Project management mistakes

#1: Pay attention to details

“I realized that I’d been sending e-mail updates to the client and spelling the name of his company incorrectly for a month.”

It seems comparatively unimportant, but to that client, the error is a sign that you don’t recognize his corporate brand. Oversights like this will cause significant, unnecessary friction.

#2: Don’t mess up the simple stuff

“At my last company, I accidentally overwrote the data files for an online project plan, leaving me to re-create large parts of the plan from scratch. I couldn’t believe it when, later that year, I lost two people’s month-load of work because I was using an unfamiliar, source-safe revision-control package — with the wrong settings.”

The moral is to make sure to be professional even when you’re doing simple stuff like backups.

#3: Stay on top of schedules

“I simply forgot about the longstanding vacation plans of one of my crucial team members when working on the project plan. Fortunately, he managed to reschedule, but I’m still having to buy him beers just to keep the story quiet.”

See the previous advice — the same comment about professionalism applies.

#4: Don’t second-guess the right decision

“Last year, I was asked by two of my most respected developers if they could take a two-week training course. I had to refuse them, I thought, due to our departmental budgetary situation. They left the company, citing my lack of management ability as one of their main reasons.”

Maybe this manager could have handled the situation better, but you have to make decisions and live with the consequences. There’s no point agonizing about “what-ifs” after the event.

#5: Don’t pretend to know what you don’t

“When I was quite new to project management, I was embarrassed to admit my lack of experience in building embedded versions of programs, which I was pretty familiar with. I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ It turned out that I had to work double-time just to stay in touch with what was happening on the project, and it resulted in a major cost overrun.”

Try not to get overconfident; that can often result in a major egg-on-face scenario.

#6: Don’t be afraid to admit your limitations or ask for help

“I recently found that one of my projects on behalf of a defense contractor was beginning to slide, but I was unsure what to do about it in a very macho culture where any admission of a mistake would have caused me to lose respect.”

The best way to lose respect is to allow your project to mess up. Every day you fail to communicate makes the task harder. If you have this problem, get it out in the open today.

#7: Learn to say “no”

“My CIO once goaded me into taking on another project when I was already really working at capacity. I lost focus, and a more important piece of work was compromised.”

This is such a common error because most everyone needs to learn to say “no” constructively.

#8: Don’t accept blame for another’s mistakes

“A senior manager asked me to put together a feasibility study. After I’d written a detailed plan and discussed the work with several senior developers, I discovered that the manager didn’t have an authorized budget. I was accused of wasting scarce resources.”

Carrying the can for someone else is unfair. Perhaps the manager will see this and cut you some slack the next time you need a favor.

#9: Forgive yourself and do better next time

“When I was asked for an unscheduled progress summary by my CEO, I panicked and left out a word in my e-mail response. The whole thing was misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. Even though the work was completed on time, I’m sure that my professionalism is still in question a year later.”

Don’t let personal history deflect you from making the next job your masterpiece. To err is human — even in project management.

#10: Don’t underestimate people issues

“I had a project that nearly came apart because I underestimated the impact of people issues within the project team. We had quite a few new developers, a few more experienced folks, and several contractors. The existing folks were part of a strong union and had adopted the “work to job description” mantra, whereas the contractors generally did whatever it took to get their deliverables done. This created a lot of tension within the team as the staff members felt the contractors were overstepping their bounds (and really they were, in order to get stuff done), and the contractors felt they were carrying the “slackers” (and really they were, in some areas). A complete mess. However, none of it was obvious until the tension started to come to the surface. By then, the schedule was compromised and had to be reworked a bunch.”

Keep a better handle on the personal issues within the team. Ask more questions, more frequently, to get at them.

#11: Take nothing for granted

“One project I was involved in went down the tubes because I didn’t check that the executive in charge had actually read the technical spec he had signed off. He then instructed a design agency to produce a product that the client couldn’t use.”

Check that your senior management has read and understands the project documentation.

#12: Keep the end user involved

“After three months and many labor hours, we delivered a RAD business tool the end users never used because it didn’t provide the functionality they required. The tool was trashed and we had to start again. The second time around, I kept the user and other stakeholders involved, and we delivered a business analysis tool they could use and be proud of.”

Keep the user involved from beginning to end in a development project. It’s the only way to be certain you will deliver what they want.

Learn from your mistakes to prevent bigger ones

Even though it may seem as though the high-pressure field of IT project management doesn’t tolerate slip-ups, carelessness is fundamentally different than failing while trying to do your best. If you (or that rookie project manager you’re training) can learn from your mistakes, then you might be able to prevent big projects from spiraling out of control.

How do I handle being sabotaged by a colleague?

One of the nasty things about political maneuvering in the workplace is that you may not realize you’re the victim of someone else’s plot until it’s too late. Here’s one story that came to my attention:

While moving up the ranks from being 1 of many engineers to vice president of the company’s entire IT group, I’ve enjoyed a solid and satisfying career with the same employer for 12 years.  Until now, I’ve never thought much at all about the “politics” that take place elsewhere.  Until now.

About 8 months ago, a new VP was hired to oversee a new venture at my company.  He’s an older guy; I’m 39 and he’s probably in his mid-50s.  From the first day he arrived I’ve gone out of my way to let him know that I’d be happy to help him with anything that could help him succeed.  Now, it seems, I was naive.

Over the past couple of months he’s made statements during our leadership team meetings that make me and my team look ineffective.  In a company project review last week, he seemed to make a point of commenting about every issue or problem my department was encountering with our deliverables.  After drawing attention to a few of them – in front of managers and department heads from several departments – he told our boss that he’d be happy to help me out by taking on the additional responsibility of overseeing all company-wide projects.  He said that he has a lot more experience with this type of complexity than anyone else (implication being me), that he’s got extra time, and that it just made sense to lend his hand to ensure we don’t miss deadlines.

I was set up and made to look like I can’t do my job.  I realize now that he’s had this plan all along and I didn’t see his office politics until now.  I think my boss is seriously considering the idea of boosting our new VP’s status and the idea infuriates me.   This has me very upset.  It’s all I can think about even when I’m at home with my family.

Am I screwed?  If it comes down to it, I will not report to this unethical and self serving jerk.  Is it time to start looking for a new job?

Well, it does sound like you’ve been out-maneuvered by the new guy.  But you may not have to start looking for a new job just yet, Gerald.  Before I give you my suggestions about your “next steps”; let’s take a minute to review what happened in your situation.

New, older guy arrives. He’s brought in at the same level as you and tasked with the success of a new venture. It’s clear that this new venture is a high priority because of his VP level and direct reporting to the big boss.  You, the younger, “home-grown” talent with 12 years at the company, and a collegial guy, offered to help show him how to get things done.  Eight months later, the new guy is pointing out all your problems and making a power play to get more responsibility. Now the boss seems to be considering the idea.

Let’s spend a minute looking at this new guy: He’s in his 50s, coming into a new firm, with a high-profile role. For him, he may view this opportunity as his last, best chance to make a big mark in his career.  And at his age, he’s seen and probably played a lot of politics over the years. Many execs don’t get his kind of chance to make a big contribution with a new employer this late in their careers.  He could be very motivated to show his expertise, and may want to be regarded as a go-to guy who can do a lot more than the other veeps.  He’s got a lot of skin in this game.

Whether or not anyone actually considers that he could potentially become your new boss, you need to make it very clear, for all concerned, that you know what needs to be done and will do what it takes to succeed.

You could also help your boss to recognize that the new guy has enough on his own plate already. We’re talking about hard-nosed tactics and actions. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Measure twice — cut once. If your team’s doing everything right, there’s less reason for the boss to make any change. That means that your key team members need to be operating at peak performance. But if you’ve got mistakes happening, take action. Immediately, have a serious conversation with anyone who’s dropping the ball. Help these individuals see the importance of doing their job, at all times, in a first class way.  And make it clear that you cannot allow any more hiccups.

2.  Check the lay of the land. Without being too obvious, find out how others in the company view this guy. Discreetly check the perceptions of peers, support area heads in HR or Finance, and your boss. Is he someone who can be trusted or do others view him with suspicion? You want to verify your feelings.

3.  Consider the Japanese management style. As far back as the 1600s, managers and warriors understood that they had similarities in their day to day activity. Miyamoto Musashi, perhaps the most famous Samurai, wrote A Book of Five Rings about strategic thinking and tactics for warriors; but it’s been studied by leaders of all types ever since. Anyone seeking strategy guidance can consider his advice for almost any situation. I’ll caution you – it’s tough stuff; but office politics can be too – with lives and careers irreparably damaged. This read may provide some ideas for you.

4. Deal with issues head-on. Get together with this guy over a cup of coffee or a drink. Do it someplace that is not his office to eliminate any potential “home turf advantage.”  Gain an understanding of his motives and his goals. Act accordingly.

Hopefully it’s not too late to deal with this issue and put it to rest.  This may also be a good time to polish up your resume and make sure you’re in good shape just in case this goes the wrong way. Even if things improve, I’d recommend that you – and all senior types – go out on at least one job interview each year.  It will help you to find out what’s out there and how things compare. This little action will keep you sharper and reduce any tendency toward complacency.