Problems in project management

Projects are complex undertakings and involve a variety of different types of challenges that need to be overcome. When traditional approaches fail to provide a solution, the use of problem-solving methods becomes essential. Successful problem solving requires creativity, analytical skills and the will to implement. However, even when the project manager relies on the problem-solving skills and support of the project team, the use of problem-solving techniques cannot always guarantee a solution. Nevertheless, project managers need to pay close attention to problem-solving methods, as they help to ensure that, in combination with dedicated work and perseverance, the chances of finding an answer are at least improved.
Many pieces of a puzzle.


Types of problems

There are really only two types of problem: factual and value problems. Relationship problems are often mentioned as a third type of problem, but strictly speaking they are value problems. 
Factual problems involve changing economic, technical or organisational conditions. Figures, data and facts (e.g., technical performance data, economic ratios) play an important role in the solution. In factual problems, emotion and feelings should have no influence.
In value problems, the interpersonal element is the factor to be improved or clarified. The emotional aspect is dominant and must not be ignored. Problems arising from religious orientations, ideological views or cultural differences belong to this type of problem. It is impossible to objectively conclude from one point of view that other points of view are unacceptable. An objective and universally valid evaluation or proof is not possible, and therefore value problems cannot be solved by rational arguments and behaviour. However, it is possible to explore the causes in order to build on them and to look for approaches to solutions that might be acceptable to those involved, despite their emotional biases.
Value problems can often only be resolved to a limited extent, because those involved in the conflict must have sufficient scope for mutual tolerance. If this does not exist or is not desired, the party that is more willing to compromise can only avoid the conflict by violating its own value system. The consequence, which should be well thought out, would be submission to the viewpoint of the other party to the conflict.
For problem-solving, answers to the following questions are helpful, in addition to researching the causes:
  • What happens if the value problem should remain?
  • To what extent can and do both sides tolerate each other?
  • Where is the "pain threshold" for the respective conflict party?
  • What options can both conflict parties accept?

Problem categories

In order to understand problems better and to tackle them more effectively, a further classification into different problem categories can be helpful.

Analysis problems are about identifying structures, interrelationships and regularities. 

From the world of project management

A project team has to draw up a complex work breakdown structure during project planning; in doing so, they have to recognize the structures and interrelationships of the project.
Search problems are about finding existing solutions to problems.

From the world of project management

For a plant to be developed, a certain technical unit is sought that fulfils certain requirements and can be purchased on the open market.
In the case of constellation problems, existing elements are to be configured or rearranged in such a way that the development of new, creative solutions for the task becomes possible.

From the world of project management

An agency has to develop a new advertising concept for a client from existing advertising elements.
In selection problems, it is a matter of determining the best alternative from several possibilities in order to achieve a certain goal. 

From the world of project management

There are different ways to achieve the goal of a project. Each option has certain advantages and disadvantages. Now the team has to weigh up and decide which option to choose.
If new problems arise from the solution of a problem, these are called follow-up problems.

From the world of project management

In order to be able to implement a production concept developed within the framework of an organisational project, a new "round-the-clock" deployment plan for the employees concerned must be developed as a consequence. In the process, working time, holiday and overtime regulations not previously included in collective agreements must be taken into account. 

Structured and poorly structured problems

Problems can be "structured" or "poorly structured". 

Structured problems are characterised by the following features:
  • All problem elements are fully known.
  • The problem elements are in a clear, regulated relationship to each other.
  • The solution process is certain, compelling, systematic and logical. 
From the world of project management

A project team has to determine the ideal production quantity for a new product from a technical point of view.
In contrast, poorly structured problems have the following characteristics:
  • Not all problem elements are known.
  • There are few or no recognizable regularities.
  • The search for solutions is rather undirected, intuitive and random. 
From the world of project management

Programme items and content are to be developed for a festive event on the occasion of a company anniversary.
This distinction is important because the approach and solution strategies can vary depending on the problem structure. Structured problems tend to require a clear analytical method, while poorly structured problems may rely more on creative thinking and a flexible approach.

Obstacles in problem solving

Obstacles to problem solving can arise when project participants do not recognize, do not fully understand or misinterpret the problem. Superficial analysis or different perceptions of the problem in the team can also make finding a solution difficult. It is crucial that the first step towards a solution is to thoroughly understand the problem. Because only those who have really grasped the problem can tackle it successfully.
Every team member dealing with the problem should have a clear idea of what exactly it is about. Questions and graphic representations such as organigrams, flowcharts, cause-effect diagrams can help to make the problem more tangible.
Asking these questions when problems arise can be particularly helpful:
  • What exactly is the core of the problem?
  • Can it be broken down into sub-problems, and if so, which and how many?
  • What people or areas are affected by the problem?
  • What is the current impact of the problem and how might it be affected in the future?
  • How long has the problem existed?
  • What solutions have been tried?
  • Why have they not been successful?
  • What are the consequences of not solving the problem?
  • What steps are needed to solve the problem? 
In addition to answering these questions, it can be useful to visually depict problematic processes. 
From the world of project management

A recurring problem an agency faces when designing information brochures is that layout artists are constantly late starting work due to delays in upstream work phases. To identify the bottleneck, the project manager has graphically depicted the process in a flow chart:
Flow chart for identifying problems in the production of an information brochure.
If the quality of the text is poor, this requires an additional editing loop - text returns to the copywriter and then to the editor again. The extra steps involved delay the whole process and mean that brochures do not make it to layout and ultimately print on time.
Solution option 1

The editorial team works in two stages. In stage one, the text is quickly checked for content accuracy and in stage two, the quality of the text is assessed in more depth. This avoids unnecessary editing loops and ensures that the brochures are ready on time. In addition, training needs for copywriters could be identified and addressed. 
Solution option 2

Strengthen the editorial team within the agency to ensure that copy is of high quality and well prepared from the outset, so that layout designers can start work smoothly and without delay. 
This would allow the agency to optimise its workflow and ensure the timely completion of the brochures.


In everyday life, problem types often occur in mixed forms - even a challenge that is initially identified as a clear factual problem may have other issues involved. Therefore, for all types of problems, the first step is to identify the root causes. For better understanding and structuring, the project manager can categorise the problems. This gives them the opportunity, preferably together with their team, to develop approaches to solutions, to identify obstacles and to choose between different alternatives. With a little luck, the problem is solved.

Types of problems - the author
Author: Dr. Roland Ottmann
Keywords: Project management, Problem solving

The IAPM certification

The certification can be taken via a reputable online examination procedure. The costs are based on the gross domestic product of your country of origin.

From the IAPM Blog

Become a Network Official

Do you want to get involved in project management in your environment and contribute to the further development of project management? Then become active as an IAPM Network Official or as a Network Official of the IAPM Network University. 

For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.