There are many reasons that projects come off the rails. We’ve heard horror stories of unprepared project managers, bad scheduling and terrible communication. We dug deeper for some more habits that doom your projects before they begin.

No Milestones

Milestones ensure project success because they allow your team to focus on smaller chunks of work. If you only look at your project as a whole, it’s overwhelming and hard to schedule your resources appropriately. At the start of every project, give your client and your team a timeline full of attainable, smaller chunks to help organize and track your progress.

Scheduling milestones will also allow your project manager to slice up the project in a way that may be better suited for your various team member’s skills – rather than scheduling the same team members in the same roles all the way to the finish line.

Your team and your client or stakeholder should be clued into your project progress at all times. When both parties can reference mutually understood milestones, communicating project progress will become faster and easier.

Not only do milestones create a common timeline language for your project manager and client, but they’re also great for the people who are doing the heavy lifting. It doesn’t matter how talented or smart your team is, we all like to break down big items to iron out uncertainties, timelines and accountabilities.

No Milestone Dates

It’s one thing to organize your project into milestones, it’s another thing to know when you’re committing your team to accomplishing them. For the same reasons that milestones give your project structure, give your milestone due dates to set expectations for your stakeholders and team.

To figure out your milestone timeline, start with your deadline date and work backwards to your milestone dates. If your milestone dates don’t agree with your end date, you won’t finish on time.

Invisible Project Schedules

Once you’ve set your milestone dates, make sure everyone can see the project schedule to avoid stonewalling your team. Even if everyone on the team isn’t involved at every point, project managers get busy and don’t always update the timeline. Your team can help provide accountability to correct your project manager’s oversights.

Your team will also benefit from the project schedule because it creates buy-in, accountability and an appropriate sense of urgency.

  • Buy-in: The team will feel like their contribution chips away at the final goal. It’s too easy for people to get cloudy on timelines when they only trust their guts. When each member can see their goals, they can see how whether they’re putting in enough effort.

  • Accountability: It can feel uncomfortable to look at your name in an empty slot of a Gantt chart or Trello board. Because everyone can see it, a posted project schedule can make it hard for people to just punch their time card.

  • Creating a sense of urgency: Nobody wants to be known for turning in rushed or incomplete work. Laying out the project schedule at the beginning will help your team set an appropriate tempo for their workflow.

Milestone Lag

Milestone lag is when a team waits too long to start its next project milestone. It’s the project manager’s responsibility to keep the team on track by using milestones: when one milestone ends, the next one starts. But preparing for the next milestone at the end of the first is a good way to waste time and blow your schedule.

You’ll need any necessary project information and assets on the first day of Milestone Two, or you‘ll be already behind schedule. To avoid lag, start ramping up project management tasks for Milestone Two well before the team is ready to begin work. Staying ahead of the team allows your project manager to smooth out potential roadblocks before they surface for the team.

Surprise Changes

It’s wise project management to anticipate the things you don’t know that you don’t know. During the life cycle of every project, someone will raise their hand and say, “Well actually, this has changed…”

Sometimes a team member will have a family or health emergency that will take them out of play. In your project plan, try to anticipate the things that can ground your work.

Make sure you have a way to account for unknowns, either by an official contingency in your statement of work or by adding breathing room in the project timeline. Track any instances of Murphy’s Law while they happen to later understand their impact on timeline, dollars and manpower. This data can give you an idea of how plan for these unknowns in future projects.

Scope Creep

Everyone runs into scope creep. Even if you listen to all of the advice above, it still won’t brace you for client curveballs. Scope creep is when a stakeholder asks for something outside your original agreement. They might say, “Actually, we need this thing too – I thought we talked about that…”, but the request will change your project timeline and budget.

Before you kick off your project, both parties should agree to a clear project scope. When scope creep hits, both sides can discuss the difference between the original agreement and the new request.

If your project priorities do shift, both the client and your team needs to be clear on the impact. Your team must rework your timeline, budget and milestones.

Have your team talk through this list at your next team meeting to see how you can help ensure your projects’ successes.

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