Work that is unique and temporary requires different management disciplines. Because managing projects have different characteristics than ongoing operations, they pose a brand-new set of challenges. Here are some of the challenges that project managers could face:
- Personnel. Every project has different personnel needs. The number of people needed—and their different skill sets—is different for each project. Some people will be required constantly, while others will be required only periodically. One of the biggest challenges stems from the temporary nature of projects: a new project team has to be assembled at the beginning and then disbanded at the end. Where do these people come from? Where do they go, once they are no longer needed? Managing projects will raise staffing problems if several projects are running simultaneously. If all projects hit their resource peak at the same time, it could place an impossible burden on an organization. And if all the projects should end around the same time, the company may be forced into layoffs.
- Estimating. In order to evaluate potential projects, organizations need accurate estimates of costs and schedules. But because each project is different, estimates may contain more assumptions than facts. Whatever is being built has never been built before, so the steps involved, the materials required, and the inevitable obstacles the team will encounter are difficult to predict. Estimating requires forecasting the future, a difficult task to perform accurately, given these unknowables.
- Budgeting. When managing projects, budget cycles for companies tend to run in 12-month intervals, but projects rarely do. Even though a firm’s budgeting process may attempt to allocate money for projects that are far in the future, their funding requirements may be unclear before a formal planning process has begun. Major projects that span multiple budget cycles create another kind of headache: If they are underfunded during one budget year, they may be forced to shut down until a new budget year begins. And, as if that weren’t enough, company politics could change, which might alter the project’s priority and funding.
- Authority. Organization charts define authority within a firm, but they usually represent the ongoing operations of the firm. When projects cross organizational boundaries it is no longer clear who has authority for many decisions. This can lead to political maneuvering and a gridlock that blocks progress.
- Controls. Normal accounting practices match operational budgets to operational costs on a quarterly or annual basis. But these time frames are not sufficient to keep a project on track. By the time quarterly accounting reports show a project over budget, it may be so far out of control as to be beyond recovery.
- Communication. When managing projects “communication breakdowns” are one of the most commonly listed factors in failed projects. Like authority, communication channels tend to follow a firm’s operational structure. But when projects span organizational boundaries, communicating even the simplest messages can be time-consuming. At worst, if the message must go through a number of intermediaries, it may be irretrievably lost.
This list of difficulties and challenges could go on, but it should be clear by now that managing projects is not the same as managing ongoing operations. Notice that this does not mean project management is more difficult than managing ongoing operations—only that managing projects presents a different set of challenges.
The project management techniques within this series have evolved to meet these challenges. As you progress through this series, you can review this list of problems to see just how the tools and techniques you are learning address each one.
Clearly, projects and ongoing operations overlap and interact. Projects initiate or change ongoing operations. At times, projects exist within an ongoing operation, while at other times the reverse is true. Both may be funded out of the same budget process and use many of the same people. Both require a wide range of the same management skills: written and oral communication, conflict resolution, motivation, accounting, and negotiating, to name just a few.
But these similarities can obscure the real differences between projects and ongoing operations. Recognizing these differences leads to a better understanding of their different challenges. Projects, as we have seen in the preceding series, have unique problems that require different management disciplines. Project managers must learn these disciplines to become effective leaders.