A reliable way to improve your success as a project manager (PM) lies in overcoming three bad habits:
Failure to Identify Risk
Lack of Look-Ahead Planning
Poor Expectation Management
In my opinion, these three habits are not talked about enough. And whenever I encounter a problem in a project, it’s typically because of one of these three items.
Failure to identify risk
All PMs understand the importance of keeping their eye on the core tenets of scope, time, and budget. These are the primary elements by which you turn a stakeholder’s vision into actionable milestones. However, many PMs fail to identify the risk associated with their projects.
Essentially, a PM’s responsibility with their team is to facilitate and communicate who is doing what by when. They must assemble a team, assign responsibilities, and arrange a schedule with clear objectives and deadlines. A great PM, however, maintains a healthy amount of paranoia, believing that even when things seem like they’re going smoothly, she should still continuously look around the corner.
You simply can’t assume that everything is fine just because no one has raised the red flag. As a PM, your job is to always assume something could be better, and proactively seek out those opportunities to prepare or improve. Software is notorious for changing scope, taking too long, and going over budget. But if a change goes unmanaged or undiscussed, it can become a serious problem. The sooner you identify risk, the more time and options you have to mitigate it. You’ll be able to quantify the impact, discuss solutions with your team, and present options to the stakeholders.
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Bottom line: A PM must create an environment for success by identifying risk before it becomes a problem and, most importantly, encouraging the team to escalate risk early so it can be dealt with properly.
2. Lack of look-ahead planning
I firmly believe all PMs need to plan at least 1-2 sprints ahead of their team. However, many are unknowingly passive and don’t conduct what I call look-ahead planning. In other words, PMs get flatfooted, failing to identify and facilitate all of the conversations and failing to align the priorities in the queue. As a PM, you must take the lead to make sure look-ahead planning is being executed properly.
In an agile environment, look-ahead planning is the work that identifies what the team works on next. PMs must prioritize features alongside business goals, before defining in detail the requirements of each feature. Most of the time, meetings and discussions will occur before any actual story grooming sessions or sprint planning meetings. These help the teams acquire consensus on the business requirements and the readiness of prerequisites or dependencies. It’s not always the PM who is doing the planning or writing of the requirements, but they must facilitate and ensure it gets done.
The benefit of look-ahead planning is a continuous flow of progress on milestones, resulting in real value being shipped. Otherwise, the team experiences “thrashing” where the most important work is not prioritized and defined by the time they’re ready to work on it.
The best PMs hold a servant leader mindset. They look ahead of the team and strive for a reputation as someone who unblocks their colleagues, ensuring the team is free to do their best and most efficient work.
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Bottom line: Don’t just manage tasks — manage the whole picture.
3. Poor expectation management
In my opinion, this is the most important habit to kick this year.
All good PMs should continuously manage expectations both upstream and downstream; in other words, for both the stakeholders and the PM’s internal team.
Manage Expectations Upstream
When managing expectations with stakeholders, there are two main strategies to keep in mind.
First, address unrealistic expectations head-on. When a stakeholder requests a drastic change or addition to the scope, don’t commit to simply “figuring it out.” This error almost always leads to issues down the road in a project. It is much better to address the “change” from the plan when it is identified.
Second, communicate in stakeholders’ own language, by identifying whether they’re most influenced by time, budget, or scope. For example, say they have a tight timeline but all of a sudden request a change in scope. I recommend responding to the stakeholder by saying something like: “If this truly is a higher priority for you, we’ll have to make some tradeoffs on your original vision and scope. Let me digest this with my team and we’ll get back to shortly on the impact of your request.” Then present and empower them with options.
Manage Expectations Downstream
When managing expectations internally, the key is mutual accountability.
As a PM, you are essentially pledging to your team that you’ll define the “who is doing what by when” and that you will remove impediments. In other words, you’re protecting them from any distractions and setting them up to get in the flow.
In return, you must coach your team to remain similarly accountable for their own roadblocks. Teach them that whenever an obstacle appears, you expect them to immediately escalate it to your attention. In other words, they’re protecting you from unexpected risk and ensuring you can properly guide the project to completion.
Bottom line: No one is expecting perfection, but everyone is expecting something. That something is “the plan.” Whenever the reality starts to diverge from the plan, the PM should proactively manage expectations.
To be clear, these are not habits you can kick overnight. They’re persistent nuisances that aim to disrupt even the best product management teams. Commit to checking in with yourself daily on these three key aspects of how you’re managing your projects.