With a few astute tips and tools, you and your team can avoid these five major project management mistakes and come out looking like the PM pros you are.
Managing a complex project is no walk in the park. In order to thrive, project managers must understand team member and stakeholder engagement, goals and challenges, budgeting, team communication, and the inevitable road bumps that will force your team to demonstrate flexibility. The thing is, even if you're not a project manager by trade, it’s more than likely you’ll take on the role in one way or another.
Juggling these moving parts isn’t a skill that only professional project managers can handle, but it does help to know some insider strategies for managing projects successfully. With a few astute tips and tools, you and your team can avoid these five major project management mistakes and come out looking like the PM pros you are.
To whet your appetite for these lessons, we’re taking a look at these mistakes from the vantage point of planning a summer food festival project. Grab a snack, and let’s dive in!
1. Not Having A Clearly Defined Project
The very first task a manager should tackle is to clearly define the project. Not defining the project by its core elements (challenges, goals, outcomes, metrics for success) is nothing more than a recipe for teamwork disaster.
Work with your team to identify the project’s preferred outcome. Establish your team’s shared goal, and ensure that it aligns with your organizational mission. Upon doing so, you can now break this goal down into smaller, more visible goals. Include a timeline with your major milestones and goals that will give your team an accessible metric for success.
Let's take the example of putting on a food festival, (because who doesn't love eating more than their fair share of delicious street food?). So let’s say you're in charge of putting on your city's first annual food festival (n i c e), but where do you begin?
Start by defining the goal of the food festival: to provide an easy, social, and fun way for residents to become familiar with their local restaurants and eateries, as well as build a sense of community around San Francisco's food culture. Of course, with an event this big there are bound to be challenges such as location, permits, vendors, unpredictable weather, and much more—all things to be aware of and ready to adapt to.
It's also important to establish a measure of success right at the beginning, and a vision of your ideal outcome. In this tasty case, the number of tickets sold and vendors participating would be great measures of a successful event. The ideal outcome is a sunny day with lots of attendees eating their hearts out in the streets of North Beach, San Francisco.
2. Failing To Get Stakeholder (and Steak Holder) Buy-In
One of the most costly mistakes a project manager can make is not getting the necessary employee and executive buy-in before beginning. In fact, 33% of projects fail because senior management doesn’t get involved. As the old saying goes, “one bad apple can spoil the bunch” and indeed just one VIP can stall even the best laid plans.
In order for a team to function at the highest level, each and every team member must completely buy into the vision and process. It is the responsibility of the project manager to ensure that every team member feels as engaged as possible.
Furthermore, support from top-level executives is crucial to a successful project. A great project manager communicates openly, and helps every stakeholder understand the project and the importance of their role.
It's hard to believe that it would be a problem to get stakeholders in line for a tasty food fest, but you can’t assume without confirming buy-in. Stakeholders need buy-in from not just the many restaurant vendors (aka the steak holders, amirite?), and event planning committees working to make this event successful, but also from local officials and city committees for permits and park use.
One of the best ways to get buy-in is to involve your stakeholders in the planning process and give them a voice at the table. Whether it's at a public park or involves closing down several blocks in a busy neighborhood, there are a handful of people who need to give the OK to get this party started.
3. Scope Creep
Chances are you’ve experienced scope creep, even if you weren’t entirely aware of it at the time. Scope creep is when the original goals of a project expand after the project has already begun. It's subtle changes, hence the creep, that result in projects taking much longer to complete and deliverables that are far from the original vision.
It’s a common scenario: A project previously scoped out in a set number of steps becomes more complex as time goes on. Your team will often be expected to complete the added work without being further compensated for it, and in the worst cases you will be expected to complete the project with the same timetable.
The good news is, if you monitor the progress of a project correctly scope creep can be avoided all together. Project managers must be vigilant about defining the project scope before the work begins. As time goes on, however, the project’s vision may change, and it’s up to the project manager to monitor the scope, and update it when necessary. It’s important to revisit goals, keep information organized and track against the budget.
A food festival has a simple goal of entertaining with food. But as we brainstorm and get more voices involved, new ideas are bound to emerge like: Will there be kid-friendly stations? What about live music for our attendees to enjoy? What about resources for dogs?
Slowly but surely, the original plans will become more extravagant (for better or worse), and it's the job of the project lead to ensure enthusiastic ideas don't overwhelm the time and budget restrictions. A great way to make sure the project stays on track is having a weekly or bi-weekly sync to revisit goals, milestones, and budget with your core contributors, and update the scope only when necessary.
4. Lack of Regular Communication
All great teams have one major thing in common: They communicate frequently and effectively. In fact, one of most common complaints employees have about their company is that there is a lack of effective communication.
The key here is effective, as you don't want to over-communicate and distract your team with excessive email and constant interruptions. On average, employees check their email 36 times in one hour, after which it takes them 16 minutes to refocus after handling their email. That's a lot of wasted time!
Most project management mistakes can be avoided by mastering the art of communication and engaging the right people. This means clearly articulating the project’s scope, vision, and timeline as well as each team member’s role, responsibilities, and expectations. In-person communication is valuable, however, utilizing online chat, video, and collaboration on shared documents can help distributed teams stay just as easily on the same page, whether near or far.
While conveying important information to your team is vital, learning to listen to each stakeholder is arguably the most critical part of project management communication. Spend time with your team, ask questions, and give each individual an open platform to share their opinions, challenges, and successes.
If you are collaborating online make sure you respond just like you would in a meeting. Recognize each team member’s contributions. The more your team members feel like an important part of your project, the more effective they will be. On the flipside, if your team members feel like their feelings and opinions don’t matter they will more than likely be unable (or unwilling) to perform their best work.
A shared planning process can also positively impact buy-in since folks get to have a seat at the (picnic) table. With so many different people involved, having a single, accessible place to communicate and store plans, timelines, policies and any other project documentation is a must. A flexible project tracking tool can help visualize your timeline, milestones, and easily track responsibilities. To document the details of our event, content collaboration software lets all your teammates collaborate on scheduling documents and menus, ensures everyone has the latest versions of documents, and cuts down on unnecessary back-and-forth clarifications by email.
5. Not Being Flexible
As previously mentioned, it’s important to monitor your scope as your project evolves in order to avoid unwanted time constraints and added costs. Equally important, however, is to ensure that the project is executed with flexibility.
Flexible management goes hand-in-hand with enabling proper communication and assessing progress. Every project is different. And every project will present unique challenges that will need to be faced head-on with a cool head and the ability to adapt. This doesn’t mean that project managers should constantly be focusing on what they can change; it just means that when new challenges present themselves, managers should be entirely transparent with their stakeholders and create a new approach to solving the problem.
Remember this rule: Be definite in your vision and flexible in your approach.
Here’s one such spicy scenario: Your food festival that was supposed to be in the streets of North Beach is no longer feasible due to required permits that will take too long to get approved in time. But fret not! Because you kept your communication open and accessible with the right people, you were able to secure a backup location that met our requirements. Your new location even has more space, which will mean reorganizing the vendor layout and potentially adding extra entertainment. See it as a challenge, or just another reason for more cheese fries.
Knowing that any event or project will always run into challenges and blockers, develop a backup plan or alternative options with your team to help save time and stress.
Cooking Up Great Projects With Less Stress
Avoiding these five critical mistakes is great insurance for successfully completing any complex project. Seeing as most of the mistakes boil down to a lack of communication and engagement between team members, using collaboration tools to keep your team in sync can be valuable for project management by helping you communicate transparently, organize important details and documents in one place, and keep work moving forward.
For more tips, check out this handy guide on project management for non-project managers.
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