7 Project Management Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

That’s a solid quote, isn’t it? It cuts straight to the point with a certain academic feel. (The fact that it’s attributed to an ancient Latin writer probably doesn’t hurt.)

Plus, it’s true. It reminds us that even the most well-thought-out plans can be completely undone by the unpredictable.

But there’s a modern “philosopher” who said basically the same thing in an oddly relatable way. While not known for his pithy wisdom, Mike Tyson clearly understands the essence of project management. Here’s what he said.

Too true.

Getting punched in the face.

Project management is hard. Not because it’s hard to make plans. Plans are easy. And not because it’s difficult to get stuff done. You do that every day. Rather, project management is hard because in the average project there’s so much going on—and so much that can go wrong.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) estimates that for every $1 billion spent on projects, $122 million is completely wasted, all because project teams aren’t able to turn their precious plans into something that actually performs.

That’s a lot of wasted time, wasted money and wasted potential.

Walking clients through IT projects, we’ve seen it all—effective project management habits, and some pretty bad ones. But here’s the good news. You can learn a lot from others’ mistakes.

Here are some common project management pitfalls and what you can do to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Dreaming too big.

The PMI calls goal setting “the key to project and professional success.” Clearly, it’s important to know what you want to accomplish.

When projects kick off without specific goals, it’s easy for individuals (and whole teams) to expect more from the project than is reasonable.

If a client asked us to help with their internal communication, for example, we’d have to drill down and get specific. Are we talking about instant messaging applications, the phone system, email configuration or all of it—what’s typically referred to as unified communications?

We can’t know if we don’t ask.

What You Should Do Instead

Every project should begin with focus questions. Know exactly what the goals are for this project. If you have really big goals, you may need multiple projects.

Mistake #2: No one knows what success looks like.

Are you familiar with the concept of SMART goals? “SMART” stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. The idea has been floating around in the corporate world for a while.

In fact, one classic Harvard Business Study found that 3% of Harvard MBA graduates made 10 times as much as the other 97% within 10 years of graduation. Can you guess what that 3% did differently? They wrote out clearly defined goals.

Most projects launch with a painfully clear picture of the problem. But “solve the problem” is not a strategic goal.

What You Should Do Instead

Success hinges on identifying specific targets. Don’t be shy about establishing clear, SMART goals in your first project meeting.

Mistake #3: Being way too optimistic about time and money.

Even relatively simple projects are complex. That’s why they’re called projects and not tasks.

Because they involve multiple steps (and often, multiple participants), projects rarely move quickly. That doesn’t mean a project can’t be efficient. They can be. But it’s important to recognize the complex nature of project management.

If you schedule your project with aggressive deadlines and a tight budget, you’re setting yourself (and your team) up for frustration. Too much optimism on the front end will kill motivation when the project inevitably falls behind or goes over budget.

What You Should Do Instead

Be realistic. Plan for delays and revisions. Assume your cost projections are a little low. Basically, expect the unexpected.

Mistake #4: Too much action, not enough talk.

Projects that never leave the planning stage fail for obvious reasons. You’ll never get anything done if you don’t act. But just because project management shifts to the action phase doesn’t mean communication stops.

As observed in a recent article in Forbes, “. . . poor communication can disrupt business on a fundamental level.” All the strategic tasks in the world won’t make up for the kind of chaos that erupts when there’s not enough communication among stakeholders.

What You Should Do Instead

After the initial planning stages, schedule regular follow-up meetings to keep everyone informed. Even short, 15-minute check-ins are better than assuming everything is running smoothly.

Mistake #5: The hero approach.

Some folks are drawn to project management because they enjoy working with a team of people to accomplish a common goal . . . and some people like projects because they like being the hero.

Here’s the thing about project management heroes. When the entire project relies too heavily on one person—even the person leading it—the overall success of the project is dramatically limited. This approach robs the team of motivation and fails to tap into others’ skills.

What You Should Do Instead

If you’re leading a project, listen to your team. Invite critical feedback, even of your own ideas. Encourage interaction in meetings. And be flexible. If you ask for feedback, be ready to adjust according to what the team tells you.

Mistake #6: Too much tweaking.

That last tip is a perfect segue into this common mistake. While flexibility is absolutely a requirement, you can also have too much of a good thing.

This is sometimes referred to as “change saturation.” Once a project is off the ground and going, too many adjustments can derail the entire thing. If anyone on the project team has to ask, “Okay, so what’s the goal now? I can’t keep up,” you may be at risk for change saturation.

What You Should Do Instead

As much as possible, maintain the goals you set at the beginning. Only make changes when necessary. Don’t tweak the project or individual tasks every time you think a slightly different approach might be a little better. Instead, stay the course.

Mistake #7: Refusing to course-correct.

But what if you get halfway done with a project and realize the target you determined at the beginning is totally off-base? Do you just keep plugging away?

The obvious answer is “NO!” but you’d be surprised how often inexperienced project managers hesitate to make that call.

That’s because projects are a big deal. Multiple people are involved. There’s a budget. You’ve got a schedule. Throwing the brakes on the whole thing feels dramatic. Even if everyone on the project management team knows the project is no longer relevant, it’s much easier to just let it run its course.

What You Should Do Instead

Talk to the team. Candidly share your concerns. If others see a need to make a big change—either correcting course or scrapping the current project altogether—then do that. You’re not in business to complete projects. You engage in projects to further the business.

Everyone makes mistakes.

If you’ve even dabbled in project management, you’ve likely made a few of these mistakes. That’s okay. Seasoned project managers have to work to avoid these pitfalls, too.

We’ve worked with clients to complete hundreds of projects. We can tell you two things with absolute certainty. One, no two projects are the same. And two, not a single one of those projects was executed perfectly.

Our success in project management isn’t based on perfection. It’s based on our ability to proactively work to make the project better through business basics like transparent communication, candid feedback and solid goal setting.

If you make a mistake, that’s okay. Project management mastery isn’t about perfection. It’s about recovery.

Learn from your mistakes, bounce back, and keep going.