Project Management Institute

What am I doing wrong? Making project management work in your organization

Sonja Almlie, PMP, RMC Project Management


Do you struggle with making project management work in your organization? Do you lose sleep because your project is out of control? We look at some of the common complaints project managers have about their organizations, and how to overcome the problems. We will list problem areas in implementing project management in organizations and identify possible solutions to these problems.


We surveyed hundreds of project managers to find out what problems they have implementing the best practices outlined in the PMBOK® Guide, and their methods for overcoming them.

We asked project managers the following questions:

-    What did you want to implement that was difficult to do?

-    What were the problems you encountered? With whom?

-    What did you do to try to overcome the problems?

-    Which actions worked?

-    What would you do differently the next time?

The responses to our questions were as varied as project managers we surveyed and the industries they represented. With hundreds of problems identified, it would take more extensive documentation to address each of them. To simplify, we grouped the problems and solutions into categories. The eight largest categories are addressed in this paper: (1) No work breakdown structure (WBS); (2) Poor or no project charter; (3) Padding or poor estimating; (4) Scope creep or lack of change management; (5) Lack of prioritization across projects; (6) No repeatable processes; (7) No time for proper planning; and, (8) No time to close projects.

We will address these categories, and then present some general strategies for gaining organizational buy-in, and ways to implement these strategies. First, let’s look at the problems.


No work breakdown structure (WBS)

In many organizations, management doesn’t understand the value of using a WBS. Project managers creating and using a WBS without sufficient experience will not earn the buy-in they need from management to move their project forward. A WBS is the foundation of the project and the quality of the rest of the planning tools is based on the quality of the WBS. Project managers report that team members make statements such as, “I won’t do one of those again!” Putting together a comprehensive WBS does take time, especially if you don’t have historical copies from similar past projects (see below, No time to close projects).

Poor or no charter

You launch projects based on ideas scribbled on a napkin or on someone else’s concept. Without documentation of the project’s high-level description and measurable objectives, how can you fully understand the product of the project? You are setting up the project for failure. You hear, “I’ll know it when I see it” or “Just get started and we can talk next week.” Customers and sponsors don’t want to take time upfront to reduce the issues and changes. This leads to wrong turns later in the project.

Padding or poor estimating

The organization plays the padding game, and each individual up the chain adds a little more padding to cover “stuff that happens” until the time or cost estimates are way out of line with management’s expectations. Management assumes that padding has happened so they make cuts across the board repeatedly until the estimate is where they want it, regardless of reality. This provides unrealistic plans, expectations and finally, poor outcomes.

Scope creep or lack of change management

The customer just keeps adding scope to the project to get as much as possible. Why does scope keep changing? If you don’t have time to identify “exactly” what you need upfront, how can you know it when you see it? These types of situations lead to continuous upheaval on the project, resulting in poorly delivered, and possibly, unsuccessful projects.

Lack of prioritization across projects

My project trumps your project. Project managers ask the question, “What is the priority of my project?” The response: “Your project is number one.” If you don’t monitor and communicate across projects the importance of all projects, you will find out too late that all six projects received the exact same response, or new projects have shifted the priorities. How do organizations prioritize? It all depends. Often, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

No repeatable processes

To deliver consistent results, you need to follow consistent processes. If there are no processes to follow, it makes it extremely difficult to provide good, consistent project results. Stakeholders are busy. They don’t take the time upfront to follow a process and define the project well. They think they can just do it later (see above, Scope creep or lack of management) when they understand the products and the project better. Many organizations fight development of processes, saying it restricts their ability to get the project done “the right way.” Maybe the problem is how to define “right.”

Time for proper planning

Planning, we don’t need no stinking planning! Organizations feel if you are not producing immediately, you are not doing real work. Unfortunately, just the opposite is true; to make the real work happen more efficiently, you need to take time to plan. You can pay me now or you can pay me later. Experience has shown that the cost of changes later in a project have up to 100 times more impact than dealing with them earlier in the project. For example, you can add a sticky note during the creation of the WBS so that an item is planned in, or you can rework and retest the product just before it is to be delivered. You get the idea.

No time to close projects

You can’t find time to plan. You have to be producing right away. Heaven forbid, you take time to close a project and capture the details so future projects can use the templates and the lessons learned. Without taking the time to INDEX and ARCHIVE your data, how will the organization ever improve? Over time, these historical records can be used to develop consistent processes and to improve the way projects are planned and managed.


No silver bullets—all the solutions take hard work. Before we look at the detailed suggestions, we need to look at three broad ways to make project management work, because they are the foundation for the others.


Let people know what you expect and what they will get if the work is done a certain way. Give them clear roles and responsibilities so you don’t have to do it all.


Show the benefits of implementing the best practices. Try out the processes and tools in a controlled environment. Use them on projects similar to projects that had problems before. Make sure you start using any new processes, tools, and techniques on smaller less critical projects, and then refine them before implementing on larger projects.


Set up a PMO. Build grass roots support for good practices. Identify a base to start and build on it as maturity allows.


No work breakdown structure (WBS)

The WBS is the foundation of the project. A good WBS can solve a good portion of the scope and change issues

on a project if you and your team work together. The rest of the planning tools are based on the quality of the WBS: the network diagram, schedule, budget, and risk management. Here are some suggestions for making the WBS the real foundation of your projects:

-    Build it from a template that is based on past project(s) with the lessons learned built into it. Many organizations build a template and will not update it with information as problems are encountered and better ways to solve project problems are identified.

-    Creating a WBS doesn’t have to be an all-day event. Sometimes the “sticky note” method is more acceptable to team members, especially until they understand the real value of the WBS.

-    It’s said that practice makes perfect. “At-home projects” can offer an excellent opportunity to practice and make mistakes in a less threatening environment.

-    Some team members have had bad experiences creating a WBS with less skilled project managers and now they don’t want anything to do with a WBS. The solution is, don’t call it a WBS. Ask questions and have the team members either, in small groups or individually, fill in the gaps in your “big picture of the project.”

-    Some project managers make it too difficult. They create a WBS dictionary for every element in the WBS. If the teams have been doing similar activities for a while, they probably have a good idea of what needs to be done. Just focus on using a WBS dictionary for a few risky activities, such as those with a higher likelihood of changing or being misunderstood later. Should they all be documented? Sure, if it makes sense. For now, focus on the work packages that could get your project into the most trouble.

Poor or no project charter

There are too many projects that are started with little or no idea of what is to be delivered, or just a high level view of the ultimate goal. Without the detailed information to fully understand the product of the project, you are setting the project up for failure. How do you avoid statements such as, “I’ll know it when I see it” or “Get started and we can talk next week”? As project managers, who know the best practices, it’s important to stand up and push back so you have successful projects. It starts with a good charter.

-    If you don’t get the information you need, ask for it. I know this may sound silly, but there times you feel you can’t ask questions. You are getting paid to figure it out and just do it right! Try looking at it in a different way. You are paid to make projects run smoothly—having a charter upfront that comprehensively defines the product scope WILL provide more successful projects.

-    If the stakeholders won’t give you the data upfront, build a plan to use interviews to capture the details. Once you have captured them, document them and get sign off. If stakeholders won’t sign off, this opens the discussion for those “What do you really want?” line of questions.

-    Sometimes you need to help the customer see what the issues are. A process diagram, laying out the current process and the updated process, allows the stakeholders to see the impact of their requirements on the organization. Be sure to not just flow out the main process, but also where the inputs really come from, the impacts to these other areas as well, and how the deliverables will be used by others.

-    Good objectives help ensure that the project manager and the team will provide what the customer wants, the first time. S.M.A.R.T. objectives help—this is an acronym for specific, measurable, agreed to, realistic, and time constrained. If you work to focus the stakeholders on creating S.M.A.R.T. objectives, you have a better definition of what they want and how to achieve it.

Padding or poor estimating

This is a political hot potato. Until senior managers understand the impact of playing the padding game and trust the project manager, they will continue to require it. You know the game—each individual up the chain adds a little more padding to cover “stuff that happens” until the time or cost estimate is way out of line with management’s expectations. Generally, the response to a padded project estimate is to do an across-the-board cut, repeatedly, until a “realistic” estimate is obtained. This provides unrealistic plans, expectations, and finally, poor outcomes. So what do you do?

-    Don’t allow padding from your team. You need to develop a mutual trust with the team so they know that if they estimate well and identify risks, you will develop reserves for them, and the project can run smoother, with a more realistic schedule and budget. How do you build the trust? Give clear direction to estimators on what you expect of them and what they can expect of you. By reviewing estimates with team members to identify risks and the associated padding, you open the discussion to remove it.

-    Communicate with management that the project doesn’t include padding, and provide feedback to the team on how the project is more successful without padding. Give recognition or rewards to team members who don’t pad.

-    Until you can convince management that realistic goals for time and cost are a more effective way to manage, you cannot break the cycle. Showing the impact on a smaller project that is well planned and well run can give you the data points you need to show management the true impacts and benefits of not padding. This is a cultural change to your organization, and it will not happen without some senior management buy-in.

Scope creep or lack of change management

The customer wants to get as much as possible from the project. One way to do this is to constantly adjust the scope of the project as stakeholders discuss the project and come up with new or different ideas. Why does scope keep changing? Most often there is no time to validate that you captured the right scope at the beginning or the customer doesn’t know what they want. Statements such as, “You will know it when you see it” are indicative of this problem. These types of situations at a minimum lead to extensive upheaval on the project.

-    Because you know the impact to the project, your best defense is to avoid being put in the situation. Show the customer what happened on the last few projects, or develop ways for them to “see it” earlier in the project, using prototypes, drawings, scale models, process diagrams, or whatever will ensure that you don’t reach the end of the project only to hear them say, “That’s not what I wanted.”

-    Punish those who allow scope creep—including team members, functional managers, and project managers. But hold on, punishment doesn’t change behavior in the long run. How about rewarding those that don’t allow scope creep and push back? This, too, is a cultural change that will take time and trust.

-    If at all possible, finalize requirements upfront. Get as many details as you can.

-    You cannot accept, “I’ll know it when I see it” any longer. Push back and ask, “How can I help you see it now, rather than waiting until later?”

-    Finally, implement a firm change control system, one that requires justification and project impact analysis prior to a change being accepted by the change control board (CCB). Just because the customer wants it, doesn’t make it a good idea. I have seen 40% to 60% reductions in change requests simply by asking for good justification to present to the CCB.

Lack of prioritization across projects

Where does my project fit into the overall list of projects? The answer to this is often, “Your project is number one.” If you are not careful, you may find out too late that you were number one for only that day; today you are number 25. Many organizations prioritize by using the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” mentality.

-    If you want to know your priority, just look at how your project’s goals match corporate goals. The better they tie in, the higher the priority. Look at other projects and see how they fit. Know your competition. If you don’t get a clear answer, push back and ask the tough questions:

  • If you have to choose between two projects and you only have one person to do the work, which project will you choose? The answer to this question might be situationally dependant. Right now it is this project, but after they complete these efforts, they won’t get the resources.
  • How do I keep resources assigned to my project?
  • What other work is this individual responsible for and when is that work scheduled?
  • What is most important to the company?

-    Use risk management to do “what-if” analysis. Ask, “If this happens, what impact will it have and how will we deal with it?”

-    Use a variety of sources to make certain that you know what other projects exist. Small projects within a department may get prioritized higher because they really impact that department’s ability to achieve its goals.

No repeatable processes

Quality is achieved by following consistent processes. Without processes to follow, it is extremely difficult to provide good project results. For some organizations, the imposition of processes is seen as taking away the team’s “flexibility” to respond to project needs. This might sound good, but if good planning is done upfront, you DON‘T want a lot of flexibility—leading to scope creep (see above, Scope creep or lack of change management).

-    In defining processes, the number one mistake is using the “big bang” method. You have all been through it; a new management fad comes along and everyone is trained and expected to use all of it, right away. The problem is, you have learned that if you wait six months, another new fad will come along and you can ignore the last one.

-    If you can’t use the “big bang” method, what can you do? Start with what is working well now in your organization. There are always processes that you see and think, “We should all be doing that.” Start with those. As you implement some of the best practices of your organization, rather than those that are some academic ideal, people will be more likely to buy in. Create an atmosphere that welcomes comments and suggestions on how to improve processes.

-    So you establish a framework of processes, now you need to focus on small continuous improvements. This way will take longer to implement, but it is longer lasting.

-    If you want people to follow a process, you need to show them what is in it for them, what the value is in personal terms to the individuals. Get their input. Individuals will be able to help you see the perceived impacts of the changes so better decisions can be made. Make sure the processes are well communicated to the team and other stakeholders so they understand the impacts and responsibilities.

-    If there will be a negative impact to people doing the work, address the impacts openly. Let the people know that you know of the negative impact, but also show them the analysis that was done to arrive at the decision, and how the process will benefit them. For example, an initial process takes an extra day, but saves three days later in the project.
PMOs can provide the structure to develop good processes, showcase the value of the processes, and lead process improvement efforts. If you don’t have a PMO, this is more difficult. Creating a virtual PMO might work—the ground swell of support for good processes motivated by a core group of project managers wanting to make a difference. The PMO (or virtual PMO) can help monitor acceptance of, and consolidate, processes.

No time for proper planning

Just get to work, we are already behind, we need the product NOW! It is thought that if you are not producing, you are not doing real work. Experience has shown that a little planning can make a large difference in the execution of the plan; there will be fewer problems, fewer changes and the project is more likely to stay on plan. You can pay me now or you can pay me later. Experience has also shown that the cost of changes later in a project have up to 100 times more impact than fixing them earlier in the project. For example, you can just add a sticky note during the creation of the WBS, or you can rework and retest the product just before it is to be delivered. You get the idea. So what do you do?

-    You are professional project managers; you are supposed to know the best processes to follow to ensure successful projects. It is time that you pushed back and just said no. “No, we need time to analyze the project and plan for the risks.”
If you have two similar projects, can you demonstrate how one was more successful because it followed better practices? Can you illustrate the true impact by tracking the total cost of the project? You need to show that working people overtime, even those who are on salary, is not to the advantage of the organization. How many people did the project lose because you had to push people hard, plus the training and ramp-up costs of bringing in new people? This is just the tip of the iceberg. Start keeping better records (see below, No time to close projects).

No time to close projects

You don’t have time to close a project, but you have time to make the same mistakes over and over again. If you could capture the details so future projects could use the templates and the lessons learned from your current project, would that save time and money? You bet! Over time, this impacts the process improvement for your project management activities as well. Without taking the time to INDEX and archive the data, how will the organization ever improve?

-    If the organization won’t let you put the project details into a corporate database, then build one of your own. Keep your own historical data; share it with other project managers. Have brown-bag sessions where you can share best practices and ask “old heads” how they would handle situations you are struggling with.

-    As you follow this advice, two things will happen:

  • You will be developing the kernels for the historical repository and best practices
  • You will be building a ground swell of support


You have to want to make a difference. This will take more work on your part to make it happen. Are you willing to put forth the effort? A small pain now can mean a greater benefit later when it all comes together.

For those of you who are PMPs or PgMPs, remember that you are responsible for supporting the PMI processes and can no longer blame others for your lack of project management skills. Show your organization why you are certified!


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Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings–Washington, DC, USA