Project Management

The Ten Biggest Mistakes Project Managers Make

Brett Harned
April 29, 2015
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It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, we all make mistakes. In some professions, a mistake can mean something as simple as having to re-make a meal. In others, it can mean the difference between saving or losing a life. Depending on your industry or project, a project management mistake isn’t as serious. But, it can mean lost time, money, and trust. Here’s the thing: there are simple solutions for the top mistakes project managers make. So if you find yourself scratching your head wondering how you could avoid future mishaps, read on.

It's okay to make mistakes (as long as you learn from them).

1. Mismanaging expectations

It's okay to spell things out. (Just explain your intent.)

It’s really easy for a project manager to think their team or their clients know exactly what’s in scope, when what will be delivered when. After all, we have scope documents and project plans to communicate those things. Alas, many project managers find that those documents don’t always do the job for you. If you want to make sure everyone expects the same things, talk about them! That’s right—take some time early in the project to discuss scope, deliverables, timing, communications, and process. This will help you to begin managing expectations, but you’ll need to keep up with that. If you keep an ongoing, open dialogue about the project you’ll be in great shape!

2. Lack of communications

It's okay to break the project silence. (Just have a good reason.)

Want to kill your project budget, timeline, and morale? Don’t talk to anyone. Good communications are at the heart of any good project, so if you’re letting days go by without talking to your team or your clients—or you’re not at least facilitating good conversation, the project is bound to go off the rails. Fight the awkward client deliverable due date talk by having solid communication the whole way through. If you put some simple communication guidelines into place on your project like regular status check-ins, deliverable reviews, and team temperature checks, you’ll feel engaged and the team will be motivated to work together and meet scope and budget expectations.

3. Allowing scope creep

It's okay to let scope slip every once in awhile. (Just have a good reason—and a limit.)

We’ve all been there: a new feature pops up and it seems really great. Your client wants to revise the design one more time because they’re just not happy. We let things slide and all of a sudden you’re over budget. The best way to avoid scope creep is to keep it in check from day one. Know how and why your project was budgeted, and stick to it. If you do let things slip, make your client and team aware of the creep—and don’t let it happen again. Want more tips on how to avoid scope creep? Check out Chapter 6 of our Guide to Project Management.

4. Relying on tools too much

It's okay to have a favorite tool (to complement your thought process).

Tools are great! They do a lot of the work for us, and they make our plans look really readable. But if you’re relying on those tools to really do the project manager job, you’re going to fail miserably. Remember, you can do the job that any tool can do. No functionality can replace the brainwork needed to come up with a plan, track a budget, or report on your status. You’re a good project manager because you think critically about your project’s long-term trajectory. You assess risks and squash them. You use tools to help you organize your thoughts and provide a quick means to reports.

5. Being impersonal

It's okay to be yourself (always).

Ever work with a robot? It’s boring, because you never get to know them. Okay, maybe that’s because they don’t have personalities. But that is how it feels when you work with someone who is completely impersonal. An argument can be made that if you’re not comfortable interacting with someone, you’ll have a hard time working with them. So put yourself out there, be friendly. Be yourself, and you will not only enjoy getting to know your team, you will enjoy being a part of the work.

6. Not getting buy-in on schedules

It's okay to deliver plans quickly (as long as your team reviews and approves it).

Here’s a scenario that happens all too often: project manager creates a schedule, shares it with the client, and locks it in. A day or two later, the team sees that schedule and get freaked out by the lack of time they have to do the work they need to do in order to meet the project deadlines. Everyone ends up angry and stressed out, and the work suffers for it. Stop doing this! It’s easy to build a process around creating a plan that works for everyone, in fact, it’s outlined in Chapter 5 of the Guide to Project Management. Also, just because the plan is your deliverable as a project manager, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have it reviewed before locking it in.

7. Prioritizing scope or budget over quality

It's okay to focus on scope and budget. (But never forsake quality.)

Project managers often get so focused on delivering projects on time and under budget that it becomes very easy to value deadline over the quality of the product. Some project managers start to focus on that deliverable and just want to check the box off and move to the next step in the project to-do list while their team is worried about doing things the right way—and delivering quality projects. Those project managers need to take a note from their co-workers and place value on a good process that allows their team to deliver quality projects, but also to find a way to do it on time. that means engaging their teams to understand the value of a quality deliverable and the long-term impact it will have on the project, and more importantly the team.

8. Little-to-no understanding of effort

It's okay to ask questions.

Deliverables aren’t boxes to be checked off a list. There is a process to creating each deliverable, and often a significant amount of work is devoted to them. If a client asks you why it takes so long to create something, you should be able to explain why. Some project managers can’t do that, because they have not invested in truly understanding their teams’ work. It can be tough to understand the ins and outs of something you are not responsible for—but you must. So how do you gain that knowledge without formal training? Simply talking to your team about their effort and process will show that you care about their process just as much as you care about the project logistics. Plus, it will provide an understanding of what your team does and how they work will help you to create better estimates and schedules.

9. Being resistant to change

It's okay to rely on process (as long as you're flexible when changes arise).

Projects change daily: missed deadlines, missed meetings, changes in direction, and so on. As project managers, we have to adapt to that change and guide the project in the right direction. This might mean changing your approach or adding a new resource mid-stream on a project. Or maybe it means you have to start over. That’s okay! You have to roll with the punches and do what’s right for the project. Being rigid about process, people involved, communication style, or anything else that impacts the path of completion will ensure that your project in fact will not end. So keep an open mind, talk to your team about solutions to project issues, and do what’s right for the project—not what is right for you.

10. Showing stress

It's okay to vent (to the right people).

Project management brings a whole lot of responsibility, which can in turn bring stress. It’s easy to complain about the stress, act out on the stress, and let it affect your team when it’s really getting to you. Doing that is probably the worst thing you can do, because stress can run through your team and ruin morale and affect the work. I’m not saying you should hold that stress in—that would be unhealthy. It’s best to keep that stress from your team and find one person who is not on your team to vent to. Then you can make smart decisions on what to share with the team and when. Check out some additional tips on how handle stress in a recent blog post, Cut Stress, Be Happy and Healthy.

Make mistakes! It's okay.

Take a look at this list. Are you making these mistakes? If you’re a human project manager, you probably are, and that’s okay. It's bound to happen to the best of us, even if you are thinking about not making mistakes. Keep in mind that you can avoid these mistakes (and others) with a bit of thoughtful planning and good communication skills. If you’re thinking about these mistakes in advance, you’re proving that you’re invested in your role as a project manager. There's no mistake in saying that is awesome.

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