How Project Mistakes Teach Valuable Lessons – Ah, The Joys of Getting Stuff Done

by Bill Swift on September 16, 2019

in Learning,Reflection

project management

Near panic, I began listing all the projects I had been in charge of over the years. Our instructor had suggested we review just how common project management is by creating a historical record of our own projects. Pen to paper, I was grinding out a history of, at best, mixed results. One pattern emerged, however: that of getting better over time and learning from mistakes.

My concern in this endeavor was two-fold: 1) How can I remember all of the stuff I have managed over four decades? And 2) I’m not sure I knew what I was doing half of the time. So, the list contained training projects, computer upgrades, employee handbooks, health plan changes, company reorganizations, remodeled kitchens (not for the faint of heart); a whole bunch of personal and professional projects.

As I inventoried these projects, I was reminded where I had caused myself (and others) grief, trouble, and a few dollars. Hindsight, as we all know, seems to bring about a clearer focus. The semi-reassuring part of this process is that the mistakes I had made were very common and correctable. Apparently, my experience mirrors many others. Perhaps there is some comfort in that.

It turns out that a few simple Project Management steps can really improve processes and outcomes. Not a natural planner by nature, I am so thankful for those who are, those who have gone before us and can now show us the way. There is hope for the project manager! Since that exercise years ago, I have studied the art and science of Project Management and found that I really enjoy teaching the basics and facilitating discussions of Project Management Improvement.

(Sneak a peek at this training here.)

Often, with the best of intentions, we take on a new program, some developmental change, a new workplace initiative, a project. We are “gung ho!” to make this new thing ring all kinds of bells. Yet, most of us fail to plan and design in a way that anticipates communication and stakeholder needs, staging, contingencies, and costs.

When talking to those who manage projects for a living, I consistently hear them list these critical considerations that lead to project success:

  • Timelines
  • Core project team and stakeholders
  • Dependencies/Contingencies
  • Milestones/Gates
  • Roles/Responsibilities
  • Communication Process
  • Assumptions (yep, we all make them)
  • Resources
  • Tools

A strategic review of all of these inevitably saves time, money and heartache. It is the 1:10:100 rule that seems to get the attention of most cost-conscious managers.

The 1:10:100 rule plays out something like this: The cost of most projects when properly planned ends up 1:1 in accordance with the budget. Any correction, however, that happens once the project has started may result in an increased cost up to 10x. Any correction at the time of full implementation may cost us up to 100x the intended and projected cost. Our classes inevitably produce some great discussion of how this rule has played out in workplace after workplace.

Of course, we cannot anticipate all the things that might happen. But working with a team, finding the voices of experience, and really drilling down on the dependencies can help reduce our blind spots. This underlines the business case for some basic planning.

As a side note, a participant in one of our Project Management classes also insisted that we add to the list “Make Planning Fun.” She is right. The planning stage can be an exciting process of checking boxes and getting people involved before we start our project’s journey. After all, projects should be about improving team engagement. Even for the reluctant planner, joy can be found in “working the process” rather than diving in uninformed.

My construction friends remind me of the planning mantra: “Measure twice, curse once” — or maybe it’s “Measure twice, cut once.” What is your Project Management Mantra?

We would love to hear your project success stories or what you have learned from making a mistake or two. Please be in touch at

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