10 Common Project Management Mistakes and How to Correct Them

We have undertaken global research of hundreds of project management organizations around the world to determine their best practices in project management and through this process have identified 10 common problems. If you correct them, you’ll increase your success with projects.

1. Running Projects That Don’t Fit with the Strategic Direction of the Organization

Too often, project managers and project teams are working on projects that are not adding value to the organization. These projects neither support the development, enhancement and/or replacement of products, services or processes, nor do they support the organizational or departmental strategic plan, yet they are using valuable time, budget and resources that could be better utilized in more strategically driven projects. As a result, many project teams complain that senior management are not supporting their projects.

When projects support strategic planning directives of the organization, management will be much more likely to support them with resources, time and budget. Therefore, before initiating a project, make sure that it is aligned with the strategic planning directives of the organization. If it isn’t, drop it. This will increase the likelihood that the project will have the funding, resources and executive support required to help ensure its success.

2. An Organizational Culture that is Not Ready for Project Management

A project culture where people are given special project assignments without the necessary tools, training or resources to execute them is extremely unproductive and damaging to the organization as a whole. Organizations that maintain this type of project culture lose millions of dollars on special projects. The losses are not always financial—these organizations may also experience difficulty in retaining customers; both internal and external
Preparing an organization for project management is a crucial first step for project management success. This requires that management employ a change management approach to implementing project management into the organization. They must begin the process by comparing the existing project management culture to the perceived “ideal” project management culture through an organization-wide project culture assessment. This will uncover the “gap” that needs to be bridged between the current and future state the organization is striving for. Once this is done, it becomes important to create a steering committee to develop a vision, goal and strategies to build this strong project management culture. Maintain this culture by developing values and principles that reflects the approach required in the management of projects to support a strong project management culture.

3. Running Projects without Proper Training in Project Management

Organizations with successful project management in place have learned that both management and staff must have a clear understanding about their roles in ensuring successful projects and this requires an investment in project management training for both groups. Many organizations will invest in training for people working on projects to teach them how to develop a project plan but do not consider training senior management in their role as project sponsors.

Senior management provide resources to ensure the project is sufficiently staffed and also act as project sponsor. Unfortunately, more often than not, they are not aware of their responsibilities in helping to ensure project success. Their role in the organization is strategically focussed, not task focussed, and as such they don’t need to understand the details of managing a project—that’s the project manager and project team’s responsibility. However, they often don’t provide the on-going support the project requires.

Management must understand how the successful management of projects will not only benefit them but will help the organization. Their cooperation is critical to ensure timely approvals are given for Project Scope Statements, Milestone Reports, Project Change Requests and other key project documentation. So while continued training of project managers and team members is important, training of management is critical.

Therefore, train the management team, including functional management, on Strategic Project Leadership so that they understand why they should support projects and why it’s good for them and the organization. As well, be sure to provide management with early warning signs about difficulties that projects may be facing before projects reach a crisis state. While senior management does not have the time to examine individual, detailed reports on each project, nevertheless, they want and need to be kept up to date on the progress of all projects. Maintaining a regular practice of communicating and reporting through an integrated report that combines all projects into one report is a good idea. This report will provide an overview of the projects that are on-track, off-track or experiencing serious problems. It is an early warning sign to management to alert them about the status of projects and any potential risk to the organization.

4. Not Recognizing Employee Work Performance on Projects

Many employees today face a performance-reporting dilemma: they have a dual reporting relationship to both a functional manager and to a project manager or sponsor. This reporting dilemma can be an obstacle to project success unless work on projects is recognized, assessed and appropriately rewarded.

It’s common that employee job performance, reviewed by their manager or supervisor, generally reflects only the work they do according to their job description. Rarely do these job performance reviews include other work that is assigned; which is generally work assignments to a project, as a project manager or project team member. As a result, project staff will often perceive that the work they are assigned to do on projects is an intrusion to their own department’s work requirements and they will treat it as secondary in importance. This seriously impacts a project’s success.

The solution is to revise the traditional performance management system for project management so that work performance on projects is also measured and recognized and regular performance reviews incorporate the employee’s “total” combined performance into their performance appraisal. This includes their day-to-day job responsibilities as well as their project work.

5. Inconsistent Project Management Processes, Project Management Tools and Project Management Templates

Most organizations operate with a diversity of project cultures that change from one project to the next, from one department to the next. Every time a resource works on a project they have to learn a new approach, new templates, etc. This is very time consuming and decreases project productivity because there is an inconsistent approach to the management of projects. Even when there are available project management tools, project management templates and methodologies for project management, their project performance hasn’t changed because the resources do not know how to apply the processes, tools and templates for all types and sizes of projects.

Project Management best practices must be embedded into the very framework and support systems of the organization. Having effective, predictable and reusable project management tools, techniques and processes make it much easier for project managers and project teams to successfully deliver projects. Research shows that the main reasons that projects fail is due to poor planning. It shows up as a breakdown of communication, missed deadlines and running over budget. Therefore, having proper project management tools and templates combined with training on how to use them will help organizations to significantly improve the success rate of their projects.

6. The Wrong Project Structure for the Project

One factor in project failure is often the structure of the project itself. Project teams consisting of more than 8 to 10 individuals will find it difficult to report to the same project manager. Similarly, the project manager will find it challenging to maintain communication and follow-ups with too many resources reporting directly to them. Other projects are managed with resources in different parts of the country or world and suffer from a lack of clarify on reporting and on-going communications.

Project teams of 8 or less are an ideal size and are easily managed when they all report to one project manager. Project teams of more than 8 are more effectively managed when they are broken down into areas of major work responsibilities. These projects are more commonly referred to as a Program. The Program Manager will have up to 8 project leaders. Each project leader will have a project team reporting to them. They will be responsible for the management of one key element of the entire project. This program is really one large project with each sub-project having critical inter-dependencies between other sub-projects. Communication between each project leader is critical to ensure overall project success. Resources working in different parts of the country and/or world will either fit into the project team model or program team model. However, they must establish their protocols early on in the project to ensure communication and reporting is consistent and clear.

7. The Wrong Project Team for the Project

Without competency evaluation tools, the best people with the right knowledge, skills and experience will not always be assigned to a project. The 2010 research study completed by Business Improvement Architects on the effectiveness of Project Management in organizations revealed that only 15% of organizations are using competency evaluation tools for project manager and team selection. This creates less effective project teams because the best people with the right knowledge, skills and experience for the project may not be included.

A competency is the knowledge, skills, ability, and characteristics associated with high performance on a job. Competencies can also help distinguish high performance from average and low performance. Develop competencies for the Project Sponsor, Project Manager and various types of Project Team Members. Create a competency assessment to identify the competency requirements for a specific project which can be compared to the competencies of the individual resources to be assigned to the project. Identify the gaps between the project requirements and the resource capabilities. Provide training, coaching and/or mentoring to help close the gap.

8. Unclear Project Scope

Clarity in the scope of the project is critical to project success. Sadly it is very common that that project scope is unclear and leads to “scope creep;” where the project focus changes over time. This problem here is that when a Project Sponsor asks for the scope of a project, the project manager often presents a report or brief or set of PowerPoint slides. This is an overview, but not scope. Scope is described in a “Scope Statement.” It is defined by the Project Management Institute as, “The documented basis for making future project decisions and for confirming or developing a common understanding of the project scope among the stakeholders.” Unfortunately, more often than not a scope statement is created by the Project Manager in isolation and therefore lacks the support of the project team (since they aren’t involved in its development). However, a good scope statement should be carefully thought through and it should include: the project goal, deliverables, what is both “in” and “out” of scope, project constraints, etc. All too often it is generic and subject to interpretation.

The solution is to create the project scope by involving the entire project team. They have knowledge, experience and insights that will help to shape the overall scope of the project. They will provide valuable input into the final Scope Statement. As well, the sponsor should approve the Scope Statement before the project plan is finalized. The scope statement will form the basis upon which all future project decisions will be made. Any changes to budget, resources, schedule, etc. are referred to as scope changes because they will be changes to what had been agreed-upon in the approved Scope Statement. They will be documented in a Change Request. This should be attached to the Scope Statement as an addendum. The Scope Statement will not be revised. Project success if determined by examining the original Scope Statement plus all attached change requests. As long as the sum of these documents represents the current status of the project, it is therefore considered successful.

9. Lack of Sufficient Detail in the Project Plan

The level of detail in many projects is not sufficient to successfully manage them and bring them in on time and on budget. The lack of detail in the project plan generally leads to projects that lose time and commitment by the team members because they never really know where they are vs. where they should be. As well, these projects are often faced with schedule delays.

Project planning requires concentrated effort over a relatively short span of time. Depending upon project size this can take anywhere from 1 to 5 days. Project teams should never start their projects without a high level of detailed planning. This is probably a project cultural change for many project teams because so few produce a detailed project plan. For a sufficiently detailed project plan the project team will need to identify all the activities and related tasks required to successfully meet the project’s scope statement requirements along with an estimate of time duration to complete each task and assignment of a specific resource that will be held responsible for completing each task.

The creation of a sufficiently detailed project plan will have all lower level tasks at no more than 5 days duration. This level of detail means the project team can easily review project progress on a weekly basis. Tasks that are longer are difficult to assess regarding their degree of completion.

10. Project Risk Improperly Managed

Projects often get started in the right direction—project managers and their teams spend time to agree on the Project Scope and they create a detailed plan. Then something unexpected happens and the project derails because a major disaster hits. The project manager and team move quickly into their reactive mode – they identify the best options and solutions to manage this risk; based on their best ideas and experiences. But they have no opportunity to test these options and solutions because there is no time to do it in a crisis situation. They can only hope that what they’ve come up with is going to work but they can’t really know. That is not Risk Management – it is management by crisis.

Risk Management is the process of identifying, analyzing and responding to risk factors throughout the life of a project in order to provide a rational basis for decision making in regards to all risks. Proper risk management implies the control of possible future events, and is proactive rather than reactive. It will not only reduce the likelihood of an event occurring, but also the magnitude of its impact. Undertaking a risk assessment on projects is critical for project success and proper return on investment. Risk assessments must be completed at the very beginning of of the project’s execution and then continuously, every 2 to 3 months, throughout the project’s lifecycle. This will increase your project’s likelihood of success. Despite the best efforts of the project manager, it is still possible that crisis situations may arise. The best reaction is to undertake a project audit to identify the root causes of the crisis so that the options and solutions will be the right ones to bring the project back on track.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

For more information about this article you may contact Michael Stanleigh at mstanleigh@bia.ca