To recreate Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse by the River Thames in London was the dream of American actor Sam Wanamaker when he arrived in Britain in the 1940s. Twenty years later the transformation of riverside Southwark from factories and warehouses into modern offices created the chance to secure a plot close to the site of the original theatre. Sam and a group of close supporters raised interest and money to design and construct the new Globe. They faced many challenges. To be a genuine recreation, the building had to be built from wood and straw. The project faced much opposition and hostility from some quarters. Fund-raising was difficult. Could those challenges be overcome to realise Sam’s dream?
Projects break new ground but the aim should always be to plan a project to be as simple and familiar to do as possible. Even so certain aspects may remain difficult. A project challenge is an aspect of the project that will require special technical, financial, managerial or other skills in order to achieve the desired benefits. That definition might be extended to requiring special equipment or even a technological breakthrough – although both of those need special technical skills to exploit them.
If you find yourself asking the question “How to…?” when considering a project, then you are facing a challenge. “How to find a way to support the structure while we build the bridge over a deep ravine?” “How to make sure this vaccine is safe and effective before it is offered to a wide population?” “How to convince the employees this planned new organisation structure will make their work more fulfilling?”
Challenges are relative to the organisation contemplating the project. What would be daunting to one organisation might be routine to another. So there is no absolute measure of challenges; they have to be assessed in terms of the nature of the project and the capability of the organisation wanting to get it done.
There are various models that can be used to map out what the challenges are. The PESTEL framework considers challenges coming from outside the project like environmental and political ones. The Shenhar and Dvir NTCP or Diamond model focuses on the novelty, technological stretch, output complexity and pace of work needed. There are others.
But there does not seem to be a single, comprehensive but simple challenges model – especially one that considers human challenges as well as material ones. Such a model would be useful for explaining to key stakelholders and decision-makers where the challenges are most acute, and where extra time, money or resources will be needed.
I have constructed the model below which attempts to cover what I see as the seven principal dimensions of challenge in a project. It is not based on any empircal research and may not be an ideal fit for all types of project. But that’s the point. You are free to devise any model (so long as it tries to be objective) to illustrate the challenges as you see them in a particular project.
Challenges may arise due to the scale, the novelty, the technical ambition, the complexity of the output, and a whole range of people-related considerations – like stakeholder attitudes and working across cultures. The people dimension is about individuals and groups; the relationships dimension is about organiations, especially the relative power they possess.
Time and money are usually obvious challenges; there may also be challenges due the project’s reach (e.g. if it is global) and societal factors like regulations and, increasingly, sustainability. The degree of challenge will also be influenced depending on whether it is a project using a lot of inherited knowledge, needs formulated knowledge (working out how to solve problems as they arise) or produces discovered knowledge (like an invention or very significant innovation).
Exercises can be done to identify the aspects of a project which present the most demanding challenges. These will, for example, help to identify the right kind of project manager and project approach. They may also point to the need to de-scope a project if it presents challenges that are too tough, or even abandon it if the challenges look insurmountable.
In the table below, the project challenges facing the team trying to recreate Shakespeare’s Globe have been grouped into different categories. Each sub-category has been assessed on a 1 to 5 scale to give an overall score for each category. These overall scores have then been plotted on a spider diagram to show which categories of challenge on the Shakespeare’s Globe project were probably more significant than others. Except for scale and physcial challenges this looks like a tough project to manage.
Comparing the diagram for Shakespeare’s Globe with one for a fairly conventional London office block and Sydney Opera House shows two important aspects that this model can reveal.
The first is indeed which aspects of the project look most challenging. In spite of its sheer size building the office skyscraper is pretty routine for the developer. For them the main challenges are perhaps dealing with the major tenants – who can be very demanding in terms of changing the design of the interiors to meet their requirements – and the need to minimise construction time and cost to give the best chance of making a healthy return from their investment.
The second is illustrated by the Sydney Opera House example. This was a very challenging project in many respects. If the project scores highly on most of the dimensions then the area within the shape will be greater. This in turn points to a project that will be difficult to manage and need exceptional project management.
For a further discussion of challenges in a real project, go to the programme about Definition.
Day, B. (1997). This wooden ‘O’. London: Oberon Books. Pinto, J, (2010). Project management – achieving competitive advantage. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. Shenhar, A. & Dvir, D. (2007). Reinventing project management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
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