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3 Executive Project Management Pitfalls

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

“The pessimist complains about the wind;

the optimist expects it to change;

the realist adjusts the sails.”

In a previous post called Effective Executive Project Management, we talked about how lack of management support is a common reason cited for project failure and what great project sponsors do differently.

Let’s flip that coin and see what pitfalls project sponsors could find themselves in if they’re not careful. As mentioned there, the underlying trap is in assuming that the same rules apply on projects as in operations. The problem with assumptions is that sometimes they are so ingrained that you don’t even realize you are making them. To give your project a shot at success, avoid embodying the following evil project sponsor behaviors.

Evil Sponsor #1 – The “drive by” direction giver

We know you’re busy. But the “drive by” method results in bodies jumping around just like drive by shootings do in the movies. Stopping someone in the hallway while you’re running to a meeting or briefly standing in the doorway of your project manager’s office for a moment while hammering instructions without enough time for a clarifying question, for a short discussion about priorities, for an understanding of context, is unfair. The result of a “drive by” is generally either more disruptive than you imagined or your request will be ignored until your direction is more clear. Instead, plan for a 15 minute sit down, share the problem you are trying to solve and your ideas for how to solve it. Then stop and listen. Observe if there is squirming. Even if there is no visible seat-shifting reaction, it is likely that the project manager is imagining all of the implications to the work in progress. Ask about impact. Listen. Beware of people just telling you what they think you want to hear. You do not want to become the emperor with no clothes.

Evil Sponsor #2 – The valley of indecision dweller

Sometimes on projects you are between a rock and a hard place. There seems to be no good solution and your only two choices are bad and really bad. Since you are the top leader on the project, everyone is looking at you. Meanwhile the clock continues to tick toward the next milestone and you have to consider that your team may be stuck at an intersection until you tell them which direction to go, wasting time and time is money (quite literally if you have consultants billing by the hour). We know it’s hard, but you have to make a decision, usually without all of the information you’d like and when your back is against the wall. That’s just the nature of the role. Consult your project leadership team. Listen. And don’t worry too much. You can always make another decision later.

Evil Sponsor #3 – The risk avoider

Once there was a non-profit leader whose reaction to a basic risk ideation discussion was, “WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO NEGATIVE??” Yes, you have to be a positive steward with a can-do attitude. But you also have to be realistic. By definition, projects are “unique.” That means in the history of the world, no one has done quite this same thing, in this time, in this place, with these people…something makes your project unique. And that means, “stuff” will happen that no one expects. Coach your team to go to the project manager with their concerns and make sure that s/he is listening for risks and actively managing them. Let’s take another look at #8 from the Top 10 Typical Responsibilities from our earlier article: Advise project manager on culture and potential impacts outside the project. Did you notice that the underlying message here is for you to watch out for risks? It is likely that you are privy to risks that your project team is not. There are inherent risks in paving new roads. Embrace them. Talk about them. Plan to avoid the likely ones. Accept the ones you can’t. Be ready for anything. And stand confidently. Your team is watching.

To have a chat about how we can help your Project Sponsors and teams succeed, schedule a call today.


About the Author: Dawn Mahan, PMP, is the Founder & CEO of PMOtraining, LLC., and enjoys coaching executives in how to be great project sponsors. Now she's the author of the upcoming book, "Accomplish More. Stress Less. The Practical Guide to Driving Successful Projects." Sign up for our mailing list to receive special announcements, offers and news about the book.

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