5 project management pitfalls and how to avoid them

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If you've ever been in a project management position, you know that the odds of a project being delivered without a single hitch along the way are pretty low. But there are lots of ways to avoid some of the most detrimental project pitfalls you'll encounter and to fix them should they arise despite your efforts to stave them off.

Unclear Goals

Complicated project goals can be hard to define, but vague goals will bring about a myriad of problems later on in the project. Unclear goals may be the result of a lack of clear communication or a rushed kickoff without proper discovery.

It’s crucial that everybody makes the effort to clarify in order to avoid the project falling into a state of disarray when, later on, those ambiguous goals aren’t providing the sense of direction that they’re supposed to provide.

Completing a full discovery period is a surefire way to avoid foggy goals. Knowing everything there is to know about the existing product – or the product you’re going to create – will allow you and the client to better define what you should aim for. Returning to these agreed upon goals throughout the course of the project is just as important as defining them at the start.

If you find that the goals aren’t giving you the necessary direction after the project is underway, don’t be afraid to stop before you go any further. Defining the goals late is far better that rolling out a finished product that leaves your team frustrated and your client disappointed.

Stakeholder Uncertainty

On any given project, it’s absolutely crucial that both your internal team and your client’s team understand what their roles are.

Stakeholder uncertainty can arise out of a number of errors. Perhaps your client wants everybody on his team to be a part of the decision-making process. Maybe a member of your internal team has left the project and the replacement is unsure of his new role. Regardless of its cause, the issue of unclear role definition can lead to inconsistent documentation, major scope creep, missed deadlines and dissatisfaction all around.

Luckily, you can avoid running into this huge mess simply by explaining to your own team and to the client why clearly defined roles are so important and then defining said roles. Your role as the project manager is to serve as point of contact for the client. The client should name a point of contact as well, to avoid inconsistent documentation.

If you’re finding yourself falling into the pit of stakeholder uncertainty halfway through the project, you can still salvage it. Just pause to readjust and redefine the roles as necessary. Don't be afraid to call out team members who overstep their roles in a way that puts the success of the project at risk.

Fear of Conflict

We are often so afraid of initiating conflict that we opt to ignore it even as it’s glaring right at us. This fear can become a major obstacle in the way of your project’s progress and can lead to an over-budget finished product and a sense of disappointment.

Maybe you don’t want to disappoint the client by saying no. Maybe you don’t want to derail the project by asking everybody to pause and re-evaluate a decision. If you let these minor concerns or disagreements build up, they can turn into pretty major problems at the end of the project.

This one is easy to avoid as long as you’re able to create an environment of trust around your project, one that fosters open communication. Ensuring that your team members and your client are comfortable with expressing their concerns will make for a much more successful navigation of conflict.

If you find that the conflict is already building up as the project begins, stop it in its tracks by addressing the fact that you feel something is off, and are open to hearing everybody’s feedback on the project so far. Return to this throughout the project, reminding the client and your team that their ideas are important to the success of the project.

Scope Creep

When you lose control of your project’s established scope – its deliverables and budget – you run into scope creep. Sometimes, it’s the result of too much of what’s usually a good thing: creativity. It can also arise out of an undefined project scope. More often than not, it’s a combination of the two.

When your client starts asking you to add a whole bunch of features that might be really cool but might also run your project over its budget, you have to be prepared to say no or to present your client with a change order.

As long as the scope and budget are clearly defined at the start of the project – and approved by the client with a signature – you can avoid the issue of scope creep altogether. You’ll be able to show the client the deliverables you established and agreed upon together and tell her that if she wants to add out-of-scope features, she’ll have to start with a change order.

If your client is dead set on adding a feature that you know will take the project over its budget, consult your internal team. Is there a way to compromise? Does a similar but less time-consuming solution exist?

Missed Deadlines

Timelines are important, but they don’t always hold up. When a critical milestone is delivered late, your entire project can be derailed and your team's credibility can take a major hit. These missed deadlines are often the result of a client’s failure to review something on time. But just as often, your team will encounter obstacles, sometimes related to the project and sometimes in the form of external priorities pushing into the timeline.

When a deadline is missed, you might find that goals aren’t reached on time or at all and that your client is disappointed. But missed deadlines are not inevitable ­– there are measures you can take to avoid them.

As you establish your timeline, leave time for necessary QA and potential errors. Always anticipate that the worst might happen, even while aiming for the best-case scenario. Make sure that both the client and internal teams are clear on the timeline from the beginning.

Should you miss a deadline despite your efforts to avoid it, make sure that you rework the rest of the timeline immediately. The client should always be aware of and approve changes and your team should be alerted when a milestone date is shifted – clear communication is key.

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