5 Common Pitfalls That Compromise Project Management Success

by Marcus Varner
, 6 min read

As work gets more complicated, org charts get flatter, and technology makes it easier for individuals to manage their own and others' work, more and more workers are falling into the role of "accidental project manager." They find themselves making schedules, managing budgets, and sending status reports to stakeholders.

Whether you're new to project management or a seasoned pro, it's important to be aware of the common pitfalls that can compromise project success. Here are five red flags that can put deadlines, budgets and quality in danger—and what to do about them.

1. Poor Planning

While failure is easy to recognize in the final stages of a project, the problem almost always starts at the beginning of the process. If you spend too little time outlining the scope, getting all of the stakeholders to agree on a common vision, or aligning the project with the company's strategic goals, you may be doomed from the start.

The earliest warning signs that you skimped on proper planning and prioritization can include:

  • missed milestones
  • difficulty getting approvals from stakeholders
  • an inordinate number of change requests along the way
  • lack of sufficient resources to complete the work

How to Fix It: Map out the entire lifecycle of each project before you get started—or as soon as you realize that your project is suffering. "Creating a completely detailed project scope approved by all stakeholders is a necessity," says Adam Balkwill, technical director, Garfield Group, an integrated marketing agency, in Cio.com. "The scope should include interim milestones, with deliverable dates and a budget worksheet that represents all time involved."

Build status updates and reporting, routing and approval processes, and communication expectations into the work plan, plus some "slush" time to accommodate the inevitable interruptions and delays.

2. Manual Processes

pm-pitfalls-manual

If you find yourself creating schedules from scratch in Excel, sending individual emails to assign work, following up personally on each deadline, scheduling frequent and lengthy status meetings, spending a dozen hours each week building reports, and tracking down approvals from stakeholders every way you can think of (emails, phone calls, sticky notes on desks, camping outside the bathroom to catch unresponsive executives), then you're doing far more manual work than is necessary.

"In many organizations, responsibility for maintaining and updating project status in spreadsheets or PPM software falls on the shoulders of just one or two people, who spend most of their time chasing down other staff members for information," states an article titled "How to Overcome to Top 5 Causes of Project Failure," published in a recent Workfront ebook. Fortunately, today's project management software can automate almost all of those processes for you.

How to Fix It: Document all tasks that are part of the project in a centrally accessible location, including information about who is assigned to each task, the deadline, who needs to approve the task, what happens next, etc. Luckily, you don't have to start from scratch in developing a system like this. There are literally hundreds of software solutions on the market today that include this functionality. You want a system that allows every contributor or project stakeholder, bottom to top, to log in and see the current status of every step that concerns them. At a minimum, your solution should include templates for repeatable processes, calendar functionality and automatic reminders, the ability to collaborate and communicate within the tool, and the ability to generate relevant reports.

Not only will this spread the responsibility across the entire team, it will virtually eliminate the need for regular status meetings, which are a huge waste of time.

3. Disconnected Tools

pm-pitfalls-tools

How many different methods are you using to control and manage your time? Some estimates put the number as high as 13 for the average person. From email to intranet to collaborative spreadsheets, from smartphone apps to various cloud-based software programs (each with a different niche purpose), it's easy to spend as much time organizing your time and updating all of your tools as you spend working on actual project deliverables.

How to Fix It: Choose one comprehensive work management system that can consolidate and replace as many of your disconnected tools as possible. Remember, there are hundreds of specialized options on the market today, for every conceivable purpose and industry. It isn't difficult to find a single, cloud-based, standardized platform that can contain all of the following and more:

  • project communication
  • collaboration
  • data storage
  • proofing and reviews
  • data and reports
  • scheduling and reminders
  • visibility to all members of the team
  • historical project data

4. Lack of Measurement and Correction

If you wait until the end of a project to hold a "post-mortem review" or project debrief, you may find many of the individuals disengaged (the project is over, why talk about it now?) or blaming one another or simply unable to objectively see what went wrong—or right—now that it's all wrapped up.

Certain types of measurement and correction are best performed along the way, while there's still time to affect the project outcome. Of course, it's possible to get so bogged down in analyzing and reporting that you stall forward progress, but it's just as dangerous to hit the start button on your project and then fail to check in until the final task is done.

How to Fix It: As part of your initial project plan, establish some goals and KPIs (key performance indicators) that matter most to the stakeholders. Track progress against these goals along the way (preferably not manually) in order to drive continuous improvement while your project progresses. If you examine performance and problems in small chunks at preset milestones, you can make incremental adjustments to things like budget or resource allocation that can have a measurable impact on your final project outcome.

5. Command-and-Control Thinking

You could implement the most powerful work management software solution out there, but it won't help much if the individuals in your organization are stuck in outmoded ways of thinking. Even after everyone has visibility into the project plan, are some people still sending one-off emails to ask about project status, rather than opening up the application and seeing for themselves? Are executives still routing all questions through a central project leader or insisting on status meetings, instead of taking the initiative to learn the tool? Is there a project manager who can't let go of the days when all communication and work flowed through him, so he becomes a bottleneck as he struggles to allow collaboration, communication and progress to happen organically and asynchronously within the work management tool?

How to Fix It: "To empower every employee to think and act like a PM requires the unification of all work, processes, data, and communication," says Eric Morgan, CEO of Workfront. "And then beyond that, organizations must not only enable but also expect workers to communicate, collaborate, assign tasks, proof documents, and report progress all in one place." Company-wide training can help get individuals on board with a new work management tool, but after that, you have to be inflexible about adoption. Make the system mandatory. No one can be allowed to opt out of the solution you've chosen—to circumvent the process by sending an email attachment rather than uploading it into the online work queue, for example—or you'll fail to realize its full value.

Avoiding Project Management Pitfalls

In a world full of powerful cloud-based planning tools, successful project management is theoretically easier than ever. Having the right solution in place can instantly eliminate two of the five common pitfalls outlined above (manual processes and disconnected tools). But it's the attitudes and behaviors of those who plan and carry out the project that can have the biggest impact on its ultimate outcome, especially when it comes to avoiding some of the biggest causes of project derailment: poor planning, lack of measurement and correction, and the command-and-control thinking that once worked so well. Clearly, when it comes to project management success, it's not just the tools you have at your disposal, but how you use them that matters.

To see how Workfront conquers these common projetc management pitfalls, view our new product demo below:

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