Project Management Mistakes

I found an interesting link discussing common Project Management problems and suggested solutions, and I found myself questioning the advice given…–and-how-to-avoid-them.html

So many projects, so much mismanagement. That’s the refrain of many IT executives. Indeed, even with project management software, IT projects often wind up taking longer (much longer) than planned and costing more than budgeted.

I have previously covered the issue of how many failed projects there actually are, the proportions are really quite frightening: Most projects will fail by conventional measures, they will go over budget, be late or the scope will change, even with ‘good’ planning and contingency. So an assessment of “why?” is a great idea, but many companies are still stuck in a rut of doing the same thing and expecting different results.

The Survey in the link above and the proposed solutions is nice to see, but to me it felt as if the respondents were trying to solve problems by doing the same things that have failed previously – only suggesting that if they had done it ‘better’ it would be different, rather than considering that maybe the process that was at fault?  I wondered how applying an Agile perspective might offer different solutions to try.

I do not intend to be (too) critical of the original responses, they were clearly made by experts in their field and may very well be the right answer, but I have taken each issue – all of which are common project management issues, and I have applied an Agile head when offering a solution.

I don’t claim my solutions are right or better, but they may offer a slightly different perspective on persistent problems. And reflect how I would advise the problems should be resolved.


Project Management Mistake No. 1: Not Assigning the Right Person to Manage the Project.

Typically during resource allocation, most of the effort is focused on finding the right resources rather than finding the right project manager. Indeed, too often project managers get picked based on availability, not necessarily on skill set. However, an inadequately trained and/or inexperienced project manager can doom a project.

Traditional PM Solution:

Choose a project manager whose skill set(s) match the project requirements.

Agile solution:

1) Ask whether the project even needs a Project Manager, it may be that the content and scope could be ‘owned’ by a single ‘Product Owner’  When it comes to a project that involves integrating many independent components from different sources and there isn’t a clear hierarchy or dependency then a Project Manager may make sense, but where the project is delivery of a product increment, or there is a clear hierarchy and dependencies it is not clear to me what value if any that a PM adds, it becomes an extra layer of bureaucracy but no added value.

2) However the traditional answer applies in an Agile environment. Finding a Product Owner that has the right knowledge and skill set is vital, as is empower them appropriately. Finally have them focused entirely on this one and only product. Multi-tasking will generally lead to problems with one or both projects.

Project Management Mistake No. 2: Failing to Get Everyone on the Team Behind the Project.

Too often, projects are doomed to fail because they didn’t get enough support from the departments and people affected by and involved in the project. Either managers: 1) Didn’t make clear what everyone’s role was. 2) Didn’t describe the personal payoff everyone would get when the project was completed successfully. 3) Didn’t tell how each person’s contributions to the project would be evaluated. And/or 4) Failed to generate a sense of urgency about the project, leading the team to think business as usual will be fine.

Traditional PM Solution:

The project manager should start by calling the team together (being certain to include off-site staff via the best technology available) and delivering a presentation about the project and its significance in a way that gets everybody fired up.

Agile solution:

1) The Product owner should share the vision with the team, show how their part fits in with the big picture. The vision is crucial and should be clear to everyone. (just as above)

2) Where possible have team members dedicated to the project, this immediately builds ownership and commitment, have them co-located with colleagues and build a team. Motivation to team mates is more effective, more consistent and has greater longevity than that which can be created to a project.

3) Have the team involved in setting goals and expectations; the more involved they are the more they will buy-in to the project. Give them ownership of the design and the level of quality, a self-set target is more meaningful than an imposed one.

4) Discussing Personal payoff is not helpful, we are trying to build a team, in software projects like any cognitive task both carrot and stick are counter product and can be demonstrated to reduce productivity. It is far better to build a good team and share a vision, a well-motivated team does not need a sense of payoff, successful delivery of a product is motivation enough. A shared purpose and shared success.

5) Again a sense of urgency is not a helpful tool for motivating software teams, ‘Urgency’ should be reflected in prioritization not pressure or deadlines. An appropriately motivated team should work at a sustainable pace.  Let’s talk in terms of priority: Urgency is a reflection of poor management and poor planning, projecting that failure on to the team is in my opinion a sign of failure of management.

One final note – “Failed to generate a sense of urgency about the project, leading the team to think business as usual will be fine”   I find this to be a very bizarre comment, in my opinion “Business as Usual” is fine, in fact business as usual is great. If I have a team that works at a sustainable and predictable pace that is the holy grail for a project manager, or it should be. A known quantity, and one that can run and run and run like the Duracell bunny is what any project manager should desire.

Why would anyone thing that driving a team into the ground to meet an urgent deadline, followed by a crash of exhaustion, staff potentially off with stress, or quitting, or any of the other consequences of deliberately overworking and pressuring staff is actually a good thing?

Whilst meeting an unrealistic deadline set by someone outside of the team may well be the priority of a PM, it is naïve to assume you can move teams from one project to the next without a break always expecting them to work with a sense of urgency.  It would be far better to think of the team as a machine that takes a while to get up to speed, whilst you may be able to stress the engine and push it to the limit, to do so regularly or for prolonged periods will cause damage. Whereas a good engine run at a sustainable pace can run for far longer.

Ultimately, It comes down to a question of respect. If you treat your team right, they will work well for far longer and be far more productive in the long-term.


Project Management Mistake No. 3: Not Getting Executive Buy-in.

Traditional PM Solution:

Somebody at the higher levels of the organization needs to own the project from start to finish and be personally vested in its success, When a project has no clear head, things tend to fall apart.

Agile solution:

1) A single Product owner should be empowered, and personally vested in the success and assigned exclusively for the duration. If the Product Owner cannot be sufficiently empowered to achieve success, then your organization has more serious issues.

2) Not all projects need a senior sponsor, but they do need support appropriate to the project.

3) Senior sponsorship for the way you work is vital – By which I mean Framework – in this case Agile. The organisation needs to be behind the delivery method. If the project is necessary then the project leader needs to have the backing of the company to get it done. Any block to agile delivery needs to be aggressively unblocked and sometimes this required uncomfortable change in attitudes, and that will require senior sponsorship.


Project Management Mistake No. 4: Putting Too Many Projects into Production at Once.

Most managers think that they can get more done by starting all projects at once, but in reality, it’s counterproductive. Multitasking slows people down, hurts quality and, worst of all, the delays caused by multitasking cascade and multiply through the organization as people further down the line wait for others to finish prerequisite tasks.

Traditional PM Solution:

To stop these productivity losses, a good first step is to reduce work in progress (WIP) by 25-50 percent. This reduces the back and forth and makes managers and experts more responsive in dealing with issues and questions. Though counter-intuitive, reducing the number of open projects by 25-50 percent can double task completion rates.

Agile solution:

The same as above: reduce WIP, far too often we resort to claiming credit for starting work, or for claiming it is in progress.  The only metric that matters is completed work.  If limiting the number of projects on the go, results in more projects being completed then what are you waiting for?

I’d like to write more on this topic, I feel this is so crucial to success, the number of times teams are held up because of competing demands on networks teams, DBAs or deployment pipelines or any number of other critical resources. The impact of these are often unmeasured, but simply reducing the number of concurrent projects relieves the context switching and demand on these resources. Which is an immediate easy win.

But more that if you can deliver 4 projects in 12 months, why not deliver 2 of them in 6 months, and then 2 in the following 6 months.  That is two projects delivered 6 months early without any additional work and without delaying anything, you may even find they get done quicker.

Project Management Mistake No. 5: Lack of (Regular) Communication/Meetings.

Communication is the most important factor of successful project management. Without regularly and clearly communicating, the project will fall apart.

Traditional PM Solution:

Pick a day and time to meet each week (either virtually or in person) that works for the team (not just the project manager) — and stick with it. Having specific days and times scheduled, in advance, helps to keep everyone on the same page and keeps the project flowing.

Agile solution:

Meet daily, co-locate the team to reduce further any delay in communication.  Use information radiators (Whiteboards to the rest of us) to prominently display  useful and pertinent information.  If the information is useful you need it now, if you can wait a week for it, it probably isn’t that important.

Communication in Agile is crucial, anything that can be done to reduce the barriers to communication should be considered a priority, getting team members and those peripheral to the team communicating effectively is vital. Co-locate where possible, a daily stand-up is a scheduled opportunity to get together and share, but for anything critical even a daily meet up is not quick enough. But communication should be useful, timely and concise.

Project Management Mistake No. 6: Not Being Specific Enough with the Scope/Allowing the Scope to Frequently Change.

Any project that doesn’t have an ultra-clear goal is doomed, scope change is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to your project. If not handled properly it can lead to cost and time overrun. Even something small, like changing the color of a logo or adding a page to a website might cause unexpected delays.

Traditional PM Solution:

Define the scope of your project from the outset and monitor the project regularly to make sure you and your team are keeping within the scope. And to avoid delays and deviation from the original scope, track change requests separately from the original project scope, and provide estimates on how it will affect the schedule and get explicit customer/stakeholder approval for each change.

Agile solution:

“Even something small like changing the color of a logo might cause unexpected delays”   Wow!  And the solution is to “Avoid delays and deviation from original scope”  Wow!

I am utterly stunned by this problem and the response.  First everyone involved in a project does or should understand that Change causes delays, any client that expects to be able to change a Logo or add a page without a consequential delay, is extraordinarily naïve or is being misled.  Very simply work takes time, sometimes even removing work takes time.  A product Owner or PM should be able to candidly discuss this with the client, if the client is asking for change they should be made aware of the impact and that information should help shape their decision.  If you cannot have this conversation then there is insufficient trust between you and the client, and rigorously enforcing terms of the original contract is not going to promote trust.

In my opinion the response is shocking, just who is the Client here?  If the client has changed their Logo, then who would consider it sensible to plough on with a solution that is wrong? Refusing to accept change is not working for your customer, it is self-serving and ultimately futile.  This stubborn refusal to accept change is the primary reason Agile has been the huge success it has, because the customer is respected.  In Waterfall the goal is to conform to a contract, in Agile the goal is to give the customer what they want. The difference between the two is a happy customer and an irritated customer seeking a new supplier.

Example: If we consider an extension to a house, upfront I may have architectural drawings, and building plans, and I may get a builders quote based on those plans.  But as the build progresses I decide that I’d like to change the position of a window or I change my mind about the type of tiles, or kitchen units. As the customer that is my prerogative.

Situation A:  Builder says, “No! that is not what we agreed, you must stick with the plan and keep the materials you specified.  If you want to change this, you must wait until we are done, then rip out the work and redo it later.”

Situation B: Builder says, “Yes! But it is not what our estimate was based on, changing the plan and materials may increase the cost, and may take a little longer. So long as you are comfortable with the impact we are able to accommodate your requests.”

And Just for fun – and this generally doesn’t work so well for building work where planning permission is needed upfront but still…

Situation C: Builder says, “Let’s build the initial framework and you can defer making the decisions about the layout and internal fixtures until later, when you are better able to envision the situation.

Project Management Mistake No. 7: Providing Aggressive/Overly Optimistic Timelines.

The intentions are noble, as project managers are often trying to keep their clients happy. But missing deadline after deadline will only lead to distrust and aggravation on the part of your client.

Traditional PM Solution:

Good project management software will allow you to manage many work items and the bandwidth of available resources. However, it’s still important to add a buffer providing some extra time and money to your project, especially in the world of technology.

Agile Solution:

The proposal of Better software, and more micromanagement and adding contingency to counter optimistic timelines, is the opposite of good agile practices.    Once again I completely disagree with the proposed solution.

Solution 1) If the timelines are unrealistic this should be addressed, the team (dev or management team, or customers) should assess why they are coming up with unrealistic estimates, and modify behaviour accordingly.  Discuss why a timeline is needed, and plan accordingly.  If we must meet a specific date then we plan the solution accordingly, if we must keep to a certain budget, we can plan the solution accordingly, but an estimate is not the same as a deadline. See blog post…

Solution 2) Rather than adding buffers and contingency, how about prioritizing content and being flexible with the scope to meet a timeline if the timeline is critical, or being flexible with the time.  It is a controversial comment but I find the routine practice of PMs padding estimates or surreptitiously adding contingency is counterproductive, it causes mistrust, and is ultimately futile as management will react by demanding earlier delivery believing that estimates are padded.  I’d much prefer to be open an honest, and build trust, I keep management informed of progress and allow them to make decisions on true and upto date information.

Solution 3) Fancy software doesn’t help. The more you micromanage the less productive the team becomes.  For a former software developer and general technophile, when it comes to project management I’d actually prefer to have no software tool at all.  A Kanban board and a backlog of stories on Index cards is actually very powerful, software has value in some circumstances but most of the time the simple approach is sufficient and clear to everyone involved.

Project Management Mistake No. 8:

Not Being Flexible. While you may think of your project plan as your bible, telling you what needs to be done, by whom, and when to do it to get to your goal. Don’t hesitate to listen to new information and suggestions that come up along the way.

Traditional PM Solution:

It’s good at various intervals to step back and take a fresh look at the overall project, review how things have gone so far, and how you can improve your future work based on what’s already changed along the way. That doesn’t mean you should or need to constantly make changes,  just be open to suggestions if they help the project.

Agile response:

Schedule regular retrospectives, make the act of trying to improve a regular part of your job. Actively look for ways to improve, a passive ‘being open to change’ is not enough. We need to seek to improve and have a willingness to continually find even small ways to grow. Many small improvements can lead to significant benefits.

Project Management Mistake No. 9: Not Having a System in Place for Approving and Tracking Changes.

Often, success or failure of a project hinges on the changes that occur after it begins. However, all too often, there is no system in place for approving and tracking changes.

Traditional PM Solution:

Having a clear process that must be followed is the best way to ensure the pertinent details: how much it will cost, why it is necessary, the impact on the overall project etc., are known before the change is approved. It’s also extremely effective for auditing performance during and after project completion.”

Agile solution:

Change is a part of software development, no amount of planning can ever reveal everything, there will be change, so plan for it from the outset.  Prioritise work rather than plan in detail, allow for priorities to change and expect them to change. Allow for new work to emerge, and consider and plan for the possibility of failure.   As with the traditional PM approach, why; cost and impact need to be considered, but these are a factor of priority. Any heavy weight review process is unnecessary.

Failure is deemed bad in all circumstances, but that is not the case, to fail early may actually save significant costs compared to failing later. This should he heralded a success, but too often all failure is considered bad. Failure can lead to successes later. Not learning from failure or continuing along a failing path is the real waste. But too often any failure is not tolerated and this can be very damaging.

Project Management Mistake No. 10: Micromanaging Projects.

Don’t babysit, It’s very common for budding project managers to treat their job like an enforcer, policing the project team for progress and updates.

Traditional PM Solution:

Instead of babysitting the project team, let it be known from the start [i.e., the kick-off meeting] that there will be regularly scheduled updates for the duration of the project. This lets your team know that status updates and progress are expected from them weekly and will encourage them to vocalize any issues or delays in advance.

Agile Solution:

Don’t allow the Project Manager or Product Owner to micro-manage, it is the job of the Scrum Master to coach the team to manage themselves and then the SM is to run protection – keeping the wolves at bay. PMs micromanaging is rarely beneficial and is generally damaging. The saying goes that you should hire the right people to do the job, and once you have hired them, trust them to do the job right.  If you have hired the wrong person no amount of micromanaging will help, and if you have the hired the right person micromanaging will only hurt.

Project Management Mistake No. 11: Expecting Software to Solve All Your Project Management Issues.

I’ve seen people throw software at problems all too often, and though projects become enumerated and more visible, the underlying process is still broken,” “What you end up with in that case is a potentially costly piece of software only serving as a checklist of projects in motion without any thought given to advancing each project/milestone effectively.

Traditional PM Solution:

Choose project management software wisely — something all members of the team will be comfortable using. Then make sure to train users properly and set up a system for tracking projects. Above all, don’t let human capital be “overshadowed by the allure of software solutions’!”

Agile Solution:

Fancy software doesn’t help. The more you micromanage the less productive the team becomes.  When it comes to software project management I’d actually prefer to have no software tool at all.  A Kanban board and a backlog of stories on Index cards is actually very powerful, software has value in some circumstances but most of the time the simple approach is sufficient and clear to everyone involved.  Naturally many projects involve more than a single stream of software and in that case a software tool may be useful, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the software development streams.

If we limit scope to be a software development stream, then simple metrics on backlog, cumulative flow and perhaps velocity should be more than enough to check progress towards milestones. But in this case the Product Owner is the best source for the health of a software project.


Project Management Mistake No. 12: Not Having a Metric for Defining Success.

Traditional PM Solution:

The very first thing a project manager should do is ensure he understands what the end users will consider a successful completion to the project,” Understanding what will make a project successful…ensures that when the project is completed [all] parties walk away satisfied.

Agile Solution:

Very similar, a clear Vision for the project is key, but a vision is not a set of requirements it is a concept.  Ensure that the Product Owner and the team understand the vision and any intermediate milestones.  But the goal is satisfaction of the customer,  that is the only metric that matters. Ongoing conversation to ensure they are satisfied with the progress is essential, regular reviews and conversations to ensure your solution is meeting their needs.  This is not an exercise in checking off items on a contract, it is about delivering the right solution to the customer.



It surprised me how different an agile approach is, I had expected far more overlap, after all Project Management is as old as the hills. Some solutions are common to both approaches but even then the approach whilst similar seemed to have a different goal.

But what struck me most was how Traditional solutions fell back to a desire for more control: control the scope, control the team, and control the customer. Whereas Agile was about building a team, responding to the customer and guiding not controlling the delivery. The perception of control is such a fallacy when dealing with a customers evolving needs and the unknowns of software development.


A quick Star Wars quote to finish:

“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Could it be as simple as that? As a Project Manager it seems that the more control you try to exert, the less real control you have on the delivery, but by accepting a little Agility:- whilst it may seem to be relinquishing control you are actually far better able to steer the project.

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