by Christina Wood

8 lies project managers tell themselves

Mar 04, 202010 mins
IT LeadershipProject Management

From overvaluing milestones to assuming everyone has a unified vision of project success, don’t let these common PM self-deceptions sink your project.

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Credit: malerapaso / Getty Images

You’re the project manager on an exciting project. The timeline is set. Decisions have been made. Project goals have been articulated. And you’ve set up a detailed plan in the project management tool of your choice. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, quite possibly. In the words of Pablo Picasso, “Goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act.” According to a recent study by the Project Management Institute, organizations that undervalue project management report that 67 percent more of their projects fail. Too often that undervaluing starts with project managers who hold misconceptions around how to create and execute a plan for project success.

Following are eight common lies project managers tell themselves that can derail project success. These are the kind of lies that slip into the DNA of your plan. They create digressions, schedule slip, budget overages, unforeseen problems, and confusion.

Are you guilty of telling yourself any of these lies?

The lie: Milestones matter

Milestones are easy to believe in. But they are dangerous. They aren’t tasks. They don’t further the mission. All they do is mark the distance you’ve traveled. Someone has to break milestones down into discreet tasks and articulate what every person involved should be doing, when, and in what order in order to get to those milestones. That person is you.

We don’t use them,” says Glen B. Alleman, a program performance management consultant who has worked with the DOD, DHS, DOE, NASA, and the DOJ and is the author of Performance-Based Project Management: Increasing the Probability of Project Success. “The first milestones were rocks that measured the distance back to Rome,” he says. “You don’t know you’ve missed one until you’ve passed it.”

He’s not the only project manager I spoke to who considers milestones a hazard.

“The trick is to be skillful about breaking a big project down,” agrees Paige Costello, product management leader at Asana. “Sometimes people operate from the furthest milestone, set some date on the horizon, and cross their fingers. But the more you break that goal down into its component parts, understand what’s parallelizable, what can be sequenced, and what dependencies exist across teams, the better your plan will be.”

The lie: We’ll know when we’re done

Knowing where the finish line seems so essential to completing any race. But when it comes to projects, everyone I spoke to agreed that project managers often fail to articulate what completion will look like.

“Do the people paying know what done looks like?” asks Alleman. “That is a fundamental question PMs often fail to ask.”

“Project managers tell themselves, ‘Everyone knows the goal of the mission,’” agrees Kim Kessler, vice president of product at Caremerge. “Often, no one does. Everyone knows what they think the object is. But it’s the project manager’s role to give specific definition to stakeholder ideas, and ensure alignment. Without it, everyone is operating on assumptions.”

“People will set a date or goal without understanding or knowing what the true scope is,” says Beth Scudder, client services manager at Saggezza. “The project might not yet be defined but someone will say, ‘We need this by April 1st.’”

The lie: Everyone is using the same measuring stick

Another big lie — or assumption — project managers make, is that everyone is measuring success the same way. Someone must ask at the outset, “what are the performance measures?” says Alleman. “Otherwise we won’t be talking about this work using the same unit of measure.”

If you are building a freeway, for example, are you measuring progress by how long the finished road is, how much pavement has been poured, or how many cars it will carry when it’s finished? If you’re writing a book, do you measure progress by how many words are written it or how many copies it sells? If you’re building software, have you been clear about the criteria that will be applied to decide whether it’s what the client asked for?

“When people say, for example, ‘We want this to be more intuitive or easier,’ someone has to define what those things mean,” says Kessler.

Exactly, agrees Alleman. “Someone says, ‘I want it to be easy to use.’ What is the unit of measure? Or they say, ‘I want it to be fast.’ What is that unit of measure?”

“If you fail to define the performance measure,” says Alleman, “you won’t be talking to each other in terms that are meaningful to the decision-makers.”

The lie: Effort and results are the same thing

Everyone shows up and works hard. They are at their desks. They come to meetings and report on their progress. Work must be getting done. Right?

This is a classic delusion. “Everyone is lying to each other thinking that effort is the same as results,” says Alleman.

It isn’t. Effort is effort. Results are results. Effort is difficult to quantify. But results are easy to measure. Is that task done? If the answer is yes or no — not “we are working on it” or “it’s partly done” — you are measuring results.

This binary attitude can be disheartening unless you design a plan that breaks the project down into measurable actions. No one wants to work hard for three months only to have their effort measured as zero. You must give them a task that can be measured as “complete” in a prescribed amount of time.

 “You can’t have the efforts be too long in duration, though,” warns Alleman. “The question you answer to determine how long your work-durations can be is, ‘How long are you willing to wait till you find out you’re late?’ The answer for Federal Government is 44 days; for NASA it’s two weeks.”

What is it for you?

The lie: This part will be easy

So many bad things, I’m told, happen after a project manager decides, “This part will be easy.”

These include: Unexpected technical problems, failure to understand the scope of a task, failure to assign adequate resources, inadequate budget, the lack of backup plan, and much more.

“The biggest lie is not understanding the complexity of a requirement from the start,” says Scudder. “For example, when someone says, ‘I need it to do this,’ and you agree without understanding how much that part touches every aspect of the project.”

Again, this comes back to assumptions. In this case, though, they are easy to spot. Look for every task you thought would be “easy” and revisit it. How did you get to that conclusion? Was it because you believed it had been done before? Do you understand its scope? Are you clear about what it will take to accomplish it?

The lie: I don’t need a Plan B

“The biggest lie PMs tell,” says Costello, “is when they keep something scary or risky to themselves because they believe they can fix it.” This comes from a place of optimism, she says. They tell themselves they will work harder, catch up in the next phase, pull an all-nighter, hustle, or — somehow — become a superhero and solve it.

What actually happens, says, Alleman, is that they end up watching the entire project crash because this belief that they will “fix it” stops them from recognizing the need for a plan B or from alerting the people who can fix the problem.

“I remind people not to do this by saying, ‘No surprises!’” says Costello. “It’s much better to hear about something and be able to share that burden as a team than it is to have something only a few people know about that blows up.”

The lie: No one values what I do

Being the person with the plan and not the technical skills can feel as if your contribution go unnoticed. But that’s like saying the rudder is a useless part of the ship because it’s underwater. “There are always fads and processes and technology that will make everything better,” says ChenLi Wang, senior vice president of product at Pango. “But at the end of the day, this work is all about marshaling a group of people toward an objective.” And the project manager is the one doing the marshaling.

Wang is not the only senior executive that sees the value of project management. According to the PMI survey, more than two-thirds of project professionals say senior leadership values project management and nearly half of organizations have made it a priority to develop a culture that values project management.

The lie: I’m a PM not a leader

“Project managers are risk managers. And risk management is how adults manage projects,” says Alleman.

To marshal your group toward its objective, you must be able to lead. It is people — not milestones, deadlines, budgets, or resources — that will get the job done. According to the PMI study, “Most organizations place nearly an equal emphasis on developing leadership skills as they do on technical skills.”

“It all comes down to people,” confirms Wang. “That’s my simple truth. It comes down to finding teams that trust each other and work together. And it comes down to finding project managers who can get the best out of those people.”

You are more than a functionary with a clipboard. You are a coach, a guide, a sensei, and a leader. Your team needs you to guide them past the milestones and hazards, expose the lies, clarify the units of measure, recognize the contributions of the individuals, and know when your team has reached the finish line.