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5 Project Management Pitfalls and what you can do about them

The Nature Of Common Project Management Pitfalls

The 5 most common project management pitfalls are ‘adaptive’ in nature.  They are all to do with how people interact with each other during the life of a project. Rarely are they to do with the ‘technical’ aspects of the project.  This is why  we developed our People Based Project Management approach over 15 years ago.  We wanted to combat what we saw as the overly-technical focus of the projects we worked in. If anything, our work with project mangers is telling us that the need for a people-centric approach is greater now than ever!

Consider More Human Approaches To Project Management

Project Managers who rely on digital communication, technical tools and complex governance structures are struggling.  If a project is to succeed, the manager must also consider more human approaches. They must consider the talent, commitment and energy of the people who need to be involved. The stark reality is that all project work competes for the scarcest resource in any organisation; time.  The collective time people have to improve and change is often insufficient. The “Operational Treadmill” keeps people locked into day-to-day work. Making time to consider something new is a challenge every project leader must confront.

5 Common Project Management Pitfalls

In our experience project managers always have a positive intent, yet they;

  1. Develop project briefs written without the meaningful involvement or commitment of those required to deliver the outcomes;
  2. Develop detailed project plans using tasks and untested resource planning assumptions. This means there is little or no commitment from the project team members;
  3. Create skimpy risk plans that do not deep dive into the consequences of failure.  And also fail to produce suitable prevention and contingency plans;
  4. Fail to develop pro-active stakeholder plans to keep key players involved, engaged and committed to the project;
  5. Struggle to manage the dynamics of the project team meetings. Wasting the opportunity to make them effective, efficient, enjoyable and great value for time.

Why Do These Project Management Issues Persist?

So why do these issues persist despite all the evidence and training?  In my experience, the reason usually given is ‘time’. Project Managers lack the time to get projects off to a great start.  They compromise from the get-go and develop sub-optimal plans that they have to amend, constantly. They get trapped because they failed to gain real commitment from project team members and key stakeholders. They then have to compensate for this lack of commitment throughout the life of the project. They don’t understand who they should be communicating with and what they want to hear.  As a result, they produce a lot of email chatter and project noise that gets lost in the “noise” we all hear each day. They also get blown away by issues and challenges that arise during the project that they could have predicted and planned for. Finally, they do not have the adaptive skills to deal with the characters in the project who can blow the project off-course.

What I find interesting is that these issues are rarely to do with a lack of knowledge. I often have experienced project managers in my training and coaching sessions who know what they should do.  Yet, they then find all kinds of reasons for doing just an OK job this time. The excuse they usually cite is time. I hear things like;

  • “I did not have time to get the team together and mobilise them well”;
  • “I had to develop a plan myself as others did not have the time to get involved”;
  • “I could only see some of the risks and the other members of the team did not comment on my email”;
  • “We always communicate using email as it is easier than lengthy conversations”
  • “I ask for standard updates at team meetings so I can keep track on progress and manage deviation from plan”.

Not finding the time to do a great job at the start of a project leads to wasted time during the project itself.  This is the key lesson to re-learn for most of the project managers.  I say re-learn as they all know this but the challenge lies in habit breaking. Project managers need to use effective, people-centric, behaviours to tackle the real challenges within most struggling projects. They need to find unique solutions, shaped to suit the organisational culture.  The good new is that these unique solutions share some characteristics, making it easier to tackle the most common issues.

Solutions To The 5 Common Project Management Pitfalls

  1. Project Briefs – How do you create some certainty at the point in the project when you know the least?  A top tip is to view the project brief as a series of questions to answer. Involve the right people in answering them and make all assumptions visible. I find considering the project as a coach journey a useful metaphor. What destination are you heading for?  What will it look and feel like when you arrive and who do you need to take with you? Will these passengers be permanent or will they get on and off the coach at key stops along the way? What dangers will you face on the journey and how can you prepare for them? Are you planning to take a motorway route or a country lane?  (The lane might provide some interesting diversions and a chance to discover new insights along the way!) Who is driving the coach and will they drive all the way?  Will some of the passengers take over the drivers’ role for key stages in the journey?
  2. Project and Resource Plans – Apply simple rule #1 = ‘do not say yes when you mean maybe or no’. Then apply ‘milestone’ rather than ‘task’ planning mentality to the planning process. The key question to ask is not “what do we need to do?” but “what achievements do we need to deliver to reach our project destination?” Fix dates next to achievements and make these dates meaningful.  Dates should have an immovable nature to them and have an emotional resonance, if possible. For example, few people miss their flight on their family holidays. Why? The date and time are “fixed”, the event is important and behaviour changes to ensure a timely arrival at the airport. Project milestones need to mimic this level of importance. If you can achieve this then project tasks become far less important. The key question once milestones and dates are fixed is to ask  the team “can you / we do this?”  If the answer is “yes”, then you have completed the resource planning. Why? See simple rule #1
  3. Risk Planning – The key questions here are; What is going to stop us succeeding?  How likely are these things to happen and if they did what are the consequences?  What can we do to prevent or mitigate the impact when they do occur? The earlier you have this conversation, and the more people you involve, the better the quality of the outcome.  The better the chance too, of project success.
  4. Communications Plans – Who needs to know what and how best to communicate these messages to them? Be proactive, creative and professional in your communication planning, do not create unnecessary noise. Effective communication will determine the reputation of the project more than the actual activity. The final tip here is,  open the channels of communication with something other than a problem you want their help in solving!
  5. Meetings more meetings – Project meetings are a necessary part of project work so make your meetings great “value for time”. Build in personal touches to make them enjoyable and be ruthless with the agenda. Do not assume historic updates are of interest to anyone, they rarely are. Your meeting should be no more than 30% reflective; 40% in the moment and 30% future orientated. Power Point is useful, convenient and ubiquitous but hugely overrated as an engagement tool. Get creative.  If you can make your meetings enjoyable, they will become attractive to all.  Fail to do this and people will find more important things to do.

The lessons for your organisation in that how you run projects are on display every day.  Take a long hard look and click here to Talk to The Change Makers if you need help overcoming any project management pitfalls.