Everybody makes mistakes. The secret to success as a project manager or any other profession is to learn from our mistakes and not repeat common mistakes project managers make; even the experienced ones. Project manager’s role is complicated. Depending on organization’s structure, project management method used by the organization and the team’s experience the role of project manager varies widely from project to project. Regardless of the method you use or the structure of your team and type of organization you work for, you should avoid the known mistakes project managers make covered in this paper. I am writing this paper with the new project managers and those with no management experience in mind. The best way to become a good project manager is by practice and learning from our own and other project manager’s mistakes and successes.
25 Common mistakes project managers make
1-not understanding project manager’s role
Ask yourself what is my role as the project manager in the project I just started? What is my job description? Who is my customer, to whom I report to and what are my responsibilities? Do I work for a project centered company like Apple Corporation or for a company that uses vertical structure like most old fashion businesses? In companies which use vertical department structure the employees in the project report to a department head and not to the project manager. Both vertical and horizontal approaches have their strengths and shortcomings. I strongly believe project centered companies achieve more because it elevates the project to the center of business attention, activity and importance. In a vertical structure company the job of the project manager is a lot more complicated since most of people working on the project don’t directly report to the project manager. The project manager needs to negotiate and get the help of department managers when resources are needed for the project.
2-Not underestimating project scope
It is extremely important to define, document and understand the project scope. What is the project’s ultimate goal? What features and deliverable will be in the product or service we plan to make? How much it should cost? When we plan to release the product or service? What processes and technologies we will use to make the product? Is the product or service developed entirely in house or we will use outside contractors? How the product or service interacts with humans and other products? Is it targeted for business or consumer users?
To have a complete project scope you need to answer all the questions listed above and maybe more. Project scope should be the first task undertaken when a new project begins. It should be shared with the team and agreed upon by all project stakeholders before development starts.
3-Not knowing team’s strength & weaknesses
Not all teams are equal and not every member in the project is as capable of doing work as others. It is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team as a whole and for each individual member. Think of your job as a baseball coach and learn how they evaluate players. A baseball coach knows or learns the strength and weakness of each team member and his team. he knows who is his best pitcher or catcher. As a project manager you need the same level of detail about each team member plus an overall assessment of what your team is capable of doing. If you have not work with your team before, how do you know their strengths and weaknesses? First you need to talk to each member and ask what they have done in the past and how they evaluate their own performance. Then you talk with their colleagues and supervisor to calibrate the information you gathered. You catalog each member in functional areas like software, firmware, hardware and marketing. Then you create a score for each from 1 to 5 when 5 is for the superstars and 3 is for the average performer. It is a great idea to get the help of other project managers who have worked with members of your team before to come up with scores for each member.
New college hires are the dark horse here. They sounded good in the interviews, but how they will perform under pressure remains to be seen. Rate them as 3 until they have proven themselves otherwise.
This is a mistake a lot of managers do. It is human nature to give others the benefit of the doubt. We like to help people succeed and firing people is never a pleasant experience. I am not saying that you should be heartless and with smallest mistake let people go or punish them. If you realize any member of your team does not perform well, first talk to them. Try to find out the problem they are having and provide training if possible. If the problem is their fault but could be remedied, give them time and resources to correct it. Make sure to support them if they are genuinely trying to fix the issue. If the problem persist your first and foremost responsibility is to get rid of them. One bad apple rots the whole team.
In vertically organized company you need to work with the department head the employee belongs to to solve performance issues.
5-Not planning for Risks
Every project worth doing involves some risks. Market conditions change, your competitor comes up with something more awesome than what you are working on. Your suppliers or contractors might have major issues delivering what you need. The political climate changes which is always a huge issue for defense and health industries. If these things happen what will you do? Do you have a plan in place to put in motion to remedy the problem? You need to figure out risks about your project and have a plan on how to fix each issue if they ever materialize. Risk planning is extremely important for larger and more costly projects. It is the job of the project manager to foresee risks, create an impact estimation and define how to respond to the issues which will arise throughout project life cycle.
6-Not Seeking & getting executive sponsorship
The corporate world is ruthless. For your project to get the right funding and attention, you need a senior executive in the company to champion and sponsor your project. If you can’t find such a champion then it might be that your project is not the right one for the organization you are working for. In startups this problem does not exist, since almost always the whole team is working on one project and everybody in the organization from CEO to the most junior member is dedicated exclusively to that single project. In short in startups the project is the company.
7-Trying to be everybody’s friend
As a project manager you should not fall into the trap of niceties and believing if you are friend with everybody, the project will move forward faster. Yes it is true that you need to be pleasant and courteous at all time. But, don’t confuse being courteous by being friend with everyone in your team. You are the leader of the project, not everybody’s best friend. Your team should respect you and accept your leadership because of your qualities and your experience, not because they thing you are their friends. You should be honest, direct and demanding with everyone in your team. It is important for you to be able to give honest feedback to each team member.
8-Not asking for help when needed
If something goes wrong which you don’t know how to fix or there are situations in which you need the experiences of a senior manager, ask for it. Don’t let small problems become major issues because you hesitated or were afraid to ask for help. It is always easier to fix a problem as soon as it is detected than waiting for a while before tackling the issue. There is the wrong assumption by many project managers and executives that asking for help shows weakness. This is a by product of MBA and management educational programs. After-all in the MBA program self reliance and problem solving is emphasized greatly. In real world what is good for the organization is of paramount importance. By asking for help at the right time you show maturity and care for the project. I am not saying every-time you face a challenge you should run for help, but after you have done your best and still can’t find a solution you should ask for help.
Without effective communication and collaboration most projects will fail. In fact lack of proper communication is the leading cause of project failures. As a project manager you need to have a communication plan in place from the start of the project. Throughout the project life cycle you need to encourage and enforce the communication and collaboration within the team and with outside stakeholders. You need to make sure your team and all project stakeholders know how and when to communicate and collaborate effectively. Good communication tools are essential for effective collaboration. Keep short but focused daily status meetings. These meetings go a long way to facilitate communication and collaboration. Make sure that everybody in your team, specially the senior members are always accessible by junior staff for consultation and brain storming.
10-Hesitating to make decisions
Most of the time a bad decision is better than no decision. As a leader it is your job to make timely decisions. Not always you have all the facts or have time to research an issue before you have to make a decision. In those times you need to rely on your basic instinct. If time permits ask somebody with experience for help. If you don’t have access to such a person, make a decision based on your best judgement. Rely on your judgement and your past life experiences to make better decisions.
11-Not having contingency planning
During the project life cycle always shit happens. People get sick or resign, tasks don’t finish on time as promised, your vendor is late etc. A good manager always has a contingency plan in place. The format of contingency plan is quite simple. You list if something happens we will do such in its place. Having a contingency plan in place for project’s internal issues will help to keep the project on track when bad things happen. Notice risk management we covered above is different than contingency planning. Risks are major issue that might happen because of outside forces. They could be lethal to the well being of the project as a whole. Here we talk about day to day issues which need immediate solution.
12-Letting your ego get better of you
There is no worse trait than ego for a leader. An important difference between a leader and a boss is the lack of ego in the later. Project managers should be confident, asserting and leaders. The last thing you want to see in a project manager in excessive ego and unwarranted self appreciation. Project manager’s role requires being able to be humble, relate with people, communicate and tolerate big egos of some of your contributors (specially in knowledge work field like software).
13-Using the wrong project management tools
You need to match the tool which you use with the make up of your team, the complexity of the project and your experience as a project manager. A good project management tool should have good resources for managing and monitoring tasks. Gantt charts should be one of the things you check in any project management tool. Regardless of the project management methodology you use like Agile, Waterfall and Hybrid, Gantt chart are indispensable. Selecting the right project management tool will help the team to be more productive and achieve more.
14-Changing the plan too often
Just because someone gives you advice or criticizes your plan, is not a good enough reason to change your plans. Of course getting feedback is a good sign of leadership, but you need to evaluate all feedback you get and see if they fit your project’s scope and road-map. Changing project plans too often has a devastating effect on team’s moral and the project outcome. This is specially true with features creep. Just because your competition announced a new feature does not mean that you automatically need to change your plan. You need to evaluate the situation and decide if changing the plan at this stage makes sense or not for your project.
15-Not being a leader
I have mentioned before that the most important attribute of a good project manger is leadership, but it is worth repeating it again here. Our societies and our development teams are getting more and more democratic. The old days of the boss ordering workers to work hard, are gone specially in knowledge work field. You can’t manage by fear and intimidation but due to respect others have about your judgment, ability and character. Only a leader can function for the long term in such environment. Try your hardest to be a leader and not a boss. Bosses could be easily discarded and replaced. On the other hand leaders are invaluable and hard to replace.
16-Not understanding the project’s underlying technology
I know this is probably the most controversial paragraph in this paper. To be a good project manager you need to have a firm grasp of the underlying technology used in the project. If you manage a software project, you better understand the differences between firmware, desktop software and writing code using scripting language for designing a website. If you are managing a hardware project, you better have a good grasp of processors, design and manufacturing. The craftsmen in each subject are not interchangeable. A firmware project involves much more risk and it is a lot more challenging than designing a website. In the MBA schools they teach that managers need only management tools to succeed and the knowledge of the underlying technology used in the project is not important. They are dead wrong. Most successful projects are lead by those who understand the technology used in the project at a deep level.
17-Not rewarding overachievers
A leader acknowledges good work. Make sure to reward high achievers in your team. It is not always financial rewards that work best when rewarding employees. Announcing to the entire company or the world what an amazing work someone has done, is extremely satisfying and boost the moral tremendously. If the team finishes a phase of the project on time, throw a party and celebrate with your team. If you can reward high achievers financially too regardless of the amount you can dish out all the better.
Most engineers and developers are too optimistic by nature when they give estimates of work that needs to be done. When you gather their input to put a schedule together you need to make sure the data is as accurate as possible. Ask each developer to give a 3 point estimation for every task he or she is responsible for. Three point task estimation will always give you a better estimates and the plan will be closer to the actual work than otherwise. Don’t try to please the management by putting forward an aggressive schedule. Be realistic and present an schedule which is real and has a good chance of succeeding.
19-Allocating wrong resources
A common mistake project managers make is that they assume anybody in the team can do the work of others. This is a dangerous assumption and the cause of many project being staffed with wrong expertise. You need experts and craftsman in each discipline in the project. Just because you have 5 software engineers in your team, it does not mean they all have the same expertise and experience. If Sue gets sick or leave, Joe might not be the right fit to pick up her tasks. As a project manager you need to understand each member’s capabilities and expertise.
20-Failing to make everyone on the team to support the project plan
Regardless of the size of your team or their level of experience, you need to make sure everybody on your team agrees and support the project plan. The project plan should not be “Your” plan but the team’s plan. You need to make sure all team members feel ownership of the project and are totally vested in its success. When people feel ownership of a plan, they do they best to make sure the plan succeeds.
21-Not having a metric for defining success
As soon as you start the project, you need to establish a metric which defines what constitute success for the project. This metric may include cost, time to market, quality and other attributes. The success metric should have the support of your executive management, your customer and your team. Without success metric you are running the project blind and have no way of knowing if the team did great or not.
A lot of project managers believe the secret to being a good project manager is to pay great attention to details. This is true, but it does not mean overdoing it and try to micromanage the project or its members. You need to trust people you are working with to make good decision in their area of expertise. If you don’t have that trust, then either the team needs a new project manager or you need a new team. Give your members room to do their best instead of reporting to you constantly.
23-Not having a system for tracking bugs
A lot of project managers don’t plan for reporting, tracking and approving of bugs at the beginning of the project. That is one of major mistakes project managers make, even experienced ones. There is no product that is bug free while under development. A good bug reporting and tracking system ensures that quality products or services are released to the market. Finding bugs, reporting them and tracking them should be part of development plan from the get go. Through testing and fixing bugs before a product is shipped is what separates quality products from the rest of competition. By the way testing and bug reporting should start as soon as development starts. Waiting for the development to finish before starting testing is a huge mistake.
24-Showing stress under pressure
A leader never shows fear or stress in the face of adversary. Remember one of most important qualities for project manager is being a leader. If you can’t function in high stressful environment, stop planning to be a project manager.
A lot of corporation prefer project managers with previous military background. This is specially true in Israel and USA. The reason is simple, the main aim of military training is to enable new officers work under stress. I highly recommend to seek veterans for project management jobs. There are exercises that help to reduce stress and keep one calmer while working on stressful jobs.
25-Too much multitasking
Assuming multitasking is good for productivity is a huge mistake especially for people employed in knowledge work. Every-time one switches from one task to another, there is some waste time during transition. It take a while until a person is 100% focused after starting a new task. As a project manager you should limit the amount of multitasking for yourself and each member of your project. By limiting multitasking, you will enforce focus in the work. The productivity and quality goes up while stress and burned out goes down.
I have listed here the most common mistakes project managers make. I am sure there are more which are not covered here. If only one thing is taken by the reader after reading this article it should be that everybody makes mistakes. What differentiate between leader and others is that leader learn from mistake and develop a plan and a process to reduce them in the future.
Out of all the above mistakes project managers make, we at Binfire can help you with selecting the right project management tool. Binfire’s project management software supports most methodologies used in project management today and includes communication and collaboration features which are important to success of any project. Try Binfire for free and see for yourself how it can help your team to do great things.