Project Management Institute

6 rookie mistales

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Dana Brownlee, PMP, Professionalism Matters Incorporated, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

BY ASHLEY G. RICHARDSON PORTRAITS BY CHRIS HAMILTON

To be fair, leading a project from launch to close can be a daunting experience for any project manager, so it's no surprise that newly minted project professionals struggle in their early attempts.

That doesn't mean fallout from any blunder is without grave consequences.

“Rookie project managers often fall victim to costly mistakes and errors that can derail a project and significantly impact one's project management career,” says Dana Brownlee, PMP, president of the corporate training firm Professionalism Matters Incorporated, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Fortunately, there are clear solutions to these traps.

Since the day-to-day aspects of a project can overwhelm even the most seasoned project professional, those new to the profession may be tempted to skip key steps that are critical to the success of any project, says Ms. Brownlee.

Here are six common mistakes project managers often make when they're just getting started—and possible solutions to take before their projects, and careers, suffer.

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Sometimes managing the team's personalities can be more challenging than dealing with the tasks—especially if a member unwilling to pull his or her own weight is dragging everyone else down.

If it's not addressed early and directly, this behavior can negatively affect your project and your team, says Don Kim, PMP, a consultant based in Sherman Oaks, California, USA.

Solution: Establish expectations and accountability for your team at the start. “If you ignore the behavior and then try to lay down ground rules while in midst of the problem, you'll have a harder time, and it naturally becomes much more confrontational,” says Ms. Brownlee. “At the project's beginning, people will buy into very reasonable requirements such as showing up for meetings on time.”

As soon as behavior deviates from the ground rules, raise the issue with the team by using professionalism and diplomacy, says Mr. Kim. “There could be personal issues outside of work causing the team member to slack off,” he says. Face-to-face communication is best to find out the origins of the attitude problem, but this may not resolve the issue, he adds. Escalation may be necessary in those cases.

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As soon as behavior deviates from the ground rules, raise the issue with the team by using professionalism and diplomacy.

—Don Kim, independent consultant, PMP, Sherman Oaks, california, USA

“If a project manager cannot resolve the issues after the face-to-face communication, the issue should be handled by senior project managers,” says KG Baek, PMP, PgMP, manager, project management and sales at brakes manufacturer Knorr-Bremse, Seoul, South Korea. “This kind of team member may sometimes ignore a young project manager.”

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“It may be painful to be honest with a sponsor about deadline slips, budget overruns and such,” says Mr. Kim, “but it's better than hoping these get solved on their own later on, which practically never happens.”

That doesn't mean that project managers should be running to the sponsor each and every time a problem comes up. Instead, you need to know what information is worth escalating and what you can deal with on your own. That can be difficult for new project managers, Mr. Kim says.

“The symptoms will typically fall in either extreme. Some inexperienced project managers will adopt ‘the sky is falling’ syndrome by constantly escalating issues, to the point where the project sponsor no longer listens,” he says. “The other end of the spectrum is the rookie who withholds pressing issues with the hope that they will go away, or that he or she can resolve them and look like a hero.”

Solution: Building and maintaining trust is a key component of the relationship between project managers, sponsors and stakeholders, says Charles Ryder, PhD, PMP, director of training and consulting firm Kennedy Ryder, Chester, England. “When people lie, they devalue themselves, the person to whom they lie and the relationship between the parties,” he says.

From the start, take a straightforward, honest approach. Ask the sponsor what the expectations are for dealing with information that might negatively affect the project. “Asking gives you a bit of permission to be candid,” says Ms. Brownlee.

When it's time to report bad news to the sponsor—and that time will come—don't try to spin the negative into a positive. Instead, present a plan for solving the problem. Ms. Brownlee suggests developing best- and worst-case scenarios, and presenting data to support your assessments. Have a primary recommendation—and several alternatives—ready.

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“When people lie, they devalue themselves, the person to whom they lie and the relationship between the parties.”

—Charles Ryder, Phd, PMP, Kennedy Ryder, Chester, England

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Project managers may have projects dropped on their desks without an approved charter because a senior-level executive green-lit projects without proper vetting. This can get the project off on the wrong foot.

“Often project managers spend significant time during project execution suffering the consequences of having a lack of clarity around areas that should be documented in the project charter,” says Ms. Brownlee. “Without clear direction on such fundamental issues, the project manager is moving forward with a weak support structure at best.”

In the end, project failure will be associated with the project manager—regardless of who made the decision to skip the charter.

Solution: If you find yourself attached to a project that hasn't gone through the initiating process—where the concept is thoroughly vetted—start by going back to the sponsor to ask key initiating questions.

Sample initiating questions include the following, says Ms. Brownlee:

  • ■ Why are we doing this project?
  • ■ What problem or issue are we trying to address?
  • ■ Is this project the best way to address this problem or issue?
  • ■ Is this project the best use of resources at this time?
  • ■ What are the risks associated with this project?
  • ■ Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
  • ■ Do we have adequate support to conduct the project?
  • ■ How will success be defined for this project?
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“A project manager has to focus on the [risk analysis] process. If his or her organization does not have anything for the process, he or she needs to create it immediately.”

—Dana Brownlee, PMP

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Rookie project managers may view risk analysis as another planning step they don't have time for, says Ms. Brownlee. “As a result, they often make the fatal mistake of skipping it completely,” she says. “What they fail to realize is that time spent doing risk analysis typically pays back significantly throughout the life of a project.”

If your project lacks a formal risk-analysis process, it doesn't mean you should skip the step. “A project manager has to focus on the process,” she says. “If his or her organization does not have anything for the process, he or she needs to create it immediately.”

Solution: If your organization lacks a set of standards around risk, seek out others who have done similar projects within the organization or find a more seasoned professional willing to provide guidance, says Mr. Kim. He or she may have best practices available that could be helpful in this effort.

You will need to document the risks and look at what could possibly go wrong. Calculate the estimated severity of each risk by multiplying the probability of a risk occurring by the financial impact if it does happen, says Ms. Brownlee. Then share your findings with the project sponsor.

“For example, if the probability of rain during an outdoor event is about 50 percent, and the financial impact would be US$50,000, then the estimated severity of rain is US$25,000,” she says. “At that point it's important to identify mitigation strategies. If the project manager identifies significant risk overall, he or she should consider whether the project should move forward.”

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Moving up the ranks to become a full-time project manager doesn't mean getting an education is over. Project professionals need to adapt to the ever-changing business world and invest in themselves through continuing education, says Mr. Kim.

“Usually when you're young and entering the work force as a recent college graduate, you may feel you've received all the book learning you need,” he says. “Also, in recent times, due to the economic downturn, many employers will not sponsor continuing education as they've done in the past, so many young and rookie project managers just cannot afford to get more education.” For example, knowledge of social media would never have popped up as important on a project manager's résumé 10 years ago. Today, it's an attractive—sometimes mandatory—skill for many project managers.

Solution: Make the education investment and start with standards and credentials. “I suggest that any project manager should have the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential for its international appeal and emphasis on techniques,” Mr. Ryder says.

Project managers should also hone their communication skills. Project managers spend 90 percent of their time in some form of communication, according to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition. As with many skills, the ability to successfully run meetings and conference calls improves faster with education.

“You can enhance your credibility when you make an investment in facilitation training,” Ms. Brownlee says. “Whether project managers think of themselves as facilitators or not, they are doing a ridiculous amount of facilitating. If those meetings aren't effectively run, it can not only adversely affect project outcomes and team morale, but also diminish the project manager's credibility.”

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For inexperienced professionals with strong technical skills and little project experience, Mr. Kim notices a tendency to place less emphasis on the project's business objectives and communications. This typically results in poor alignment with stakeholder values and poor team leadership.

The people involved with projects and collaborative interactions need to be front and center, and the process and tools are there to help facilitate, not hinder, he says.

Solution: By design, the project manager is in a difficult position solving, facilitating and compromising on numerous issues throughout one day. A mentor who has been through this before can be a major asset to sorting through those challenges.

“The project manager has to combine hard and soft skills properly,” says Mr. Baek. “The young project manager needs to listen to advice from the experienced project manager.”

Mr. Kim notes that sometimes this won't become apparent until the project starts to slip. “A good mentoring program or project management office can pair a rookie project manager with a more experienced one,” he says. “I've seen some rookie project managers obsess over creating a great project schedule with pretty-looking Gantt charts, rather than actually ensuring the work got done and that the team had what it needed to succeed.”

New-to-the-profession project managers face a huge learning curve. However, their fresh perspectives are a major asset, and a wealth of resources are available to help them succeed. By keeping these solutions to common missteps in mind, they can avoid these risks and deliver successful projects, PM

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“The project manager has to combine hard and soft skills properly.”

—KG Baek, PMP, PgMP, Knorr-Bremse, Seoul, South Korea

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK MARCH 2013 WWW.PMI.ORG

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