How to Avoid 12 Common Mistakes in Project Management

Best Practice | By Duncan Haughey | Read time minutes

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Every project manager potentially faces countless mistakes that affect projects, cause delays and, in some cases, contribute to complete project failure.

In this article, I take a back-to-basics look at why many organisations run projects poorly. Here are 12 common mistakes in project management and how you can avoid them. I also offer solutions to tighten up the PM process.

Here are 12 common mistakes in project management and how you can avoid them.

1. Employing a Project Manager Lacking Experience

Managing a project is complex and becomes even more challenging if the project manager lacks experience. Knowledge of running status meetings, developing a project plan, managing risks and issues, and dealing with stakeholders is crucial to the project's successful outcome.

Even a few projects under the belt will help project managers adjust and refine their approach and become fully effective.

You may feel this jars with my recent appeal to organisations to give junior project managers a chance. Important as an experienced PM is to project success; nothing stops that PM from being shadowed by a junior counterpart.

This way, the new PM learns the ropes while on the job, a practical personal development step after classroom training. In addition, the experienced PM is satisfied by passing on his hard-earned knowledge.

2. Poor Resource Matching

Are you selecting people for your project based on availability or skill set? All too often, we choose people just because they are available. This approach could put the project at risk if the skills and experience needed are not present in the team.

It's vital to employ the right project manager and team members to deliver on the customer's requirements and expectations.

Build a team based on skillset and experience, not on availability. Consider whether it's worth paying a premium for a small team of highly proficient and experienced people.

3. Poor Project Initiation

Is it worth having a project kick-off meeting? Many projects drift into action without a clear starting point. Everyone knows what they are doing; it's obvious, right?

Not always.

There's a tendency to forget who has been involved in conversations before the project starts. I overheard this gem from a team member speaking at the end of a particularly fraught project, I was never quite sure what I was supposed to be doing.

Everyone on the project team must be clear about the project goal, aims and objectives.

All team members need to be clear about their roles, responsibilities, key project milestones and deadline dates. They need the opportunity to ask questions if they are unsure about any aspect of their poisiton on the project or what the project is in the business to deliver.

A project kick-off meeting is hugely valuable in getting the project started on the right foot. It could be the most valuable time you'll spend on the project.

4. Poor Requirements Gathering

Many projects start with the barest headline list of requirements, only to find that the customers' needs have not been understood clearly. Often, there are gaps in the requirements, dead-ends or requests that don't make sense without additional clarification.

One way to avoid this problem is by writing a statement of requirements.

This document is a guide to the requirements of the project. Once you create your statement of requirements, ensure the customer and other stakeholders sign-up to it and understand that this is what you have agreed to deliver.

5. Lack of Clear Objective and Success Measures

The cause of many project failures is not poor planning or lack of appropriate skills. It is simply the absence of a clear objective and measures to identify success.

Ask yourself what the project is in the business of delivering? This question is difficult to answer because it needs more thought than you might expect.

When thinking about your project objective, try using the acronym DUMB - doable, understandable, manageable and beneficial - to help you. Think long and hard about why you are doing what you are doing.

Ask your customer to help you define success measures for the project.

6. Underestimating Time and Budget Needed

How much time and budget do I need for my project? The answer isn't a matter of simple allocation based on assumptions or guesswork.

How much is enough?

Recently, I was in a meeting where the customer plucked figures from the air, looking for confirmation that we could complete the project for what he considered reasonable—estimating needs to be much more scientific than that.

Start a project on the right foot by having enough resources right from the get-go. Get expert advice from people who have worked on similar projects. Take a bottom-up budgeting approach to arrive at reasonable estimates for the project.

Always avoid numbers plucked out of thin air.

A red and white road sign reading wrong way

7. Poor Communication with Stakeholders and Project Team

It can be immensely frustrating when people on a project fail to communicate appropriately and then lay the blame at your door for errors caused by their lack of communication. If you don't keep everyone on the project informed of decisions, exceptions, changes, team structures and so on, you can't be surprised when they inadvertently make mistakes.

There is no excuse for failing to communicate with your stakeholders and project team.

Communication is the lifeblood of a project, so keep all communication channels open. Keep everyone updated with the latest project status, risks, issues and developments.

If there is a change of direction, communicate it.

8. Failing to Manage Project Scope

A common cause of project failure and conflict is scope change. In a recent conversation with a project manager running a major Chicago-based project, the subject of scope came up.

I asked whether he was having problems with scope changes. He replied that the scope had not been agreed upon six months into the project, so his answer should have been a clear yes. Nobody knew what the project scope contained.

At the beginning of any project, the project manager needs to insist that the project scope is agreed upon and baselined.

The project manager must introduce a process to handle requests for scope changes. The process should follow set criteria to assess the change for impact on the budget and schedule. The project manager must present the effect of the change on the project to the Project Board for approval. In some cases, where the change has a lower impact, the board may empower the project manager to approve it.

9. Doing Everything Yourself (Ignoring the Input of Your Team)

It is never a good idea for project managers to go on a power trip and discourage ideas and suggestions from their teams. Team members are the most in touch with the challenges, risks, and issues likely to impact the project.

Ignoring their suggestions and advice may contribute to difficulties on the project or contribute to a failure in the worst cases. Team planning sessions are a great way to engage your team and give them a stake in a project's success.

I'm working with a project manager that shoots down people's ideas and suggestions because she thinks she knows the best way to approach every aspect of the project. People in her team have learned to keep quiet.

The team tend to do what they are told to do. As a result, the team doesn't have a stake in the project's success. It won't necessarily cause the project to fail, but the project manager has put herself at unnecessary risk.

10. Micromanaging the Project Team

Another common cause of conflict on projects is project managers who micro-manage their teams. All team members believe they are in the team for the skills and expertise they bring to the project. They want to feel responsible, valued and empowered.

Micromanaging these people destroys trust and can lead to a lack of confidence and motivation.

However hard it feels, letting go of the reins is essential to the well-being of your project team. It can be hard to let go and trust people. However, that trust gets repaid.

I discussed this very point with my manager recently. We both agreed that working as a team produces better results. It's also more fun.

11. Expecting Software to Solve Your Problems

Today's tools are slick, fast and cost-efficient. Specialist project management software can help with project planning, time management, team collaboration and reporting. Much standard office software, such as Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, can also help you control budgets, assess risk and manage scope.

Project management software is a tool and will not solve problems on your project. People, not software, solve problems. Don't buy software believing that it will transform your project and, as I recently read in some marketing blurb, it makes managing projects easy. The software is there to help you solve problems, not to solve them for you.

12. Not Following a Process

What's your project approach going to be? Many projects start with a fanfare and a great deal of optimism, only to get bogged down and struggle for months without delivery. It's not that people aren't working hard. They are but don't have a straightforward process to follow.

They don't know how far it is to the finish line.

It's important to know what needs to be done, the order in which it will be done and the key milestones. The best processes are those that are kept simple. They are easy to understand and have clear steps and outcomes.

Everyone knows how far it is to the finish line.


These are 12 common mistakes that affect projects. They're all mistakes that are easy to avoid with vigilance, good planning and clear communication.

Please don't assume they won't impact your project. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least one or two of these mistakes affect most projects.

Recommended read: Project Planning a Step by Step Guide, by Duncan Haughey.


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