7 ways project managers can anticipate, avoid and mitigate problems

Experts identify the most common (and frustrating) issues project managers must constantly tackle and what steps they can take to avoid or minimize these problems.

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What separates the good, or the great, project managers (PM) from the just so-so? How they handle problems when they arise – and prevent them from derailing deadlines and the budget.

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Her are seven of the biggest (or most common) problems that PMs face, and what good ones can do to anticipate, avoid or mitigate them.

Problem No. 1: Team members not knowing or understanding what their responsibilities are, not owning their part of the project.

How a good PM handles the accountability problem: Good project managers let team members know, up front, who is responsible for what – and clearly lay out expectations.

“Proactively setting up the decision-making structure, including where all the key stakeholders fit in, is critical,” says Tom Treanor, director of Content Marketing & Social Media at Wrike, a provider of project management software.

“One way IT PMs do this is by using a RACI chart where each stakeholder is clearly labeled as one of the following: R = responsible for performing the work of the project, A = accountable for the project results, C = consulted about aspects of the project, or I = informed about the project.”

Problem No. 2: Having key personnel pulled off the project, either temporarily or permanently.

How a good PM handles resource-related issues: “Exceptional IT managers are masters at balancing supply (resources) and demand (break/fix issues alongside the project),” says Liz Pearce, CEO, LiquidPlanner, a project management solution. One way they do this, she says, is by using a “project management system that provides resource visibility and forecasting tools, so PMs can [quickly make decisions, re-allocate resources and] ultimately reduce schedule thrash.”

Another way good project managers deal with team members being pulled in multiple directions? By convincing management that removing a vital team member could delay the project (or worse).

“I know I won't win the fight to keep my best developer [or pick your key team member] without facts,” says Steve Caseley, a project manager and a trainer for CBT Nuggets, an IT certification training company. “So I rework my schedule accordingly and then present the boss with the impact assessment, [explaining] my project will now be two weeks late and over budget by $45,000 due to the loss of subject matter expertise and learning curve [of his replacement].” The result: “This fact-based impact assessment will often be enough to reverse the decision.”

Problem No. 3: Meeting deadlines.

How a good PM deals with (often shifting) deadlines: To avoid missing deadlines, “I assign my team members specific deadlines for their parts of the project – and the dates I give are always much earlier than I actually need [whatever],” says Ashley Schwartau, creative director, Production, The Security Awareness Company. “That way if something needs to be [fixed], there is plenty of time for changes and another review.”

In addition, it helps if you can break the project into manageable chunks, or milestones, with each chunk or milestone “spaced enough to give you time to make changes before final delivery.”

Problem No. 4: Scope creep.

How a good PM deals with scope creep: “Changes affecting requirements almost always stop projects in their tracks,” notes Jun Bucao, PMP, senior project/program manager, HP Technology Services Consulting. “A good PM will need to document the change, validate, assess its impacts, find a solution and have the change request approved before executing the solution,” he says.

“A great PM, however, will do proactive risk and quality management throughout; and not just react to changes,” Bucao argues. “During planning, the PM ensures that all critical stakeholders, e.g., sponsor, SMEs, end-users or other persons of influence, are identified and stayed engaged to minimize surprises and keep future variances at minimum to none.”

“It is important to sit down with both your management team and engineer team every time a new feature is added to scope,” adds Joe Rodichok, IT manager, eZanga, a meta-search engine and online advertising company. “In this discussion a verdict should be reached on if the new feature is vital to the release or if this is a wish list feature that can wait for the next update (chances are it can wait),” he says. “Another potential solution is … to simply come back and say the scope of this project is locked,” he says. “This will be undoubtedly harder to execute …. [But] you need to stand strong and have your points of emphasis and honestly explain why you cannot add to the scope of the project.”

Problem No. 5: Not being aware there is a problem or potential problem.

How a good PM stays on top of potential problems: “A successful PM should have standing weekly [or more frequent] status meetings with team members, to check if everything was achieved as per the timeline; what issues, if any, anybody is facing and remove them; and, if required, re-plan certain tasks,” says Divan Dave, CEO of OmniMD, a leading healthcare IT company.

Another way project managers can easily spot potential problems, and “avoid unnecessary status meetings, [is] by using collaborative task tracking software,” says Ray Grainger, CEO, Mavenlink, which provides online project management software. “Team members whose tasks are updated and on schedule get extra time to get work done, and you can focus your time talking to individuals who are behind schedule, or who aren't reporting their progress.”

Problem No. 6: Managing and collaborating with team members in different locations and time zones.

How a good PM successfully manages a decentralized team: Having a mobile collaboration tool “is a game-changer for IT managers,” says Josh Bauer, assistant director, Network Operations, Acorda Therapeutics. “If someone is mobile, for example, they are limited to the technologies available on their mobile devices. For a long time that meant only basic email access and small file attachments could be shared; no real-time collaboration could occur,” he explains. 

“In [our] case, we saw the problem [inability to efficiently collaborate online], identified the right tool (EMC Syncplicity) and now our employees are able to collaborate better on projects and work as they prefer to, rather than work within any restrictive technical limitations.”

Problem No. 7: Lack of communication, or hostility, among team members.

How a good PM heads off potential hostilities: A good project manager checks in regularly with team members, either by phone or in person, to see how things are going – and if there are any professional or personal issues that could affect the project, which need to be addressed.

“Project management is not just about task management and schedules,” says Jose Canelos, project manager, Program Management, at Centric Digital. “You need to be able to relate to each member of the team [and regularly check in with them]. By doing this, you will gain the team’s trust, and their effort in the project will increase.”

This story, "7 ways project managers can anticipate, avoid and mitigate problems" was originally published by CIO.

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