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Lessons Learned from Awful Project Managers

After leading and participating in hundreds of projects in multiple companies, industries, and countries, I’ve found that there is as much if not more to learn by observing awful project managers than exceptional project managers.  I’d be thrilled to not spend another minute with an awful project manager; however, we might as well pick up valuable lessons even from the most unpleasant experiences.  I’ve noticed that effective project managers are worth their weight in gold especially in today’s business environment, as successful execution is vital to company profitability.  There is no room for error; thus, it’s worthwhile to learn from a few key mistakes. 

In thinking through the examples of less-than-optimal project managers, I’ve picked the three worst project manager topics: 1) Clueless on the subject matter.  2) Focusing on all the wrong priorities.  3) Leadership challenged.

1.   Clueless on the subject matter – As a project team member, this can be one of the most frustrating issues!  It is surprising how often it becomes quickly apparent that the project manager is clueless on the subject matter and wastes endless amounts of time on non-essential discussions (making zero progress) yet the project sponsor allows the misery to continue far too long, alienating the entire project team. 

If you are the project manager, you can prevent this from occurring.  If you are unsure if your level of expertise is sufficient, talk with the project sponsor upfront and obtain help.  If help isn’t available and/or is too far out of reach, turn down the leadership role – no reason to kill your career from the start.  On the other hand, you don’t need detailed expertise on every technical detail.  What is essential is that you can ask effective questions that keep the project moving forward and the team focused.  If you can do that, you are a perfect fit regardless of your level of specific expertise.

If you are the project sponsor, do not assign and run.  Ensure your choice is capable.  If you are genuinely interested in how the project is progressing and not taking a blame-oriented approach, the project members will tell you if there is a problem.  No one wants to waste time working on an obvious disaster!  If there is an issue, focus additional attention to determine whether the project manager can turn it around or whether it’s a lost cause.

2.   Focusing on all the wrong priorities – Unfortunately, I’ve seen this occur frequently as people tend to get carried away with non-essential administrative tasks.  I’ve found this question to provide a clear indication of whether there is an issue:  Is more time spent on re-arranging tasks, determining formatting and discussing the same issues as the week prior or on ensuring critical path tasks are completed on-time and under budget?

If you find that there is an issue, the great news is that this is relatively easy to resolve.  Stop all focus on software, fancy timelines and discussing tasks.  Instead, determine the critical few tasks that must be completed first in order to deliver the project and then focus on those.  Remove roadblocks.  Address sacred cows.  Follow-up.  In essence, it boils down to two keys to success – prioritize and lead.

3.   Leadership challenged – As an opposite to point #1, you could have the person with the best technical skills in the company leading the project and yet fail due to poor leadership skills.  Typically this manifests itself in communication challenges; however, it goes beyond basic communications.  I’ve seen decent communicators (proactively updating the project team, publishing progress etc.) fail miserably due to a lack of leadership abilities. 

Perfection isn’t necessary; however, basic tenets are important.  I find that as long as the project manager possesses these attributes, he/she will be successful:  1) Respected/ known for integrity (a lot of sins are forgiven when team members know they can trust the project manager).  2) Effective communicator in terms of providing the vision/ goals, ensuring the critical tasks are understood and following up and providing status on an ongoing basis.  3) Focused on what’s important (and understanding what’s important through expertise or asking effective questions) and leading progress.

In my experience, 80% of significant company progress occurs with projects (whether or not the project is official or just a group of tasks coordinated by a group of individuals).  Therefore, effective project management can be critical to success.  Why not learn from not only the good project managers but also the worst?

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