12 common project management mistakes--and how to avoid them

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.

Why do good projects go bad? CIO.com surveyed dozens of IT executives and project managers and came up with a list of 12 Common Project Management Mistakes -- along with ways to avoid these often time-consuming and potentially costly problems.

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 other than finding the right project manager," explains Sudhir Verma, vice president of the Consulting Services & Project Management Office at Force 3, a technology solutions provider. 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.

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

[Related: Six Attributes of Successful Project Managers]

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," argues Bill Rosenthal, CEO of Communispond, which provides employee training on how to communicate effectively.

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."

[Related: How to Become a Better Communicator With Your IT Staff]

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

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," says Casey Halloran, co-founder and chief marketing officer, Costa Rican Vacations & Panama Luxury Vacations. "When [a project] has no clear head, things tend to fall apart."

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," says Sanjeev Gupta, CEO of Realization, a Silicon Valley firm that helps organizations complete projects faster. "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."

Solution: "To stop these productivity losses, a good first step is to reduce work in progress (WIP) by 25-50%," he says. "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% can double task completion rates."

Project Management Mistake No. 5: Lack of (Regular) Communication/Meetings. "Communication is the most important factor of successful project management," says Tim Parkin, president, Parkin Web Development, which provides online strategy consulting for companies to align their business with technology to achieve high growth and profitability. "Without regularly and clearly communicating, the project will fall apart."

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."

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," says Halloran. Adds Oz Nazilli, marketing manager, Easy Projects, a Web-based project management tool, "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, he says.

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]," suggests Nazilli.

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," explains Jay Melone, a former software developer and project manager who is currently the CEO of digital agency DigitalXBridge. "But missing deadline after deadline will only lead to distrust and aggravation on the part of your client."

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

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," says Carol Woolfe, project manager, Blackbaud, a leading provider of software and services for nonprofits.

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," she explains. That doesn't mean you should or need to constantly make changes -- just be open to suggestions if they help the project.

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," notes Christen Bergerud, Executive Vice President of EcoSys, a provider of planning and cost controls software. However, all too often, there is no system in place for approving and tracking changes.

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 -- are known before the change is approved. It's also extremely effective for auditing performance during and after project completion."

Project Management Mistake No. 10: Micromanaging Projects. "Don't babysit," admonishes Michael Beck, senior marketing specialist, OpticsPlanet, an online retailer selling a variety of optics-related products. "It's very common for budding project managers to treat their job like an enforcer, policing the project team for progress and updates."

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."

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," explains Tim Yocum, director of technology operations, ServerCentral. "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."

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'!" he warns.

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

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," says Kevin White, director of client relations at Netage Solutions. "Understanding what will make a project successful...ensures that when the project is completed [all] parties walk away satisfied."

Is there a common project management mistake we didn't include? Please leave a comment letting us know, along with the solution.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.

This story, "12 common project management mistakes--and how to avoid them" was originally published by CIO.

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