Why is managing projects hard?

Many projects are not completed on time and budget or do not deliver the intended business benefits and value even when they finish on time and budget. The data about this is available in several publications, including PMI’s Pulse of the Profession Reports, as well as research conducted by other organizations. There is also a lot of literature by capable project management professionals, as well as training courses and certifications that provide clear instructions and techniques on how to manage projects successfully. However, the reality is that it is still difficult to get projects across the finish line successfully even when following directions by the book and checking the boxes. And even experienced Project Managers struggle with accomplishing this goal. Why?

Here are some thoughts, based on my own experience, and I welcome other views that can help provide a more comprehensive answer to this question.

managing projects is hardEvery project is truly unique. This was one of the first concepts I studied while working on my PMP certification, but I learned it the hard way managing projects. What worked last time will not necessarily work this time. The problems and solutions you are dealing with are new and are not the same as the ones on your last project. The issues you will run into are not going to be the same like the ones you saw before. And you may be using new tools or technologies and different methodologies. The end users, customers, and team members are likely not the same ones you worked with on previous projects. Their personas, culture, experiences, perspectives, and expectations are probably different from what you’ve seen before as well.

Projects are about the future. Projects are about delivering a result in the future, typically in months or years, and therefore involve many uncertainties and changing dynamics. Project Managers live in the future. They are always thinking ahead, weeks and months down the road, and worrying about what needs to happen or could go wrong between now and the end of the project. Estimation is a key element of project planning, and Project Managers can use the best techniques, but it’s still an estimate and a forecast of future events. Also, things go wrong and change. People leave or encounter unforeseen circumstances, scope changes, priorities get redefined, envisioned solutions may not work as expected, the goal post moves, etc.

managing projects is hardDealing with time. My favorite quotes about time are: “Time is an illusion” (Albert Einstein), “How did it get late so soon?” (Dr. Seuss) and “Time is like a sword; if you don’t cut it, it cuts you.”(Arabic Proverb), which basically means that if you don’t control time, it will come back and hurt you. Project Managers are always trying to rein in and control this mysterious and elusive thing called time. And in most cases, it is happening under tough circumstances, with limited resources and aggressive deadlines. Unfortunately, stopping time or going back one day or even one second is just not possible. Once time passes, it’s gone, and you will have to find a way to make it up.

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