The 1 “Killer” Mistake That Project Managers Make…and Why They Keep Making It!

Business Man on phone in distressBeing a project manager is hard work. You have to deal with team members, sponsors, stakeholders, subject matter experts, and other nosey types that all have opinions. Some of these folks love to sit around and dissect every action and decision that a project manager makes. Often they are just looking for something to criticize. When they find a perceived mistake, they have the nerve to call it “educational,” or worse, a “learning moment.”

Who needs this crap, right?

As I’ve written in the past, mistakes happen (see my post, When Bad Things Happen to Good Leaders”, December 2012). It’s how you deal with mistakes, and how you learn from them that matters.

“There are no failures – just experiences and your  reactions to them.”  ~ Tom Krause

There’s one mistake that I often see Project Managers make from which it’s hard to recover. It sits at the beginning of a project, and often the project manager has no idea it’s even a mistake (until it’s too late).

What is this “killer” mistake?

Mistake: Letting Others Set Expectations

When a new project is activated usually an announcement is made by someone high up in an organization. The announcement highlights the project benefits and usually identifies the Project Manager and Team. Business case figures are often thrown around like, “This project will bring $x million in incremental profits, or increase our market share by y%, or it will be done in z days.” Boom! Expectations have been set; figures have been quoted…it’s hard to go back now. 

It’s easy to see how project managers get caught up in the “expectations cycle.”  The start of a new project is exciting and spirits are high. You’re trained to see the opportunity, to lead the charge, to overcome obstacles, and to drive the initiative to success. Carpe diem, right?

However, until you and team can go through the project details, agree on the deliverables, identify tasks, assign resources, and assess risks – there are no guarantees on what you can actually deliver. In fact, initial expectations and reality are rarely aligned.

So really, what can a Project Manager do? After all, an executive said it would happen; it has to happen, right? Well, here are a few things to try.

  1. Upon assignment, the project manager can volunteer to write the e-mail or speech that announces the project. Ask the sponsor to let you write the announcement for them…hey, it’s less work for them. This way you can control the message that is passed to the organization.

  2. When you are approached to lead a new project, tell your sponsor(s) that you cannot formally commit to deliverables until the details of the project are defined and agreed. This may seem extreme – but, better to address this now and set your own expectations, than to suffer later from someone else’s.

  3. Your first official communication on the new project is critical. Don’t re-enforce any unsubstantiated expectations by stating them again. Instead, focus on the process that you and the team will follow, and what tangible deliverables will come next. Yes, you can talk up the project, but don’t paint yourself into a corner.

  4. Finally, when you see that expectations and reality are not aligned, you have to address it immediately with you sponsor and/or key stakeholders. Show them why you cannot meet expectations, and give them alternatives (For example: You can meet the time deadline with more resources). Time is critical; state your case early and don’t bow to pressure to commit to something that you know can’t be achieved. It’s your reputation at stake!

Letting others set expectations on your project is a critical mistake. Project Managers need to insure project commitments are made by them with the full support of the project team. This should be done only after all project variables are known, and an achievable plan is in place. Finally, make sure that your sponsor and key stakeholders are on board. Don’t start a project fighting up-hill. Make sure the commitments that are made are supported by facts and come from you!

What do you think? Have you seen projects where this has been a problem? Are there other actions you suggest to overcome this issue? I’d like to hear from you!

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About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
This entry was posted in Career & Development, Project Management and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The 1 “Killer” Mistake That Project Managers Make…and Why They Keep Making It!

  1. dohashawki says:

    Reblogged this on Doha Shawki and commented:
    VERY TRUE … I have been in this situation, the GM of the company committed to a deadline to deliver a project and I was the project manager and I did the mistake of not having the courage to stop him. The result was agony. We took double the time to deliver the project because the deadline he committed to was extremely not realistic given the requirements. It was a nightmare and the customer was furious and by the time I finally delivered and the project worked successfully the whole team was worn out and under stress for too long!
    Ever since this experience I learnt the lesson and I never allowed it to happen again!

  2. dohashawki says:

    VERY TRUE … I have been in this situation, the GM of the company committed to a deadline to deliver a project and I was the project manager and I did the mistake of not having the courage to stop him. The result was agony. We took double the time to deliver the project because the deadline he committed to was extremely not realistic given the requirements. It was a nightmare and the customer was furious and by the time I finally delivered and the project worked successfully the whole team was worn out and under stress for too long!

    Ever since this experience I learnt the lesson and I never allowed it to happen again!
    You didn’t mention here the catastrophe of managing customer’s expectations as well. It is not only the announcement speech but the commitment in the customer contract that is a real agony. Ever since this experience I had several struggles with top management to convince them not to commit to dates or requirements until the working team sit and collect requirements and know exactly the size of work needed. It is not easy and requires courage because it can cause you trouble at work but It has to be done and sold to top management the right way I guess or else the end result will be even worse!

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you – your comments are so great. Often your sales team creates expectations that the product or project just cannot deliver. But, once a commitment to a customer is made – it’s hard to go back and change it. I’ve always argued that PM’s should be involved in the selling process – but, it rarely happens. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I wish you all the best!

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