In the workplace, making mistakes can feel like the end of the world, especially when you as the project manager have not been able to deliver a successful project completion. Yes, the consequences of a failed project can mean loss of time and money as well as a bruised reputation, but the situation also provides an opportunity to learn.
We all make mistakes and working in project management, it is no surprise, given the many inter-dependencies and complexities involved. But, the important thing is learning from them and making sure that future projects do not repeat the mistakes. Here we discuss common project management errors and offer solutions to prevent them from occurring.
Inexperienced project manager
Project Management is a skill and, like any skill, takes time, experience and confidence to master. Organisations looking to recruit project managers or promote from within need to carefully assess the experience of potential candidates and avoid appointing the first project manager that is available simply to fill the role. Careful recruitment will serve the organisation better in the long-term rather than assigning a project manager without the right experience.
Remember, each project is different, and there will be people out there who have the skills and experience you are looking for. Someone who understands your business and is able to apply their specialist knowledge and skills to your benefit.
Assigning a novice or newly qualified project manager to a project for which they are ill-equipped can prove damaging to their career in the long run if the experience proves too overwhelming, and the project runs into difficulty. It can also damage the reputation of the organisation if the project flounders or fails.
Lack of resources and skills in the team
Much like appointing the right person to lead the project, the same consideration needs to be given to assigning a project team. The common mistakes here include not having enough people involved and having people working on the project that lack the appropriate project management skills.
Resource matching based on availability can hamper project sustainability; instead, focus on what specific skill set is required and recruit by those standards. It may be worth paying extra for the right people, especially if the project has multiple challenges. If you have no control over the project team, you can manage expectations from the outset by having an open and frank discussion with the team and really getting to know their strengths and weaknesses.
Once a project team is assigned, the project manager needs to make sure that individual and team performance is managed appropriately. A common mistake is letting poor performance go unchecked.
Team members usually know who is not fully contributing and failing to manage the situation can not only impact on project productivity but affect the morale of the overall team. As a project manager, the key is to foster a culture of accountability from the outset. When tasks are assigned, ensure that ownership and expectations are clear. Make sure that the person assigned to do the work knows that they are also responsible for providing a progress update at project meetings, rather than thinking they can leave this to you.
If it becomes clear that there is likely to be an issue with deadlines or other factors that impact on project success, the issue should be brought up openly at project update meetings. Managing poor performance in such a way will build respect between the team and create a culture of accountability and problem-solving.
No project Initiation
A kick-off/launch meeting is critical to the success of the project. Done well and with the right preparation, the kick-off phase is vital in setting the tone and vision of the project. It provides an opportunity to bring together the customer and the project and agree on the fundamentals. A common project management mistake is rushing this step or ignoring it altogether! In doing so, the project manager leaves the entire project at risk.
During the kick-off meeting, it is important to confirm a shared understanding of project goals and objectives, such as:
- What are we trying to achieve?
- What will we have at the end of the project?
- What are the project timescales?
- How long have we got and when does each phase need to be completed by?
- Crucially, how will we know we are doing well?
- What are the success criteria?
The contents of the project kick-off meeting largely make up the project plan. The Project Plan showcases the route to success, describing succinctly what needs to be done, by who, by when, what could go wrong and how to stop it from doing so. By overlooking the kick-off meeting and project plan, there is a risk of the entire project being in jeopardy.
Having a project plan does not guarantee that the project will run smoothly. That is why it is important to conduct a risk analysis as part of project initiation. It is a mistake for project managers to commence a project without conducting a robust risk analysis. It is highly likely that at some point, the project will take a different course than what was planned, and risk analysis can help a project manager prepare for this eventuality. Risks should be defined by probability and impact and then shared with the project team to allow for mitigations to be devised and back-up plans to be developed.
Ill-defined project scope
Project scope should be discussed and agreed at project initiation. If there is a danger of this not happening, the project manager must insist on it. Otherwise, scope creep becomes a real risk; the boundaries of the project will change, without any agreed additional resources. Some flexibility in the scope can be facilitated but to ensure that any changes are agreed and understood by all, the project manager should have in place a clear governance structure which considers the impact on time and budget before approval is given by the project board.
Understandably the project manager will feel under pressure to make sure work packages are completed to a good standard and that the overall project is delivered successfully. However, this shouldn’t result in the project being micromanaged.
Micromanaging is counterproductive. It fosters a culture of mistrust, low confidence and low morale within the project team and can leave the project manager feeling stressed and overworked. The project team has been recruited specifically for their expertise and skill. The project manager should trust the team’s ability to deliver and use agreed processes (see point 2 on managing poor performance) to check that the work is on track.
Another common mistake project managers make is wanting to do everything themselves. Similar to micromanaging, running the project in this way will alienate the team. To get the best out of a project team, they need to feel valued and respected and believe their ideas and opinions matter. The project team are closest to the front line and will have a better idea of what works and doesn’t and where the challenges are likely to be. By discouraging a culture of collaboration, individuals are less likely to come forward and will focus on doing the minimum. The project may not necessarily fail but the journey getting to the end will be fraught, not a lot of fun and the final achievement not as splendid as it could have been
Failure to recognise success
Getting embroiled in day to day project management activity can prevent you from seeing and celebrating the small successes along the way. Yes, the focus should be on a project successfully delivered to budget and on schedule, but this doesn’t mean you should ignore achievements that help you get there. Otherwise, you end up with stagnant productivity and a team lacking in morale. In recognising individual’s contributions to short-term goals, objectives and risk mitigation, you ensure that performance management is as much a part of the project as it is part of their day to day employment.
Over-reliance on software
Project management software is designed to assist with all steps of the process; including scheduling, task management and reporting. There are many sophisticated options available on the market. Other tools such as spreadsheet programmes can be used to manage budgets, monitor scope and risk assessment. As efficient as these tools are, project managers should not expect the software alone to solve their problems. People are the key to a successful project; any software should help them solve problems, rather than expecting that the technology will do it all. Project management knowledge and experience cannot be replaced by software, no matter how specialist and hi-tech it is.
Not following process
Some organisations have a clear project management approach, others not so much. Lack of a structured approach to the project could mean months (if not years) of working hard but not really getting anywhere. Without a clearly mapped out route, the project team will not know when they’ve reached the finish line. People like to know what is expected of them and how their work fits into the bigger picture; the project manager needs to outline the direction in a simple process.
Bearing this in mind, project managers should consider whether the team structure for the project is appropriate, i.e. if it is a large project, is there a case for more than one project manager? Having more than one person in charge for a complex project can benefit the project team, and the responsible individual as communication and monitoring work is likely to be much better.
Out of time and over budget
In order to impress the customer, the project manager may be tempted to underestimate the time needed to complete the work. In doing so, there is a risk that the project deliverables are rushed and not completed to a high standard, thereby having the adverse effect of damaging reputation.
An over-optimistic schedule can also put the project team under unnecessary stress. To ensure a schedule that is workable for all involved, it is best to discuss client expectations with the team and offer a compromise that will ensure a good quality product within achievable timescales.
Similarly, the budget should be agreed based on research rather than guesswork. A common mistake is to suggest a ‘reasonable’ figure rather than an evidence-based figure. To ensure the project has sufficient resources, take advice from previous similar projects to try and determine a baseline. Also, seek out feedback from the frontline team who will be better placed to understand what is feasible.
A common theme in all the mistakes highlighted above is communication – lack of it or plain poor communication. Communication from the top down or bottom up is integral to the success of any project. It is not enough to just communicate with people on your terms, rather people involved, such as stakeholders and the project team, should have a say in what the communication strategy looks like. Those involved in the project need to be abreast of decisions, expectations and changes otherwise there is a risk that the project manager’s failure to share information leads team members to make mistakes – which can cost time and money.
Making mistakes should not be seen as a negative. It is often our only opportunity to take stock, reflect on what is happening and allow us to consider what could be different to achieve a better outcome. A debrief at the end of a project is vital in uncovering what went well, what didn’t go so well and what could have been done differently. By focusing on the journey in this way, project managers and their teams can use the learning to make their next project even more of a success than the current one.