6 Project Management Lessons Learned the Hard Way

PM HutBy Chris Merryman
PM Hut

project managementBeing a Project Management practitioner is a choice many of us have willingly made (and enjoy!). Others may have joined the ranks due to necessity from their previous role being eliminated, outsourced or some other form of extinction. Regardless of our past experiences we’ve all made our share of mistakes and all have a unique relationship with the term “Lessons Learned”. In this article I share some of the lessons I learned the hard way. We can read as many books as we want, interview everyone we’ve ever known and read every Google article that exists on the topic of how to be a strong, influential and creative type person so we can thrive in the Project Management environment but nothing can truly replace being in the hot seat. Here are a few things I hope make sense to those either in the role already or thinking about taking on the role.

1) Never take outside influences for granted

This one I think we all take for granted. We assume that by providing regular status reports, staying on schedule, under budget and controlling scope creep is a sure way to ensure your Project makes it to completion. We sometimes forget about the outside forces that can turn a normal working day totally upside down and in the morning we have a thriving Project but in the afternoon we no longer have a Project! We need to ensure we fully understand our Sponsor and Stakeholders concerns not only for the outcome of the Project but what are we trying to accomplish in the first place? Is it competitive advantage over a product just released? Are we trying to claw our way to the top of the industry by providing the best in class service? Or is this a pet project of the Sponsor and when the signs of another Project are looking dire they redirect everyone to help get it back in good health? We need to keep our eyes and ears open and ensure we understand as much as possible as to why our Project exists.

2) Staying quiet can be a powerful tool

You might in a situation where you encounter a difficult team member or a higher level manager that you report into and have tried everything possible to convince them of something. You reference books, literature on the web, industry best practices and other examples of success to prove your point yet nothing is working to change this person’s mind. Sometimes we just need to sit there and stay quiet. Don’t lead into it with a question like “What do you recommend?” Instead when the person is through with their rebuttal just stay silent. Silence is an amazingly powerful tool. If you’ve ever been in a meeting where this has happened you know exactly what I am referring to. The uncomfortable silence that lingers for many seconds longer than the pace of the meeting has been taking place in. I’ve experienced it many times. Our minds start to race. What happened? Why is no one talking? Is someone about to really fly off the handle? What is going on? It must be used strategically and sparingly.

3) Trust

I think we can all agree that this can be applied in just about any situation. Trust is the cornerstone of every relationship whether it’s personal, professional or something in-between. Trust is something we must not only establish as practitioners of our profession but also something we must continuously foster and promote.

4) Change is Good

Change is good! It’s necessary! Change is all around us and in today’s ever-faster moving environment we can’t try to stop it. Trying to stop it will likely be more harmful than embracing it. Now, not all change is good though. We need to look at it through our “lens of reasonability”.

  • Is it something that can positively benefit the Project?
    This can take many forms, it could be a risk mitigation, it could lower cost, it could give our product or service the competitive advantage that we need in order for our end product to be a success!
  • If it’s something that impact the Iron Triangle (scope, time, cost) what can give?
    Can we reduce scope? Can we get more time? Can we get more money or are we saving enough money that maybe we can fit more in before the deadline?
  • Is it something that could negatively impact the Project?
    This is where we would break out our risk register and get to work on mitigation strategies which shouldn’t be anything new, it’s a core competency of the Planning, Execution and Controlling phases.
  • Does it boost team morale?
    Never underestimate the power of good news! Even something small can sometimes break the stress that is building up during difficult times. The team needs all the positive support it can get.
  • If you were the customer would you want it?
    Customers can and at some point usually do have unrealistic expectations. That’s nothing new. Put yourself in their position for a moment though. Would we, as the customer, benefit? Is it something that can buy you goodwill in case we run into a pitfall later down the road? Customers can be difficult, but in the grand scheme of things they are the ones that funded the project.

5) Most of the time there’s no point in making a point outside of individual interactions

This one too I think can transcend across all aspects of our life. If you really do feel the need to ensure you are getting your point across I strongly suggest you take it up with the person one-on-one. The only exception I would make is if you are in the position of managing a life-critical Project (i.e. Aviation, Medical devices, Hazmat services, etc). In situations involving these types of products or services there should be a very clear line and most likely there are laws that you have to comply with anyone as a minimum safety measure. Even in this environment though I would strongly encourage using this sparingly and if at all possible defer the discussion to a one-on-one session in the immediate future.

6) Don’t ever say “I’m sorry you feel that way”

I wish I would have known this early on. I only made the mistake once. For those that have made this same mistake I am betting you only made it once too. There is no way to get out of this one unscathed. I’ve never seen people react to something as harshly as this statement which I have found is routinely followed by “How should I feel?” or a derivative thereof in a very negative and insulting tone. It’s only a mistake you make once. Try not to make it at all though because if you do there’s a high probability you’ve burned your bridge with that person for a very long time.

The list can go on for quite a while. We’ll all make mistakes, it’s inevitable. I’m hoping that this article gets to you in time to help from making similar mistakes but if not I hope you smiled and maybe even laughed as you remember experiencing one, if not all, and how it changed your style afterward.

Chris Merryman, MBA, PMP is an avid Project Management and everything Agile enthusiast. Chris has over 10 years of experience in the IT industry and has developed and worked on several complex software and hardware projects utilizing PMI’s Project Management and Agile w/Scrum philosophies. Chris can be reached at www.linkedin.com/in/chrismerryman.

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