April 17, 2018

5 Critical Project Management Mistakes that Can Sink a Project

Written by
Jeff Sullivan

At its heart, project management is all about mitigating risks and maintaining predictability. Regardless of what project management strategies you use, your primary task is to make sure that the project goes as planned.
One way to ensure this is to avoid common project management mistakes. These mistakes can creep into even the most well-planned projects and impact their success.
Below, we’ll highlight five such project management mistakes and what you can do to resolve them.

1. Not Setting Clear Project Goals

You’ll be surprised to know that many projects don’t have clear goals. The stakeholders might have a desired outcome in mind, but they can’t pinpoint the specific goal they want to achieve, or the KPI to measure it.
This is a common project management mistake that can derail even the most carefully planned projects. In fact, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2017 survey, “inadequate vision or goal” was the fourth biggest cause of project failure.

goal setting sets projects up for success

Poor goal setting often happens when there is no consensus among stakeholders about the project’s direction or success criteria. A change in requirements or an unplanned risk can also cause projects to have unclear goals.
There are several ways to establish clearer goals for your projects:

  • Ensure that all goals meet the SMART criteria, i.e. they should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.
  • Build consensus among stakeholders on the project’s direction at kickoff.
  • Use historical records to evaluate and recalibrate goals. If you’ve managed similar projects in the past, use their data to check whether current goals are manageable or unrealistic.
  • Involve team members in goal setting. Research shows that collaborative goal setting can help your team feel more involved and satisfied.

2. Not Focusing on Personalities During Team Selection

Every member of your project team has two roles

  • A functional role based on his/her skills
  • A psychological role based on his/her personality

The best teams don’t just have the right mix of skills; they also have the right mix of personalities.

After all, if your team members can’t get along with each other, you can’t really expect them to collaborate well – regardless of their skills.

“The dynamics of interpersonal relationships depend on individuals’ personalities, not on hard skills or expertise,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Dave Winsborough wrote in Harvard Business Review. “The only way to create a team that’s worth more than the sum of its individual contributors is to select members on the basis of personality, soft skills, and values,” they added.
This isn’t exactly a new belief in project management. Experienced managers might already be familiar with personality-focused team models such as Belbin’s 9 Team Roles. These models divide team members into different roles based on their personality, values, and energy-level.

Thus, team members might have different roles such as:

  • Managing stakeholder relationships (for relationship-focused extroverts).
  • Evaluating results, following best practices, and keeping the project on-track (for objective, process-focused people).
  • Motivating the team and challenging them to perform better (for high-energy, risk-taking people).

Selecting for personality and skill ensures that your people perform well not just as individuals, but as a team.

3. Not Reporting Necessary Data

It happens all too often: a complex project runs into a roadblock, catching stakeholders by surprise. In most cases, the issue could have been avoided had the stakeholders been alerted in time.

This project management mistake is usually the result of poor reporting. Managers sometimes see creating project reports as a mundane task and fail to include all the necessary information in it. The result is clueless stakeholders and delayed projects.

An effective project status report should have the following components:

  • A list of current, upcoming, and recently completed milestones along with their actual vs estimated finish dates.
  • A list of open issues and risks, as well as a brief history of changes.
  • A list of high-priority issues that require the stakeholder’s attention along with a list of action-steps to mitigate them.

Create the status report with the stakeholder in mind. Keep it as short as possible – a couple of pages should be more than enough. Use visualization wherever possible. Use frameworks such as the Green-Yellow-Red color scheme to prioritize issues.

red yellow green framework

An example of the “Green-Yellow-Red” framework to visualize and prioritize issues

You want stakeholders to understand the project’s health and know the most important issues at a glance. The more cued in they are, the fewer surprises they’ll have.

4. Not Checking in Regularly With the Project team

In 2015, Deloitte conducted an organization-wide study to evaluate its existing performance management system. The results of the study were surprising. More than half (58%) of managers said that the existing system was “inadequate” for measuring employee engagement and performance.

At the heart of Deloitte’s solution to this problem was regular check-ins. “For us, these check-ins are not in addition to the work of a team leader; they are the work of a team leader”, Ashley Goodall, director of leader development at Deloitte Services LP, wrote in Harvard Business Review. “Very frequent check-ins”, he added, “are a team leader’s killer app”.

Regular check-ins create a sense of accountability in your project team. It tells everyone that you’re looking at their performance. It also tells them that you’re available and engaged, and that if there is a problem, they can approach you for a solution.

In fact, a survey of 1,100 workers published in Harvard Business Review found that the most effective managers checked-in on a regular basis with their team members.

More than the frequency, the consistency of check-ins matters more. You can check-in daily, weekly, or monthly, but it should happen in a consistent and predictable manner. Once you establish a cadence that works for you, make sure to maintain it throughout the project’s lifecycle.

5. Not Managing Scope Creep Proactively

A PMI paper defines scope creep as “adding additional features or functions of a new product, requirements, or work that is not authorized (i.e., beyond the agreed-upon scope).”

Most project managers would be familiar with it. A client asks for a small change in the project’s deliverables. You comply because it will take just a few extra hours and you want to keep the client happy.
Before you know it, the “small change” has led to a complete shift in the project’s goals.

Scope creep usually happens when there is no consensus on the project’s scope. If stakeholders and managers have different expectations, one party is liable to over-ask (or over-charge) the other.

Preventing scope creep demands proactive change management. You need to keep a close eye on every change request and keep stakeholders alerted to the same.

Here are some tactics to manage scope creep better:

  • Involve your project team: Any time there is a change request, get your project team involved. Ask them how much the request is out of scope – 10%, 50%, or 100%? If the request is fairly within scope, fulfill it for the sake of the relationship.
  • Discuss scope changes before rejecting them: Instead of rejecting a change request as simply being out of scope, discuss the request with the client. Offer explanations as to why the request is out of scope and how many hours it would take to process it. Most clients will understand as long as you have reasonable explanations for the rejection.
  • Offer alternatives: Whenever you reject a change request, offer the client some alternatives. These could be third-party contractors, software solutions, or even an expansion of the project budget.
  • Track changes: Finally, keep a track of current and completed change requests. Include them in your status reports so clients know how far the project has gone out of scope. When a new request comes in, you can refer to the change history to justify a rejection or budget increase.

Project management is a difficult science. It requires careful planning, proactive client management, and judicious use of resources. Regardless of what project management tools you use, it is easy to make these project management mistakes. Keep an eye on this list and you’ll make sure that your project sails smoothly.

Jeff Sullivan is a content marketer at Workamajig, a leading creative project management software. Follow him on the Workamajig blog to read more such articles on project management best practices, tips, tactics, and approaches. Jeff enjoys playing the guitar and fiddling with his DJ gear in his free time.