The Project Management Time Machine

What would you go back and do differently?

Lessons Learned | By Duncan Haughey | minute read

A vintage brass ships telegraph with the indicator set to the past

Over the years, we've all made mistakes on our projects. But hopefully, we've learned from our mistakes, big and small, to become better project managers. I can think back to errors in my early career and wince. These days, however, I share my learnings with our apprentices, hoping they will wince slightly less in the future than I do now.

If you're like me and further along in your career, what would you go back and tell your younger self to do differently?

Here's the advice I'd give my younger self if I had a time machine.

Practice Active Listening

Active listening is vital to actually hearing what's said. Active means fully concentrating on the speaker and what's being said. It's all too easy to passively listen without actually hearing what's said – without really taking it in. I find myself still doing this occasionally today, but when it happens, I quickly bring myself back to active listening mode.

Making it clear, to the speaker, that you're actively listening is also helpful, so acknowledge the speaker. You can do this by nodding, making eye contact or adopting an attentive posture.

In your last meeting, did you really hear what was said?

Accept That You Don't Have All the Answers

Stop prejudging situations. Not taking the time to talk and listen to the experts on the project is definitely hurting you, your team and the project itself. You don't have all the answers.

Take the time to sit with your team, and make use of their knowledge. Listen to all points of view to make better, more balanced decisions. Have you considered all the angles, or are you leaning towards your favoured approach without giving others a fair say?

How successful was your last major project decision when you ignored other experts on the team?

Mitigate Risks, Always

Failure to mitigate risks is a significant failing. Risk is everywhere all the time. The β€˜it won't happen to me' attitude is usually a mistake.

Make sure nobody can say they didn't know a particular risk was present. Ask the team to help you mitigate all risks and assign a single owner to each risk to ensure you're mitigating all risks all the time. Not bothering to identify risks in favour of getting on with the work could leave you exposed and in a potentially awkward situation.

These days, I review the risks and issues on my projects twice weekly. Once with the customer and once with the technical team.

When was your last risk review session?

Stop Trying to Please Everyone

Don't avoid conflict situations that need resolving, and don't try to please everyone. When you do, everything seems fine at first, until the cracks start to appear. There's a phrase that usually precedes those cracks: "I thought you said…"

A truly happy project requires being straightforward and upfront with your customer, your team and other stakeholders. Tell them exactly how it is, and then work together to improve any bad situation. It never pays to sugar-coat the truth. Try not to be too optimistic.

My team will tell you that, today, my first response to any estimate they give me is to ask whether it's realistic. By being realistic, we've built up a proud tradition of delivering on time and on budget over a long period.

When was the last time you sugar-coated the truth for a stakeholder?

Pick a Pitfall

I've encountered plenty of pitfalls through the years, some a bigger deal than others. But they had one thing in common: I would have avoided them if I could.

I could pick any one of the following pitfalls to warn my younger self about:

  • Not having a good project plan
  • Allowing scope creep or gold plating
  • Failing to manage expectations
  • Communicating poorly
  • Making false assumptions
  • Failing to manage risks and issues
  • Lacking a business case
  • Gathering requirements poorly

What's the one pitfall you would warn your younger self about?

A Final Thought

For you more experienced project managers, travel back in time – in your head – and see if what you would tell your younger self is based on something you do well today. What do you wish you'd known back then?

For the young and aspiring project managers tuning in, why not ask some experienced project managers what they wish they'd known at your age?

Ultimately, we never stop learning. And that's exactly why all businesses should employ a 'learn it all' culture rather than a 'know it all' one. No matter where you are in your career, keep learning and keep improving. You don't need a time machine to learn from the past.

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