Five of the biggest project management mistakes (and how to avoid them)

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We all make mistakes, especially when we’re first starting out as project managers. It’s something that Sonia Aslam understands all too well. An experienced project manager, currently working as senior manager for transformation and operational intelligence at Vodafone, she also regularly coaches and trains others in the art of project management.

She has found that inexperienced project managers make these five mistakes more than any others. Thankfully, they’re all easily avoidable once you know what they are.

  1. Sticking to the textbooks

When project managers are newly qualified their heads are full of their textbooks. They’ll try to fit those early projects exactly to the theories they’ve learned, rather than properly assessing the environment and culture they’re working in. That’s a formula for disaster says Aslam: “You need to use that theory as a baseline, and work out how it can be adapted for the project that you’re going to be working on. It’s one of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced project managers make. Pay attention to the company, its people and how they work, and you’ll be fine.”

  1. Not asking the right questions

The initial planning stages of a project are vital. Without a clear set of requirements, it can be very difficult to steer a project in the right direction, especially as the most critical issues surface later on in the project. And to get the information you need to plan effectively, you need to ask the right questions. Unfortunately, many project managers don’t ask enough of their stakeholders before ploughing ahead – partly because it can be quite time consuming.

“If the right questions aren’t asked at the very beginning, it can cause a lot of issues down the line,” says Aslam. “The role of the project manager is to ask the key questions of stakeholders to establish the planning stage. For example, what’s the problem you’re addressing, and why is it being addressed? You need to be continuously asking why so you can actually understand the problem that is trying to be resolved and the resources that you currently have available.”

In reality if you can wrangle everyone together this doesn’t need to take a lot of time. It can be done in a one- or two-day workshop. If it’s part of a wider programme, you might even be able to tap into the programme workshop.

  1. Not resourcing properly

Imagine you’re working on a project that involves some software development. You might need a developer, but not until much later in the project and only for about two weeks. Inexperienced project managers might bring that developer in for the whole project. “They know they need a developer, but they don’t think about how long they need that developer for. If you’ve planned well, you know exactly when you’ll need that person – otherwise that developer will be sitting around doing nothing for months on end.”

  1. Skipping risk analysis

A lot of project managers – including Aslam when she first started out – skip risk analysis. They ignore any risks until the worst happens, because they didn’t want to talk about the issues. It’s usually a product of wanting to make a good impression, Aslam explains: “You want to make yourself appear like a positive, go-getting force. The reality is, there will be issues. If you ignore them early on, those issues will grow into serious problems further down the line.”

  1. No focus on the team

Project managers tend to focus on the delivery of their project and it’s sometimes at the expense of their team, says Aslam. But managing and motivating the team is the project manager’s key role. “Make sure they know what part they play within the project and the value that they bring to it. You know what’s in it for the company, you know what you get out of it – what’s in it for your people? They need to know what their purpose is if your project is going to run effectively.”

Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 21st May 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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