Self-inflicted Project Wounds

snakebite.jpgThere is a group of forensic chemists who gather periodically for something called “The Bite-mark Breakfast”, where they are treated to a slide show of various bite marks which they attempt to identify while enjoying their eggs, sausage and toast. (This popped into my head this morning as I was feeding my cat. She was in a nasty mood, and I made the mistake of picking her up to give her a little rub before heading off for a 3 week business trip.) In this same vein (pun intended!) I thought it would be fun to take a spirited look at the wounds incurred by projects, in particular those of the self-inflicted kind. While there are endless challenges rained down upon a project, the most regrettable are those we bring upon ourselves. These acts of self-mutilation and attempted suicide are largely avoidable, and it’s a pity to have any hard-working team suffer the consequences of such behavior on the part of a project leader.


The single-most hideous self-induced risk to life and limb of any project is to for an inexperienced and unqualified project manager to take the lead. Just because project management seems easy when it’s done properly is no reason to believe that anyone with half a brain can do it. Technical geniuses who can figure out how to launch the space shuttle from their iPods can’t necessarily hammer out a shared vision among the divergent views of a bunch of clamoring stakeholders. Process gurus sporting black belts in the latest incarnation of statistical process control and the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle created by Shewhart and popularized by Dr. Deming in the last century aren’t automatically gifted at motivating, coaching and inspiring individuals to contribute their very best in the pursuit of a worthy cause. And don’t EVEN get me started about what a person who is able to study the PMBOK and remember what they read long enough to answer multiple choice questions on a test may or may not be capable of!

A qualified and experienced project manager knows enough about the product and technology to facilitate sensible decisions among the project team, and detect total nonsense when they hear it. They are capable of employing a variety of problem-solving methods that assure that all relevant information and viewpoints are considered, not just chairing a round table swapping of opinions. And, far beyond dishing out tasks and checking on status, they are committed to bringing out the best in each of the individuals on their team through a combination of appropriately matching the person to the task, encouragement and course-correcting feedback. These are the essential “3 Ps” that produce business results: Product/Process/People.

Yeah, but . . . what if you are the unqualified and inexperienced project manager who is currently leading a project which is way above your capacity? Run, don’t walk, to the nearest highly experienced and capable person you can find and beg them to help you and your team avoid the self-inflicted damage toward which you are surely tottering. Get them to “shadow manage” the project by coaching and mentoring you every step of the way. Meet with them at length on a weekly basis, and talk with them informally frequently throughout the week. This is exactly how I managed my first project, which I was assigned to lead after I complained bitterly about the inadequacies of the current project manager. I was fortunate to have a manager who was willing and able to guide me through my first project leadership experience. You may not be so lucky, in which case you may need to find a mentor, or even hire someone to help you. That’s right, if you can’t get your company to provide you what you need, pay good money out of your own pocket if necessary to get the kind of support that you need to do a great job on your project. I’ve hired professional coaches from time to time in my career, usually when I stepped into a role that felt 5 sizes too big for me. There’s nothing like having someone with 20 years of experience showing you the way. Reading books, taking classes and passing exams are no substitute for decades of experience. Consider it an investment in your continued employment! And you can usually write it off on your taxes.

– Kimberly Wiefling, Author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch last fall.

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