The Most Common Mistakes in Project Management – and How to Avoid Them

Jan 11, 2018
7 Min Read
Susanne Madsen Interview

Susanne Madsen Interview


There are always challenges to any project, but eliminating some roadblocks can help project managers be more successful.

It’s been said that mistakes are meant for learning, not repeating.

For project managers, it’s even more important that they learn to avoid the same goofs, or it could cost their companies lots of money and time -- not to mention put their job in danger.

With that in mind, here are some of the most prevalent errors and how to stay away from them:


1. Failing to set the tone.

Susanne Madsen, a project leadership expert, says that the first meeting about the project needs to jumpstart team enthusiasm and make sure everyone is on the same page. It should not be a time when the project manager does nothing but issue orders. “This meeting should engage the team, set goals and begin to get them excited about it – not just tell them ‘this is what I expect you to do’,” she says. “It makes much more sense to use this as a time to talk about the team, what makes the team tick, how we’re going to communicate and the eventual goals.”


2. Setting unrealistic timelines.

Madsen says she’s heard some project managers say they are behind schedule when they haven’t even started the project. Such a bumpy start means that the project manager didn’t take the time to get input from the team about a realistic timeline. She says it’s also important to take the pulse of team members with a simple “How are you feeling?” to understand if time pressures are ramping up the team’s stress level. Madsen says this question should be asked privately, and can prompt team members “to bring up all sorts of answers.” While she says that team members should be “stretched” by their assignments, “we don’t need this to be ‘Mission Impossible.’”


3. Sticking to your preferred communication method.

Just because you hate email, it doesn’t mean everyone else feels the same. Project managers must be flexible in their communication efforts, because “there really is no best way” to interact with others, Madsen says. “Tailor the approach to the individual,” she says. Still, the top five stakeholders should be given one-on-one time “and be treated as clients,” she says. “Deliver what they need, including the way they like to communicate.” She says she likes a multi-pronged approach that can include newsletters every two months, emails once a week or even workshops for gathering information.


4. Saying “yes” too quickly.

Project managers often say “yes” to changes, and that’s OK, Madsen says. But it’s not OK when that affirmative answer is given and the project manager hasn’t assessed the impact of that change, such as requiring more time or money or people. That’s when scope creep takes over – and the project manager runs into trouble. Another option may be requiring a formal change request process where a written explanation of why the scope needs to be altered must be signed by the project manager before being implemented.


5. Deciding to throw in the towel.

It’s not for the project manager to decide when a project should be abandoned. “I can highlight the business case that a project is no longer valid, that we’ve missed the boat and I can’t recommend spending any more money,” Madsen explains. “But it’s up to a steering committee or the sponsor to throw in the towel.” It’s also not up to the project manager to figuratively throw in the towel by grumbling about a project in progress that he or she doesn’t see as viable. “It’s OK to be honest with team members, but you can talk about how you can get the best out of this situation. What is there still to learn from it? Talk about their personal goals, and how this might help them get closer to them,” she says.


6. Giving lip service to risk management.

Madsen says that while project managers might complete a risk management checklist, it then is tossed aside to gather dust. “I think too many of them don’t really look at the risks and identify them. They don’t review what they’ll do and who will handle it if something goes wrong or if there is a roadblock. “It’s really very important to know what you’ll do in each case and who will mitigate it,” she says.

Finally, experienced project managers caution that it’s a good idea never to forget that project management requires people to do the work. By reminding team members continuously about why their role is important to the project’s success, you keep them engaged and focused – and that can help a project arrive on time and on budget.


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