Seven Deadly Sins of Project Management

It has been reported in several articles that the next wave of C-level executives will be former or current project managers. Without much qualification, we can assume that they are the successful project managers. The premises for such a claim is that successful project managers know how to manage a budget, get things done, negotiate solutions, navigate the political waters, solve problems with a single bound, and resolve the daily conflicts that make up their every day world. Successful project managers also know how to not commit one of the Seven Deadly Sins of project management, thus avoiding the sabotage of their projects and helping them claim one of the few C-level offices.

How can we capitalize on the knowledge of these successful project managers and future executives? We need to identify the Seven Sins and excommunicate them from our lives. Over the past several months, I have been conducting a survey to help understand the current use of project management within organizations and the difference between successful and failed projects. From the study, I have seen consistently the following areas needing improving – the seven deadly sins:

  1. Lack of formally trained project managers
  2. No standardized project management practices
  3. Projects that linger forever
  4. Project suffering from scope creep
  5. Poor communications among team members, stakeholders, and others
  6. Unreasonable expectations on people, time, and money
  7. Incomplete definition of what was to be accomplished

Sin #1: Lack of Formal Training for Project Managers

Of all the people that I have trained in project management, I have not met one project manager that was trained in project management before he or she became a project manager. I find this curious. In fact, according to my study, only 24% of those managing projects, either part-time or full-time, have been formally trained in project management concepts. We seem to spend years in college and secondary education, pursuing various disciplines only to graduate, land jobs and then become project managers as if there were no need for formal training. We certainly wouldn’t go to an uneducated doctor or untrained mechanic, but we will use an untrained project manager for our $20 million project.

We see from industry studies that close to 60% of project fail and we wonder why. I would suspect the obvious in this case. What other area do we regularly take people, throw them into some position without training and expect immediate success? But we do that with regularity in the project management realm.

The obvious fix for such a situation is to educate the person on at least the fundamentals of what we are expecting so that they have a shot at success.

Sin #2: No Standardize Project Management Practices

It seems that with each new project, we must re-invent the wheel, taking a bit of what we have learned from prior projects and adding it to the new situation. Additionally, each one of us depends on our own talents and personalities and “roll our own” form of project management. The downside to this is that there is no consistency for either the management of projects or for our resources.

By standardizing the practices used for managing our projects, we gain by knowing a head of time what needs to be done, our team members know what to expect, the organization gains in efficiency and learning, and if we decide to ignore Sin #1, new project managers have something to follow as they enter the school of project management hard knocks.

Items to standardize: project plan templates, required documentation, status reporting, tracking of project progress, project initiation and definition, project planning, and so on.

Sin #3: Projects That Linger Forever

Some projects never seem to complete. They linger forever for several reasons: resources have been drawn onto other projects, company priorities shift, customer requirements are always in flux, sub-contractors and suppliers don’t provide needed materials or work, and so on. The list is endless. As a result, the project never finishes.

Projects that linger are damaging to the organization. No matter what stage they are in, they continue to cost money eating away at the time of those resources still involved, and kill morale within the organization. Additionally, it becomes a gnawing thorn to those who either worked or are currently working on the project. As people, we like closure to chapters in our lives, especially those chapters that are not the most pleasant. A lingering project is not pleasant.

There are two “simple” fixes to this sin: complete it or kill it. If you decide to complete it, you need to determine the reason for the project lingering. It is not always the obvious reason, so dig deep and determine the real reason. It may be that decisions weren’t made that caused the supplier to not provide the necessary material rather than simply their negligence. If you kill the project, make the decision and do it. Take the work that has been done, salvage the lessons learned and celebrate the “completion” of the project. Don’t make it a false celebration, but declare the project over appropriately so that the people put it behind them. Then move on.

Sin #4: Project Suffering From Scope Creep

We have all suffered from scope creep at one time or another. The scope of the project describes what the project is to do. Scope creep occurs when the definition expands during the course of the project. For example, I needed a light bulb on my car changed. I asked a mechanic to change the bulb. Thirty minutes later, he returns to tell me that my brakes needed to be fixed! They didn’t, but he tried to change a $15 job into a $350 job. That is scope creep.

We fix scope creep in one of two ways. Before the project starts, the scope is clearly documented and signed. The scope definition must include what the project includes and what it does not include. The “not included” is very important because it helps solidify the project boundaries. By referring to the scope document, we can keep the project within bounds.

When scope creep starts to occur, we use the document to bring the requester in line with the project parameters. If the requester insists on the change, we have the ability to request the necessary time and money incorporate the change.

Sin #5: Poor Communications

It is a well known fact, more people increases lines of communications exponentially. Keeping everyone informed becomes a daunting task. Even with the advances of communications such as email, cell phones, Blackberries, tele- and video-conferencing, web pages, etc., we still fall prey to uninformed people, information misinterpretation, or simply misunderstanding what was said.

This mis-communication becomes more complex now that we work across borders, cultures, and multi-generational workplaces. Words that used to mean one thing mean totally different meanings from one generation to the next. The expansion of our language with new words being added daily catches our breath away.

There is no simple cure to this sin. It takes diligence, ongoing learning of techniques, and the hardest behavior of all – listening to understand. These are behavior modification changes. Formal training in techniques goes a long way.

Sin #6: Unreasonable Expectations On People, Time, and Money

We have expectations. We expect people to do extraordinary things in limited time with little money. I find it interesting that, because of that expectation, extraordinary accomplishments result. So we live with this double-edged sword. If we truly had all the money, time, and people needed to accomplish a project, would we? And yet, we continually feel exasperated and drained because we are always under the gun to produce.

In a speech given by Pres. John F. Kennedy in 1962, he made the statement that by going to the moon in the next decade, it would prove that we had taken on a hard task that would prove the skill and fortitude of the American people. It builds pride in me every time I hear it. It makes me rise to the challenges.

We must know how far to push the envelope of expectations to gain the best but not so far that we over extend the money, time, and people into failure. And when the team accomplishes the task, we need to make sure that we acknowledge their effort in a great way, not just a simple thank you.

Sin #7: Incomplete Definition

The funny thing about this sin is that many times, we don’t realize that we have an incomplete definition until we are well into the project. The definition’s incompleteness becomes painfully obvious. Even worse, when we spend the “proper” amount of time defining the project and are crystal clear on the definition, we can still end up with an incomplete definition.

With that being the case, we need to be vigilant in our definition efforts to have as complete as possible definition prior to the project and to be nimble to incorporate definition refinements during the project. It takes skill and aplomb to make that happen. Stakeholders will need to be apprised of the impacts and made a part of the definition process, prior to and during the project. Once the area of definition deficiency is identified, we need to work quickly to determine its clarity and incorporate it into the project flow to keep things on track.

Final Thoughts

In life, there are many sins that we may commit. In project management, there are more sins than these seven that we can commit. Those are topics for another time. From my studies and questioning of people, these are the top seven. While at times they can be fatal or at least appear to be fatal, with some forethought, planning, and awareness, we can side-step many of them. So, go forth project managers and sin no more.



David A. Zimmer earned his Ph.D. in Project Management from the University of Hard Knocks. After twenty-five years of experience, he attended Villanova University for formal training and much eye-opening. While he is a highly effective and successful project manager, project management would have been much easier had he been trained first. He is now an evangelist coaching and training others in proper project management methodologies.

Copyright © 2006 David A. Zimmer, PMP All Rights Reserved

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