The most common project management pitfalls are ‘adaptive’ in nature, that is they are to do with how people interact with each other during the life of the project. Rarely are they to do with the ‘technical’ aspects of the project and we developed our Team Based Project Management approach over 15 years ago to combat what we saw as the overly technical mind-set being deployed within projects we worked in. The training and coaching we have done in this area since has confirmed that the need for a people centric approach to project management is needed now more than ever.
The over reliance on digital communication, technical tool sets and overly complex governance structures has created a new desire for a more human approach to delivering projects, one that takes into consideration the talent, commitment and energy of the people who need to be involved if the project is to succeed. The stark reality is that all project work competes for the most scarce resource in any organisation; the collective time people have to improve and change. The Operational Treadmill will keep people locked into day-to-day activity and breaking free to consider something new will remain a challenge that any project leader has to confront and defeat if they are to succeed.
- Develop project briefs written without meaningful involvement or commitment of those who will be needed to deliver the outcomes;
- Develop detailed project plans using tasks and resource planning assumptions that are untested and have little or no commitment from the project team members;
- Create skimpy risk plans that do not deep dive into the consequences of failure and fail to produce suitable prevention and contingency plans;
- Fail to develop pro-active communication plans to keep key players actively involved, engaged and committed to the project;
- Struggle to manage the dynamics of the project team meetings making them effective, efficient and enjoyable and great value for time.
Why do these issues persist despite all the evidence and training that has been collected and dispensed over the years? In my experience the reason given is ‘time’. Project Managers lack the time to get projects off to a great start, they compromise from the get-go and develop sub-optimal plans that they constantly have to amend. They get trapped by failing to gain real commitment from project team members and key stakeholders and have to compensate for this lack of commitment throughout the life of the project. They communicate using inappropriate tools and messages as they have not taken the time to find out who they should be communicating to and what they want to hear, they consequently produce a lot of email chatter and project noise that gets lost in the maelstrom of noise we all face each day. Finally, they get blown away by issues and challenges that arise during the project that could have been predicted and planned for and do not have the adaptive skills to deal with the characters in the project who can blow the project off course as their frustration mounts.
What I find really interesting is that these issues are rarely to do with a lack of knowledge. I often have very experienced project managers in my training and coaching session who know what they should do but find all kinds of reasons to convince themselves that doing a sub-optimal job will somehow be OK in this particular project. The excuse they usually cite is time. I usually hear things like;
- “I did not have time to get the team together and mobilise them effectively”;
- “I had to develop a plan myself as others did not have the time to get involved”;
- “I could only see some of the risks and the other members of the team did not comment on my email”;
- “We always communicate using email it is easier than real conversations that take too long”
- “I ask for standard updates at team meetings so I can keep track on progress and manage deviation from plan”.
Recognising that not finding the time to do a great job at the start means that time will inevitably dissipate during the project itself is the key lesson to re-learn for most of the project managers. I say re-learn as they all know this but the challenge lies in habit breaking. Changing the behaviours that have become ‘the way we do things around here’ and replacing them with more effective, people centric behaviours that help tackle the real challenges that lie in most struggling projects. These solutions are by their very nature unique as they have to be shaped to suit your particular organisational culture however they all share some common characteristics that can provide insight into how to tackle the most common issues.
- 1. Project Briefs – The paradox you face is that you are attempting to create some certainty at the very point in the project when you know the least. A top tip is to consider the project brief as a series of questions that need to be answered, involve the right people in answering them and make all assumptions visible. I find considering the project as a coach journey a useful metaphor. What destination are you heading for; what will it look and feel like when you arrive and who do you need to accompany you along the way? Will these passengers be permanent or will they get on and off the coach at key stops along the way. What dangers will you face on the journey and how can you prepare for them? Are you planning to take a motorway route or a country lane which might provide some interesting diversions and a chance to discover some new insights along the way? Who is driving the coach and will they drive all the way, or will some of the passengers take over the drivers’ role for key stages in the journey?
- Project and Resource Plans – Apply simple rule #1 = ‘do not say yes when you mean maybe or no’. Then apply ‘milestone’ rather than ‘task’ planning mentality to the planning process. The key question to ask is not what do we need to do, rather ask what achievements do we need to deliver in order to reach our project destination. Fix dates next to achievements and make these dates meaningful = they should have an immovable feature to them and have an emotional resonance if possible. For example not many people miss their flight on their family holidays. Why? The date and time are fixed, the event is important and as such personal behaviour changes to ensure the flight is taken as the date comes into view. Project milestones need to mimic this level of importance. If you can achieve this then project tasks become far less important. The key question once milestones are agreed and dates fixed is to ask the team ‘can you /we do this?’ If the answer is yes then the resource planning is done. Why? See simple rule #1
- Risk Planning – The key questions here are; what is going to stop us succeeding; how likely are these things to happen and if they did what are the consequences. Then for those that are likely and dangerous to our success what can we do to prevent or mitigate the impact when they do occur? The earlier you have this conversation and the more people you can involve then the better the quality of the outcome and the better the chance of project success.
- Communications Plans – Who needs to know what and how best to communicate these messages to them? Be proactive, creative and professional in your communication planning do not create unnecessary noise. Your success in this aspect of project planning determines the reputation of the project more than the actual activity. The final tip here is to open the channels of communication with something other than a problem you want their help in solving!
- Meetings more meetings – Project meetings are a necessary part of project work so make your meetings great value for time. Build in personal touches to make them enjoyable and be ruthless with the agenda. Do not assume historic updates are of interest to anyone, they rarely are. Your meeting should be no more than 30% reflective; 40% in the moment and 30% future orientated. Power Point is useful, convenient and ubiquitous but hugely overrated as a people engagement tool. Get creative and if you can make your meetings enjoyable they will become attractive to all, fail and people will find more important things to do.
The lessons for your organisation in how you run projects are being demonstrated each day so take a long hard look and ask if you need help to learn from them.