Challenges with Project Management and Coordination within Product Development

While developing products, project management and coordination can be a significant challenge that impacts the successful delivery of products. But you already knew that. These challenges typically arise from the need to scale across multiple departments and stakeholders, manage timelines effectively, and align project goals with broader business objectives. That's typically the easy part though if you can believe that. Well, easy if you are aligning product delivery teams against product groups and practicing cross-functional teams coordinating and collaborating within a self-organizational mind-set. That's the hard part.

If you can't do something well in a smaller setting, it is nearly impossible to do so as you add more complexity, people, and items to the process at scale. As I work with clients to help them implement some of these tactics, it is really important to ensure that the organization is optimized and tuned for product the end user.

We often optimize for the developer's efficiency and then wonder why there are so many bottlenecks and dependencies throughout the delivery cycle. If we treat (at scale) each of our product groups as their own container / company, then allow them to self-organize to determine the best way to manage the work, elaborate on the work, visualize the work, and deliver the work; great things happen.

In a traditional mindset, we are used to Project Mangers (who usually don't know much about how to do the work or the domain of the work) manage timelines and check status of hundreds of individuals across many disciplines of work. I consider myself a "recovering project manager" and do remember the days of trying to manage unpredictable, unrepeatable, imperfectly defined work this way. It just doesn't work. It works fine for predictable, repeatable, perfectly defined work; no question. Most of the time though in complex product delivery we are relying on knowledge and technology workers to help understand the domain of the products we are serving and many things have never been done in the environments we are delivering.

By the way, I am all for Project Management. It is needed, however the approach to it should be based on the environment, type of work, and outcomes desired. Given we are talking about Product Development, I thought we could highlight a few challenges and solutions that project management has within this type of domain. Take for instance this article from the PMI back in 2007 advocating that traditional project management should be use for highly complex work with large teams (this one didn't age well). It is exactly the opposite; mainly due to the idea that the less we know about what we are doing the more problematic a large elaboration phase can be (sounds counter-intuitive I know).

Challenges to Project Management

  • Aligning Cross-Functional Teams: Ensuring diverse teams such as engineering, design, and marketing work towards common goals can be difficult. Different priorities and working styles can lead to conflicts or misalignments that disrupt progress. We see this happen all the time, but it doesn't mean we can't solve for it.
  • Managing Scope Creep (Scope Learn): Changes to project scope, often from new stakeholder inputs or evolving market conditions, can lead to delays and budget overruns. Keeping scope in check while accommodating necessary adjustments is a critical balancing act. In agile, we embrace it. We don't like to call it scope creep, we prefer scope learn. It's not like people are intentionally adding more requirements, it's that as they use the product they think of better ways of doing what they originally wanted done.
  • Resource Allocation: Optimally distributing limited skillsets, including people, time, and budget, across various project demands ensures efficiency but is challenging to execute flawlessly. Building in slack, determining which skills to cross-train, and sharing highly skilled people can be a huge challenge.
  • Communication Barriers: Effective communication is crucial but often hindered by organizational silos, geographical distances, or technological limitations. Miscommunications can lead to errors and inefficiencies. In our Advanced CSM Workshop we discuss the 7 barriers to communication. There are many other contributing factors, but all point to barriers nonetheless.
  • Adhering to Deadlines: Meeting launch dates is critical, especially in industries with rapid technology changes or competitive pressures. Delays can have significant repercussions on market success and overall ROI. Another question though, is the launch date truly needed or is the date hindering our ability to deliver the best product we can. We have to make those decisions. I know it is important for stakeholders to understand when things will be delivered and how much they cost, but let's make sure "deadlines" are really needed. I prefer to use date ranges than deadlines. I often say to my stakeholders, I am not afraid of dates in agile, I am afraid of how those dates are derived.
  • Risk Management: Identifying potential risks and having contingency plans in place is vital for minimizing disruptions during project execution. These risks can manifest themselves many different ways. Having the right people evaluating these continually is the key.

Mitigation Strategies to Project Management

  • Implement Agile Mindset and Methods: Agile methods, such as Scrum and Kanban, emphasize flexibility, teamwork, and iterative progress toward a well-defined goal. Implementing Agile involves organizing work into iterations, regular review and planning sessions, and maintaining a backlog of important work to be completed. These frameworks encourage continuous improvement and adaptation, which is ideal for dynamic project environments where requirements can change rapidly. Key benefits include increased team productivity and morale, faster turnaround times, and higher quality outputs because of the iterative testing and feedback loops. For product managers, Agile offers a structured yet flexible framework that helps align product development with customer needs and company goals and excels in allowing for experimentation when there is a ton of unknowns.
  • Use Project Management Tools: Project visualization tools like Jira, Asana, and Trello provide digital platforms that facilitate the planning, scheduling, tracking, and execution of project tasks. These tools help product managers visualize workflows, allocate teams efficiently, and track progress against timelines. Features such as work-team assignments, progress indicators, and integration with other tools (like email and calendar applications) enhance transparency and accountability among team members and stakeholders alike. The centralized communication and documentation capabilities reduce misunderstandings and keep everyone on the same page, which is crucial for coordinating complex projects involving multiple stakeholders. Beware though, some of these tools are so configurable, you can configure yourself right out of commission. Design the process of work and mold the tools to fit the process (keeping it as simple as possible...ala agile principle number 10).
  • Regular Check-in Meetings: Conducting regular check-ins or stand-up meetings can help keep all team members aligned on project progress or lack-there-of, upcoming timelines, and any issues that need addressing. Think of these as synchronization meetings not status meetings (meaning they are working sessions designed to ensure we are all contributing to the most important work items of that day).
  • Clear Roles and Responsibilities: Define clear roles and responsibilities for all team members to prevent overlap and ensure everyone knows their tasks and deadlines.
  • Risk Management Planning: Identify potential risks early in the project lifecycle and develop strategies to mitigate them. This proactive approach helps prevent delays and ensures the project stays on track. There is not one set list of risks for a project, but work with stakeholders, developers, managers/leaders, and others to help define and highlight these risks as early as possible. Typically things that are high-risk and high-value tend to be prioritized first in an agile team to swiftly validate or mitigate that risk.
  • Stakeholder Engagement: Regularly engage stakeholders through updates or review sessions to ensure their needs are met and they are aligned with the project's progress and direction. We talk a lot about this in our product owner workshops. Having a good roadmap planning process that fits within the agile mindset is crucial to assisting with this engagement activity.

Remember there is not a one size fits all approach, rely on your people to help you navigate these challenges. If you are staring brand new on a project and aren't sure where to start, this is a good list to think through. If you are already agile and want to get better, evaluate and assess how you and your teams are handling these big-ticket items. As always, we are here to help. Feel free to reach out!

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