Lessons Learned: Advice From Failed Project Managers

Resumes typically highlight project successes. However, if you’re a project manager, it’s almost certain that you’ve failed at executing some projects along the way. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a project manager—incomplete or failed projects are extremely common.

With more experience comes a larger number of failed projects. Experienced project managers share the lessons they’ve learnt from their projects that didn’t go down too well.

In order to thoroughly understand what project management is, it’s important to first understand what a project is. Before we get down into the finer details and lessons regarding project management, let’s take a look at what project management entails.

A Broad Understanding Of Project Management

A project is a temporary attempt undertaken to create a unique result, service, or product. When we say ‘temporary.’ we mean that the project has a defined beginning and end.

Projects can be anything from the development of a software to the construction of a bridge or a building.

All projects need to be expertly managed to deliver results that meet budget requirements, and are on time. Project management, then, is the application of techniques, tools, skills, and knowledge to project activities in a way that meets project requirements.

Project management processes fall into five groups—closing, controlling and monitoring, executing, planning, and initiating. Although the entire management is concerned with these five categories, project managers bring a unique focus to them, which is shaped by the schedule, resources, and goals of each project.

The Personality Of A Project Manager

Project managers are typically goal-oriented, passionate, and organised people. Project goals are made their own, and they use their expertise and skills to evoke a shared purpose sense within a project team.

Project managers also work very well under extreme pressure and are comfortable with the complexity and change that comes with dynamic environments. Additionally, they cultivate the people skills that are needed to develop communication and trust among all of a project’s stakeholders.

Project managers can be found in almost every kind of organisation. They can be independent consultants, contractors, managers, or employees.

Lessons Learned

1. Designate A ‘Decider’

A project shouldn’t be bogged down by small, trivial details. However, this tends to happen, especially if you’re working on a project over a large span of time. That’s why you’ll need a ‘decider’, or someone who can make quick decisions. This person will be your go-to person when it comes to making decisions.

In non-profit organisations, especially where staff, donors, and boards demand constant input, it’s all the more important that a single person take the decision-making responsibility.

2. Keep The Project On Scope

Project managers with years of experience recommend that you keep the project on scope, and make sure your client knows what that means.

They suggest that if you want to complete the project on time, you shouldn’t waste time on the client’s resources, your capabilities, or ideas that are way beyond your budget.

It’s also best to identify the long-term and short-term goals for the project right away. This will help you prioritise what you need to do. You may even want to make a list of all the things you need to do, sorted by priority. Doing this will give not only you, but also the client, clarity on your vision for the project, and what you intend to execute.

This way, when the project is complete, you can check whether the end result matches your initial expectations.

3. More Isn’t Always Better

Although large teams can be beneficial sometimes, too many people working on the same aspect of a project isn’t the most efficient way to work on something. Remember that primary school saying about too many cooks and broth?

Having an unnecessarily large number of people handle relatively simple tasks can cause a clash of opinion—this may end up extending the time it takes to do something, rather than shortening it. This is mainly because one skilled person with a strong vision is more likely to go a long way, especially when they don’t have to convince another person of it.

4. Decide… To An Extent

Experienced project managers also say it can be quite helpful to have the aforementioned ‘deciders’ in the room to provide feedback and make crucial decisions. However, they also say that there should be a limit to how involved they can be.

If you aren’t careful, the deciders may just end up handling the whole project by themselves.

5. The Product Schedule Is A Friend, Not A Foe

A major reason for missed dates and project failures has been the absence of a project schedule that’s sufficiently detailed. Although it’s easy to create pie charts and infographics, there’s simply no point if the person managing the project isn’t actually following them.

That’s why it’s important to treat the project schedule as your friend. It may be a pain to put together and constantly update; however, since it’s a crucial tool for the success of a project, it’ll be worth it in the end.

A Real-Life Example

Andrew Makar was working as a business analyst on a year-long recruiting project with the human resources division of his company. The project involved implementing a multitude of web applications that would support online candidate assessment and resume collection.

The team assigned to the project had a large number of project managers, internal IT staff, and dozens of consultants. They had a set launch date and high-level milestones for the fall recruiting season.

Makar says that no one, including the project managers, had developed a schedule to keep track of any slipped tasks or dates. In the tenth month of the project, when all the team members were experiencing high levels of stress because a large chunk of the code wasn’t ready, a meeting took place to lay out the critical tasks necessary to meet the launch date.

Makar took the meeting notes back to his office and started to develop a revised project timeline. The project executive took one look at it and said, “Where was this 10 months ago?”

A project manager is, without a doubt, an integral part of a project. However, sometimes projects can fail, and it’s important to remember that in such a case, the project manager is not to blame. So if you’re a project manager, keep in mind the lessons we’ve covered in this article—all of which have been passed on by experienced project managers—and you’re good to go!

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