Conrado Vina
January 9, 2020

5 Common Mistakes New Project Managers Should Avoid

Almost every engineer or scientists turned project manager we talk to tells us the same thing: they never received any formal project management training before taking on their first project. If you’re about to embark on your first project - or you need a boost of confidence for your next project - we’ve pulled together the five most common mistakes we see with first time project managers. Avoiding these five project management missteps can set you up for success as a new project manager. 

Failure to Manage Expectations

When working with a client the first step in building a successful relationship is to make sure you’re both on the same page. This is particularly important if it’s the very first project you’re managing for a new client. One of the primary reasons projects fail is due to a failure to communicate the expectations for the project. New project managers may rely too much on the scoping documents and incorrectly assume that the business stakeholders know and understand those documents. 

Before the project starts, sit down with the key stakeholders to understand their expectations for the project. What outcomes will determine whether the project is a success? What’s the expected timeline and format of any updates or deliverables? How confident are they of the project’s budget? 

In these conversations, remember that it’s okay to push back. Does the client have unrealistic expectations? Educate them on what is and is not reasonable and figure out together how to ensure success for the project. 

A key adage to remember is to always “under-promise and over-deliver” when setting up expectations for a project. It can be easy to over-promise when starting out as a project manager, which leads to frustration and disappointment for everyone involved. Take the time to map out what the project should look like and make sure everyone agrees on the timeline, scope, and indications of success. 

Lack of Communication

To accurately set expectations for the projects and make sure the project stays on track, you have to communicate. Once you have initial conversations, it can be tempting to hit the ground running and only touch base during scheduled check ins. However, any project manager has faced or will face a time when they are not getting all the information they need to do their work. This is incredibly frustrating and can lead to the project getting off track or going beyond the agreed-upon scope. 

As a project manager, there are multiple demands on your time throughout the duration of the project and communication can often be delayed or deprioritized as you focus on other tasks.  Make it a priority to regularly check-in and update the project stakeholders. Open communication can help project managers catch frustrations before they become real problems. This includes any changes in scope or budget, early signs of client dissatisfaction, and other potential problems that could lead to project failure.

Making regular communication a habit and a priority is especially helpful for project managers working with a team. Be sure to communicate any updates to scope and shifts in priorities as soon as possible to make sure everyone has the most up-to-date information they need to perform their work effectively.

Allowing Scope Creep

Project managers are very familiar with how easily a project can start to grow in an uncontrolled way beyond the initial scope. This is called scope creep, and it’s one of the primary reasons that projects don’t succeed. Scope creep can mean adding additional features to a new project, new requirements, or any requested work that wasn’t originally authorized. Scope creep often causes frustration and dissatisfaction for both the client and the consultant.

It’s natural to want your first project to be a huge success and that eagerness can lead to adding on more work that’s more than you or your team can handle. If there are major changes in the scope, connect with the client to decide whether there needs to be an update to the scope and how that will impact the budget, timeline, and deliverables. This will help prevent frustration both for you and for the client.

As a new project manager, resist the temptation to bite off more than you can chew and prioritize sticking to the original scope. Continue to communicate frequently and manage expectations to make sure the client is happy and that you are not being forced to work beyond the project scope. 

Too Little Risk Management

Risk management should be a key part of your overall habits as a project manager. New project managers often fail to identify risks and develop mitigation plans for potential issues. Without these plans in place, new project managers are left scrambling when things go wrong. Don’t simply do a risk assessment at the beginning of the project and file it away for later. 

As part of your regular pattern of communications and check-ins, review your initial risk assessment and make adjustments as needed. Different project stages will have different risks associated and your mitigation plans should change accordingly. Take time at the beginning of the project and during each new stage to identify and inventory potential risks and come up with the appropriate plans and processes to handle them. 

For engineers and scientists, there are specific risks to consider that can have a major impact on the success and effectiveness of the project. When you identify these risks and come up with a mitigation plan, be sure to communicate the plans and processes with your team and any stakeholders that may be impacted. 

Directing Instead of Leading

As a project manager, you’ll be working with other people that have an impact on the overall success of a project. Integrating with a new team, particularly one that may be made up of former peers, comes with unique challenges. While the project outcome is a high priority, working effectively with the other people involved has a huge effect on the project’s success. Many project managers act as directors, which may lead to treating the people around them like equipment rather than as integral parts of the project process. 

Project managers need to step up and be leaders by motivating and holding their team accountable, while also treating them like one of the most valuable resources available to them. From the beginning, it’s important to build relationships with your team and the people you will interact with. Learn their motivations and their strengths and weaknesses. This will help you be a better, more effective leader and guide the way you help your team succeed. 

With deep technical and scientific expertise, environmental consultants know how to get the work done for their clients but may not realize some of the pitfalls that come with project management. Learning how to avoid these mistakes helps new project managers work more effectively and leads to a better experience for the project managers and for their clients.

For project managers—both new and more tenured—communication is key to ensuring project success. Set expectations early and communicate regularly to prevent client dissatisfaction and recognize any early indications of scope creep. Identify risks early and often and develop the proper mitigation plans to cope with any issues that may come up. Remember that people are the most valuable resource a consulting firm has and treat them as such—be a leader rather than a director. 

Project management can be tough even for experienced consultants who haven’t been formally trained in the techniques and methodologies, which can lead to frustration and ineffective processes. With project management software tailored to environmental consultants, 

EVX Software can help lighten the load on project managers and help them work smarter. The all-in-one, easy to use project management system helps automate and streamline your processes, letting you focus on doing great work that makes a positive impact on your clients and on your bottom line. 

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