maintenance clients beforehand and avoid them.

@Thomas – You’re right, software integration is a very big issue. I considering covering that topic, but it could be an article of its own. In any case, your point is well-taken.

Thanks for the comments. I hope the article was useful!

Anthony

February 4th, 2011

great article! and good points! :)

Brian

February 5th, 2011

Yea client communication is one of the biggest problems. Even when you work it like that stated above you get those clients that are never happy and want you to change task A three times. Then all the way at task C they ask you to change A again. Over and Over again. I love working with businesses instead of individuals.

Donnell Harmon

February 5th, 2011

Thank you for the post. I agree that client communication causes a large portion of the project management problems.

Ash Menon

February 6th, 2011

I think a lot of clients (and I’m speaking from personal experience as well) don’t understand the amount and quality of involvement required from them during a project. It’s not as simple as “press button for instant logo”, even though we’d all LOVE for it to be that way.

Burhanuddin

February 6th, 2011

We should be in contact with our clients. Its not that the work is given so will talk on the last date when the work is to be presented.

Keep healthy relation :)

Daniel Raymond

February 7th, 2011

Point #1 is the best: the client always change their mind. Always bill your clients for each hour you work for them, do not charge on a contract basis. This way, you’ll not be upset about working for nothing or for redo the same thing 10 times.

I think the best way to better manage projects is stoping using Excel spreadsheet. Start using an online collaboration tool like aceproject.com to get back the control of your projects.

Oncle Tom

February 8th, 2011

« You Try to Manage Every Project the Same Way » : isn’t that what we call « industrialization » ?

raybak

February 9th, 2011

the biggest issue I face is that clients are slow to respond and when the come back with a response they tell me that need it ASAP.

Susan

February 21st, 2011

From our own experience, it’s very important for the team to know which goals the members have to achieve and when. We use a project management tool called Doolphy (http://www.doolphy.com)to make it easier. We can’t work without it!

Jesse

February 23rd, 2011

In my experience, being straightforward and honest from the beginning is always the best way to go. Stick to your contracts and you should be fine. Don’t be afraid to crack the whip if you’re not getting the responses you’re looking for and don’t get upset if you can’t please every need.

Felipe

March 3rd, 2011

I think a lot of the issues listed in the article can be avoided by careful planning at the beggining of the project.

Sit down with the client, figure out his aims and objectives; set all milestones and put together a realistic project timeplan, then write a brief with all that information in and get that signed off by the client before you do any work…

This will ensure that, among other things, you are working with realistic timeframes and is certain of what your deliverables are; it will also help the client know what to expect and when as well as when you will need them to be available for any feedback for instance.

Doing some planning before you commence any work is essential to a project’s success!

PM Hut

March 9th, 2011

#1 is pretty common in software projects, clients simply do not know what they want, and usually it is the project manager’s responsibility to show them the light.

Mohammed Ali

April 12th, 2011

CPM

Sandeep

August 11th, 2011

#1 – Yes this is very true. I’ve experienced that many times. Clients cannot make up their mind regarding tasks and projects so it’s always better to make clear milestones of the projects. This will help you regarding #2. If your clients are really slow in communicating, make a list of tasks to work on and ask clients as to which is prioritized. This will keep you going from tasks.

Also, problems can be minimized with a good project management software.

Ramprasad Srinivasan

August 13th, 2011

A succinct list of issues that could be faced.

Sandeep, I agree with what you say and also with Jesse. But then there are certain clients whom you get stuck to but realise later that nothing is going to work.

As a freelancer, quitting a job in between is sometimes difficult. A client can potentially spoil the reputation you have built up over the years with a few bad words about you (even if it is their original mistake like #1 or #2). This is a very tricky line and early management is the only solution I would think.

Gideon

October 2nd, 2011

Hi James. This is an excellent article and i intend to use it in my coursework. Can you please send me a full reference. Many Thanks. Gideon

Ravi Sharma

October 5th, 2011

First one is very critical and important. I used a part of your article in my report.. Thanks

Pankaj

October 21st, 2011

I can relate to the blog post. I have often been on the “whiny client” side of the equation.

Rami

November 16th, 2011

Mr.clear i would like to thank you for your great article it might help me through my college work.
many thanks

The Grumpy Project Manager

November 29th, 2011

Hi. Good points in this post. I would emphasise having proper scope and change management practices to overcome these problems.
One problem I have identified in addition is to have several ‘clients’ on the client side. There are different people requiring different things expecting that they can use ‘voice guided project navigation’; project team jumps to do different things according to loudest voice. Again here it comes down to having proper project management practices, which also note the maturity of the client. IT Projects succeed often. IT bustles fail often.
Regards, Grumpy L:^|]

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