Oct 18 2023

Four Project Management and Leadership Pitfalls to Avoid

Project Leadership
7 minutes
Project Leadership

Four Project Management and Leadership Pitfalls to Avoid When Starting Up a Project

From working on projects we know that an infinite amount of things can go wrong. The technical solution could be flawed, the user’s needs could change and team members who are instrumental to the project’s success might leave. But worst of all, proper project management and leadership might not be used. When project management isn’t employed properly, there will be no controls, no way to manage the risk and no way to manage all the work that needs to get completed. And when leadership is absent there could be a lack of clear direction and low commitment from the team. Let’s examine some of the biggest project management and leadership pitfalls during project start-up and look at what you can do to avoid them.

1. Failure to take the lead during the definition phase

Most project mangers know that a project charter or a project definition document needs to be completed when starting up the project. But as they may be in a rush to get the project kicked off they treat the definition document as a tick boxing exercise that quickly needs to get completed. As a result the project’s foundation may be flawed and there may be a lack of buy-in. Defining the project is not about filling in a document and getting it signed off. It’s about actively gaining support from clients and stakeholders, understanding what the rationale is for the project, whether it’s worthwhile doing, what is required, how it might get delivered and ensuring that everyone is in agreement about the way forward.

To avoid the pitfall of starting a project with a weak foundation and lack of support, show real leadership during this initial stage of the project. There may be many conflicting views about what the project is trying to achieve and how to get there. These disagreements need to get out in the open so that they can be addressed. The project sponsor may be of great help in aligning people, but as the project manager you need to do the legwork. Speak to each stakeholder individually and find out what their needs and desires are. Pick their brains. Find out what success looks like to them and what they worry about. Not only will that give you valuable information about the direction the project should take, it will also help you build strong relationships with each stakeholder. Once you have clarity from each person you can bring everyone together and reach a mutual agreement about objectives, scope, deliverables, timescales and budget.

2. Failure to pay attention to the project’s business case

Many project managers fail to ensure that there is a sound rationale for undertaking the project. They assume that senior management or the project sponsor has completed the business case and that costs and benefits stack up. In classic project management it’s true that the project sponsor is responsible for making sure that the project makes good economic sense. But that doesn’t mean that the project manager has no role to play. I’ve seen many projects fail because there wasn’t a strong enough foundation or need for the project. The project manager would usually fail to take any kind of responsibility and blame the project sponsor. Don’t let that happen to you or to your project.

To ensure your project has a strong business case, take an interest in the big picture and the commercials. Why is the project required? What are the ultimate benefits of the project and how can they be expressed in financial terms? If you weigh up all the costs involved in delivering the project and compare them to the financial benefits, does it make sense? Would you invest your own money in it? I’m not saying that you need to take sole responsibility for the business case, but as a project manager you must ensure that the questions are satisfactorily answered. I used to sit with my project sponsor and interview her about how the benefits could be monetised. She was responsible for the numbers, but I put it all together and would make sure that I understood it. Once you understand the project’s vision and ultimate benefits you are in a much better position to lead the project, to help make decisions and to inspire the team to contribute to the end result.

3. Failure to engage the wider team

As planning is one of the project manager’s primary responsibilities it’s not uncommon for PMs to feel that they have to carry out the majority of the definition and planning activities on their own, They may ask the team for input but their engagement doesn’t go far enough. If the project manager feels that it’s fundamentally their responsibility to plan and to come up with the answers, they will never be able to create a shared sense of ownership amongst the team. Think about it. If you’re on a guided tour in a new city you’re unlikely to feel responsible for the route you’re walking. And if you didn’t like the tour you could quite easily criticise the guide. But if the guide took time out to compose the route in collaboration with the group right at the beginning you would have a stake and a bigger role to play. You would no longer just be a passenger who could criticize. You’d feel a greater sense of responsibility for the success of the tour.

To avoid working with a disengaged team, put focus on collaboration and team building right from the outset. The greatest teams are those where each individual feels valued and is encouraged to share their ideas and concerns without fear of being judged. There are lots of ways to engage the team. Have collaborative planning workshops where everybody contributes. Speak with each team member individuals and find out about their strengths and what they would like to personally achieve through the project. And most importantly, create a team charter and set the ground rules for how you would like to collaborate and communicate during the project. When setting ground rules remember that it’s not for you to definite them. It’s for everyone to agree in collaboration as otherwise people won’t buy into them. Make sure the ground rules are as specific and practical as possible. For instance it might not be of much use to have a ground rule saying that you have to respect each other because it could be interpreted differently. You need ground rules that illustrate how the team should behave towards each other. So a ground rule stating that you will listen to each person’s ideas in turn without interrupting would be more useful.  

4. Failure to understand the user’s requirements

Unfortunately it’s not uncommon for project managers to have a superficial understanding of the products or services they need to deliver and how these products fit into the client’s business. Scope descriptions are often vague and open to interpretation and not enough thought has been given to what is out of scope. As requirements may be documented at too high a level it means that doubts or disputes may arise regarding what exactly needs to be built. The result is scope creep, difficulties tracking changes and – in the worst case – a project, which fails to deliver what the customer wanted and needed.

To avoid this pitfall, get involved in the requirements gathering and make sure that you understand what is in and what is out of scope. It’s true that as the project manager you don’t have to be the expert in the subject matter. That’s why the team and the business analysts are there. But you do need enough knowledge that you can successfully steer the project, make effective decisions and ultimately ensure that the client gets what they need. A great way to work on requirements is to conduct workshops where you map out the detail of what the users require and ensure that you are on the same page. Even if you have a subject matter expert or business analyst leading this work you can still attend the meetings and play a role. Make sure that the team illustrates and plays back those requirements, either through story boarding, prototyping or mock-ups. Not exploring the user’s needs and wants is unfortunately one of the biggest pitfalls in project management.

Sussane MadsenAbout the Author
Susanne is a globally recognized leadership coach and mentor for project and change managers. She has partnered and founded the Project Leadership Institute, which runs leadership programs to help project managers become better leaders in the workplace. She is also an award-winning author of The Power of Project Leadership, which is now in its second edition, and has been described as "a must-read for everyone in the project world".
Susanne is known for developing leadership development programs globally and has worked with many high-profile companies such as JPMorgan and Citigroup. Susanne is also a regular keynote speaker on the topic of leadership, emotional intelligence, stress and project management. 

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