Project Management Institute

The #1 reason why project managers fail

too soft!


WHAT DO I MEAN BY TOO SOFT? It is my experience that most project managers are not willing to make the tough and unpopular project-related decisions, even though their instincts warn them that they are not taking the most effective action. These managers are not leading their project teams to quickly resolve their project's most important problems. They allow the project team frequently to operate on consensus and what seems to please the most people or please the most vocal, influential people. In order to avoid or reduce conflict, they tend to make decisions that often are not in the best overall interest of the project.

Project managers who fail, most often fail for the following reasons: weak soft skills, weak hard skills, ineffective project sponsor. This article focuses on weak soft skills.

Let's look at some examples of project manager actions (or inactions) that are indicative of too-soft behavior. Do you recognize familiar behavior here?

img   Holds back from providing constructive criticism to project members

img   Avoids escalating to higher levels of management project-related problems that are at an apparent impasse for resolution

img   Unwilling to passionately defend the right project plan to the project sponsor, executives, or client

img   Puts off insisting on and driving good project management practices throughout the project

img   Delays asking for help when needed

img   Lax in holding project members accountable for their commitments and actions

img   Takes on too much work instead of assigning tasks to the appropriate project members

img   Remiss in seeking out and obtaining needed project management training of both hard and soft skills

img   Evades taking a position on an issue rather than alienating project members

img   Avoids or excessively delays making key decisions.

Project success is about results: delivering a product that satisfies the customer and offers the organization an appropriate return on investment. The project manager's job is to lead the project's members in the pursuit of a successful project and product. In most cases, a project's success is directly related to the impact the project manager had on the project team throughout the project.

The most effective project managers behave as if they are running a business and that they own the business (see “Behave As If You Own the Business,” PM Network, September 1997). They believe that the buck stops here and that they are fully accountable for the project. There are many decisions they must make and be held accountable for, and they frequently and respectfully draw upon the knowledge, experiences and insights of those around them so that they make the most informed decisions. But they are careful not to place an over-reliance on consensus management; they recognize their duty to be fully accountable for the outcome of the project. This can mean that, at times, the most effective project managers will stand alone with what they believe to be the right decision.

Not being too soft doesn't mean you have to be rude, insensitive, arrogant, or a bully. None of these attributes is acceptable—ever! On the contrary, an effective project manager must strive to demonstrate behavior for others to model. For example, make yourself available and approachable to coach and support others through their problems and setbacks, be a constructive catalyst when change or a given action is required, and demonstrate respect and dignity for all project members. It's not about finding fault or making someone feel uncomfortable; it's about helping the project's members and encouraging them to help each other so that the prevailing attitude is we all are successful together.


If you believe that too-soft behavior will win friends and influence others, don't go there! It will have the opposite effect long-term. Those around you will lose respect for you as a leader, your project's outcome will be negatively impacted, and your career can become stagnant…or even shortened.

IF YOU HAVE DIFFICULTY making unpopular decisions…if you allow what others think to be more important than what you think about yourself…if you follow the “squeaky wheels” around you rather than your own inner compass…then you might not be ready to be an effective and successful project manager. But don't despair. Almost all project managers who perform their roles effectively today had these challenges to overcome yesterday. You too can persevere if it is important to you. ∎


Neal Whitten, PMP, president of the Neal Whitten Group, is a speaker, trainer, consultant and author in project management and employee development. His books include Managing Software Development Projects: Formula for Success and Becoming an Indispensable Employee in a Disposable World.

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 • December 1997



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