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Project Management Questions I Get Asked Most

I've been involved in training Project Managers for over 20 years. And there are some project management questions I get asked time and time again. Most often, it's by students in a live training session. But, more recently, I've been seeing the same sorts of question crop up online.

Not surprisingly, these questions have informed many of the choices I have made about the articles I write for this OnlinePMCourses site. But I thought it is time to collate all the project management questions I get asked most often.

So, in this article, I will do two things:

  1. I'll give an outline answer to my top twenty questions
  2. I'll also signpost articles that give fuller answers, so you can follow up and get more detail


Project Management Questions I Get Asked Most

These to the Questions People Ask Me

One thing I've noticed is that the questions people ask seem to fall into four big themes. So, that's how I shall structure this article. Here are the themes:

  1. How can I build a Project Management career, and what learning will help me?
  2. What are the basics of Project Management, and how can I get them right?
  3. I want to know about the wider Project Management landscape
  4. How can I manage my projects really well?

I'll take these one at a time, and group my questions into these themes.

Theme 1: How can I Build a Project Management Career, and What Learning will Help me?

Project Management Questions: Career

The first theme for Project Management questions is all about the career, and developing your skills. And the single question I get asked most often is...

How Can I Get into Project Management?

A lot of the courses I run are for new and first-time Project Managers. Indeed, that's my main audience for OnlinePMCourses. And many of those people want to get into project management, but don't know where to start.

That's just where I was, nearly 30 years ago. And it's one of the drivers for why I started OnlinePMCourses. So, it's no surprise that one of the first long-form articles I wrote answered this question. Take a look at 'Can You Get a Project Management Job? (Here’s How)'.

Of the three routes I suggest in that article, the best is definitely to re-cast your current role as a PM role. You'll find plenty of tips as to how to do that, along with six case studies for people in different situations. If you want the answer to this question, I'm sure one of those examples will resonate.

Will I Make a Good Project Manager? 

When people ask me this question, my honest answer is 'I don’t know'. But my answer to the question ‘could I make a good Project Manager?’ is most definitely 'yes'.

Because Project Management is not some innate skill-set that you are born with. It's not genetic. And, while there may be some genetically predisposed personality traits that will make it easier to thrive as a Project Manager, anyone can gain the skills and the attitudes you need. It takes discipline and a recognition that there is no one 'right way'.


If you see a Project Manager doing a good job, you don't have to do it the way they do. That's why, when I wrote 'What Makes a Good Project Manager? (7 Top Assets)', I thought of the things you need to acquire as assets, rather than traits.

Because traits are about who you are or, at least, who you've become. But, if you invest wisely, you can build up assets. And, with the right assets, you can become a good - no, great - Project Manager.

Should I Take a Project Management Course?  

Yes, there are many good Project Managers who are self-taught, learned on the job, or absorbed their skills by watching others. But that's the hard way. In my article, 'Are You Ready for a Project Management Course (Why you are)?', I argue that you probably have a lot of the knowledge you need. But a good PM training course will help you jin the dots, fill the gaps, and understand the principles.

So, if you do decide to get some Project training, which course should you take? I give some solid advice in my article that offers 10 Revealing Questions to find the Best Project Management Course.

Online Project Management Training

Here at OnlinePMCourses, we focus on... online Project Management training. I spend a lot of my time training Project Managers (mostly in the UK, but also in western Europe) at live training events and seminars. But, as I did my research, I realised there were good reasons why online training is even better. So, I wrote The Definitive Guide to Why a Good Online Project Management Course Beats Live Training.

Should I Join the PMI/APM etc and Take their Qualifications?

If you want a Project Management career, do you need to get qualified? My answer is a straight 'no'. There are plenty of successful Project Managers who have no qualifications, or who only acquired them later in their careers, out of interest.

But, equally, there are many employers who either value qualifications in their selection process, or make them mandatory. You need to know the market you'll be pitching yourself into.

And there are plenty of qualifications to consider, too. So start with our article on one of the most vexing of Project Management questions: 'Project Management Qualification: Should I or Shouldn’t I?'

There's more to membership of PMI, APM, IAPM and other than the qualification, of course. so the article discusses that dimension too.

The PMI is the Biggest Player, Globally

But, internationally, there is one association that is bigger, better-known, and more valued by employers: the Project Management Institute (PMI).

So, should you seek one of the PMI's qualifications? The first question is which one? The principle options at the start of your career are PMP and CAPM. So start with our article 'PMP versus CAPM: All You Need to Know'.

PMP is the more prestigious and more demanding. You may not be able to take it straight away. But, once you are ready to consider it, do read 'PMP Certification: What You Need to Know [Complete Review]'.


We have other articles about the PMI, and also summaries of their annual 'Pulse of the Profession' reports:

I’m studying for my PMP/CAPM/PRINCE2/Scrum exams. How can I remember all that stuff? 

This is a question I am asked more often, now that we offer a range of training courses for different Project Management qualifications and certificated exams.

To support the launch of the premium version of our PMP Exam Preparation Guide, I prepared an article to help with this, which covers all the scientifically-supported tips for better learning. Take a look at How Can You Get the Best from Your Project Management Learning?

What books should I be reading?

I love books and reading. And it always pleases me when people ask me for reading recommendations. I've created a number of articles listing recommended books, along with book reviews/summaries. And there is also our biennial roundup of the best Project Management blogs, if you are thirsty for more ideas.

Theme 2: What are the Basics of Project Management, and how can I get them Right?

Project Management Questions: Basics

I get a whole load of Project Management questions about the basics. And that isn't surprising, as most of the people I meet are new to Project Management. And, at the core of their concerns is the question...

What do I Most Need to Know about Project Management? 

You know how there are some questions that can floor you?

You know the answer, but don't know where to start. It's a big question, and the answer isn't straightforward. So, after you've answered and moved on all the better answers come to your mind...

That's why I wanted to take some time and answer this question carefully. The result is one of my favourite articles. And, it's one of our shorter ones: What do You most need to Learn about Project Management? (10 Critical Concepts)

Isn’t Project Management all Form-filling and Bureaucracy? 

Here's a question that sometimes comes up at the start of a live training session. And, in some organizations, I completely get that this is a legitimate concern. They can have far too many templates and forms to fill.

My answer, though, is 'no, it's not.' 

You should only fill out a form, or complete a template if it helps you to either:

  1. deliver your project to time, to budget, and to specification, or
  2. do so in a transparent and accountable manner

That is, the two things that really matter are getting the job done, and good governance. And if you want more on this topic, read my article, 'Are You Getting Your Project Documentation all Wrong?'

What are the Most Helpful Tools for a Project Manager? 

And this is another question of the same sort. I always avoid answering it in terms of software. What matters is the underlying techniques. Which software does it best today, and which one suits you best, is both personal and prone to change rapidly. My considered answer to this question is in the article '10 Tools for Better Project Management Results'.

How Should I Get Started on My Project?

This is a more practical question. It's also one that I spend a lot of time answering in all my basic Project Management courses.

I know that a small number of participants in both my live and online Project Management training think I spend a little too long on it. but my response is simple: this is CRITICAL (sorry to shout). Your project definition is absolutely vital. Without getting this right, you are doomed to fail.

So, what is a Project Definition?

The first video in our free four-video Project Management fundamentals course covers the elements of how to define your project, as does our Project Definition Toolkit (in great depth).

However, if you want a straightforward article, with all the essentials, take a look at 'How to Build a Robust Project Definition [The Key Components]'. And, if you want more, and fancy a slightly different take from a couple of years earlier, there's also 'Clear Project Brief (10 Things to Include)'.

How can I Keep My Boss Happy? 

Don't we all want to keep our bosses happy? Of course we do, to:

  • make our lives easy, and
  • win recognition and promotion

This was one challenge I found easy when I was a project manager, working for external clients and bosses in my own firm. So, I wrote about it in 'How I Kept My Boss Happy Without Working Hard At It.'

How Should I Work with my Stakeholders?

Most new Project Managers instinctively recognize the importance of stakeholders. But few realize just how critical they are. I always argue that:

Your stakeholders will determine the success, or not, of your project. Click To Tweet

So, let's start with the basics

Stakeholder engagement is a big and important topic. So, we have a lot of articles here to help you with it:

Theme 3: I Want to Know about the Wider Project Management Landscape

Project Management Questions: Landscape

As people get more knowledge, they want to survey a wider scope of the PM landscape, so the questions they ask go broader than the basics of simple Project Management. And Project Management questions don't get broader than...

What are the Big Trends in Project Management? 

Is Agile still a trend? Maybe it's now a fixed point in the PM universe.

If it is a trend, it's definitely one of the biggest, and is one of the twelve I identified in this article: What are the Important Project Management Trends?

From time-to-time, I review it and update it. But you should also take a look at our annual summaries of PMI's Pulse of the Profession report, in which PMI asks a load of topical Project Management questions of a wide range of respondents:

Finally, we also reviewed some of the best Project Management surveys we could find, here: Project Management Survey: A Guide to the Best Ones.

How can I Handle Managing Multiple Projects at the Same Time?

I get this question a surprising amount. Particularly from managers who are charged with managing two or more projects, often on top of their line management role. So, this was an obvious topic for a long-form article filled with tips and strategies: Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects. 

It is one of my most popular articles, and has formed the basis for a couple of workshop sessions. But the whole question of managing your own time as a Project Manager keeps recurring. Indeed, my Brilliant Time Management seminar is probably my second most popular live seminar - thousands have attended it across the UK.

Time Management

So, I thought, why not? Since my time management methodology is based on two things:

  1. Human Psychology
  2. Basic Project Management

it seemed an obvious basis for a big guide article. And here it is: Personal Time Management for Project Managers

If you want even more; take a look at my time management books: 'How to Manage your Time' and 'Time Management Pocketbook'.

I have to Take-over Someone Else’s Project Part-way through. What Should I Do?

This is a topic that worries enough people to make it onto my list. And it does worry them a lot... rightly so. So in my article, The Ultimate Project Takeover Formula, I offer a six-step plan to help you.

But what if the project I''m taking over is failing?

Yes, taking over someone else's project isn't the worst thing. But it could be if you're handed a pile of steaming ...

That always reminds me of a wonderful quote from UK Project Manager, Tony Quigley:

'The alternative to incremental development is excremental development' - Tony Quigley, long before many Agilists were even born! Click To Tweet

Whether you take over the failing project, or the mess is yours to start with, you need to turn it around. So take a look at 'Project Turnaround: How to Rescue a Failing Project'.

What is Agile?

A surprising number of Project Managers still haven't engaged with Agile principle or methods. And, whilst many of the managers I train already know a fair bit about Project Management, Agile is just unknown jargon to them.

Agile coach, Chris O'halloran was kind enough to set out Why You Can No Longer Ignore Agile Methodologies for us. And then lecturer, author and all-round Agile expert Chuck Cobb kindly explained What is Agile and Why is it Important to Project Managers?

Learning Agile

We offer a wide range of Agile training courses through Chuck's Agile Project Management Academy, so if you want to learn even more, do check out his free course, 'Learn the Truth about Agile versus Waterfall'. And, if you like his style, check out the rest of his courses.

Agile Qualifications

If you want an Agile qualification, we can offer training for those too, but do first check out our guide: Agile Certification: Your Guide to the Large Array of Agile Qualifications.

Finally, we have three more short videos, each of which looks at one of the major Agile methodologies and answers the Agile Project Management questions, in under 5 minutes, 'What is:

What is a PMO?

Here's another aspect of modern, mature project management that people often ask me about. Let's start with my simple 5-minute answer.

But, I am sure you want more details, so we asked PMO leader and a leading thinker, Peter Taylor to fill you in. He wrote a massive two-part article for you:

  1. Introduction to the PMO – The Absolute Essentials You Really MUST Know
  2. More of Peter Taylor’s Project Management Office Essentials

Theme 4: How can I Manage my Projects Really Well?

Project Management Questions: Mastery

The Project Management questions I most enjoy answering are about the route from competence to mastery. And the best one of all, for me, is...

How Can I Make My Project Really Pop?

As people get better at their craft of Project Management, they increasingly ask me questions about how they can put more polish on their skills. Three articles will answer this in different ways, and I recommend them all.

  1. How to Make a Good Project into a Brilliant Project
  2. Alpha Project Managers: What you’ll Learn and Whether to Buy it
  3. How Coaching Skills will Make You a Better Project Leader

How Can I Get the Best out of My Team?

Of course, one of the best ways to build a brilliant project is to build a brilliant project team. After all, a large part of project management is about managing the people who will deliver your project for you.

This observation is reflected in the wealth of articles I have written over the last three years about team leadership. I couldn't begin to single one out, they all offer different, but complementary, ideas. I can truly say that, if you are leading a project team, you should read them all.

Your reading list...

Why do Projects go Wrong, and How Can I Stop it?

The last of my twenty project management questions appears in one of several forms:

  • Why do projects go wrong?
  • What should I do to make my project succeed?
  • How can I stop my project from failing?

I'll start with one of our all-time most-read articles. Actually, it's a two-part article, which we've turned into a video course and a Kindle:

  1. Project Failure – Why it Happens
  2. Why Projects Fail – Five more reasons


Next, let's highlight another favorite, which is filled with some of the wisdom I have learned over the years. It's less practical than most of our articles, but will make you think: 12 Project Management Rules You’d be Wise to Note.


Sustainable success comes, to a large extent, from your project culture. Two articles that speak clearly to this imperative in the context of project success and failure are:


And finally... What if it all goes horribly wrong. I've already pointed you to 'Project Turnaround: How to Rescue a Failing Project'. But what can you do when everything is in chaos? Here's where it will pay you to have read and thought about our article: 'Project Crisis… Are you Ready?'

What Other Project Management Questions Do You Have?

We'd love to hear of any other Project Management questions you have. Please do ask them below, and I'll schedule an article to answer them (or point you to one that already does).

What is/are Videos

And you may have spotted we have done a lot of videos that answer 'What is/are...' questions. To date, there are 50+ Project Management in Under 5 Minutes videos in that format.  They are all on our website, and we're collating them into free mini-courses at our Free Academy of PM. At the moment we have courses in:

  • Agile Methodologies
  • Project Planning Tools
  • Strategy and Business change
  • Team and Individual Leadership
  • Project Management Fundamentals

But keep logging back in, because we will be adding more soon.

What is the Pareto Principle? | Video

What is the Pareto Principle - 80-20 rule?

The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule. It articulates a fundamental aspect of nature, which also applies to projects.

So, what is the Pareto Principle?

Dr Mike Clayton is founder of
Here, he answers this question, in under 5 minutes.

PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

Project Management in Under 5.
What is The Pareto Principle?

Please: subscribe to our YouTube Channel by clicking here.

Gravitas: How to be a Project Manager of Substance

Gravitas - How to be a Project Manager of Substance

Gravitas is something every Project Manager should be aiming at. It's the sense of authority, or substance that leads people to trust your judgement and rely on your advice. And, whilst experience, track record and, frankly, gray hairs contribute to your gravitas, there's more to it than that. We've all met people with plenty of all those, yet their words seem to carry little weight with the people around them.

And, likewise, you've probably met people who are still young and relatively inexperienced. Yet, for some reason, you want to trust them. What they say and the way they say it is not just persuasive. No, it's also weighty. It impresses people with the sense that here is someone to listen to and to take seriously.

PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

Isn't that how a project manager should be?

If you think so, then read on. We have plenty of advice for you.

What is Gravitas?

Gravity is the physical force that gives objects weight.

And the Latin word gravitas comes from the same root. It was one of the Roman virtues and it conveyed a sense of seriousness, dignity, and weighty opinions. It was what people wanted of their politicians, public figures, and generals.

Gravitas - How to be a Project Manager of Substance

Gravitas - How to be a Project Manager of Substance

And we want it just as much today...

Certainly we want it from politicians, public figures, and generals, but we don't always get it. But we also want it from professionals who deliver services and lead the organizations that society depends upon. And among those are you: the Project Manager.

Don't we want a deliberate, insightful, strategic thinker who is serious and dignified?

This doesn't mean you can't use humor, and improvize. But it does mean that the people around you can trust that you know when to have fun, and when to be serious. And that way, they can feel safe in your hands, trust your judgement, and seek out your opinions.

This is a huge asset to you when you want to:

  • Lead and motivate your team
  • Inspire confidence in your boss, client, or sponsor
  • Engage and influence your stakeholders

...and Why does it Matter?

If you are a project manager, or aspire to be one, you may have found yourself thinking something like one of these:

'My manager says that I lack gravitas'

'I want to move my project management career to the next level but people don’t take me seriously'

'I keep being overlooked for bigger projects'

'I get told that I’m too young to take on such a senior role'

'I sometimes feel intimidated by Partners and Clients and don’t speak out when I have something to say'

'As a woman in an industry traditionally dominated by men, I’m seen as lightweight and find it hard to get my contribution heard or acknowledged'

To operate effectively at the senior level, on big projects, you need your colleagues to view you as influential. And to do that, you need to be mindful of what you say, how you say it, and when you make your contributions. But, if you can find a way to carry the confidence of people around you, you are more likely to be a member of (rather than an outsider to) the top team. Having an influential voice among those at the big table needs 'gravitas'.

When gravitas is lacking

When gravitas is lacking, people know it. But, when it's present, they sit up and take notice of you:

People seek her out for her thoughts and advice.'

His ideas always influence the Project Board, especially when there's uncertainty or disagreement.'

When she speaks, people sit up and take notice.'

With gravitas, your leadership moves up a notch... or three. Your contributions at senior levels will create impact. And you will get the attention you are due. Your thoughts will carry weight. When you do it right, gravitas is not a mask or an act. It's a way to ensure you are heard in important discussions.

Your Biggest Business Asset

What makes the very top people in any context stand out?

Is it their wealth, their intellect, their appearance, their energy, their charisma?

I don’t think that it is any of these, although you can certainly find plenty of examples of each. Rather, I think it is something far more fundamental. People at the very top of their domain  - be it business, politics, sport, philanthropy, educations, service, or entertainment – have one thing in common.

We listen to them.

We want to hear what they have to say. And, because of this, we are likely to be influenced by their opinions.

This is, of course, the basis of LinkedIn’s Influencer program. Here is an example of a business giving the top people from many arenas a platform because we want to know what they have to say.

When you get to this position, your words will carry extra weight. The word we use for the characteristic that these people share therefore means weight. It is gravitas.

It seems to me that gravitas acts like a feedback system. We listen to people who have gravitas, and people have gravitas because we listen to them. The trick, therefore, is to start this self-reinforcing process: to acquire some gravitas. Because, without a doubt, being listened to and having others seek out and value your opinions, would be you’re your single biggest business asset.

In this article, I’m going to offer a lot of advice in the form of tips and techniques for how to develop gravitas. But I want to start with the best.

Morgan Freeman's Secret Ingredient

If there is one person who, to me, role models gravitas constantly, it is the actor Morgan Freeman.

In fact, there are few actors who have got to play that most pervasive of characters, god, and none with as much… gravitas. I don’t know what Morgan Freeman is like as a person, but his characters frequently have a depth, a solidity, and a weight that draws us to them. They have gravitas.

So what is Freeman’s secret in creating these characters? He puts it very simply – although you will find it far from easy to do:

Stillness. That’s all and that’s the hardest thing. Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen – that stillness becomes a radiance.

Have you noticed how little hurry some people seem to feel? How calm them seem – not agitated, not fidgeting; just patient.

It’s agitation and rush that rob us of our impact, because they betray a lack of confidence.

If you want gravitas, take your time… slow down. And the ultimate expression of slowness is stillness.

The Real Power behind Gravitas

Let’s extend that idea a step further. We recognise gravitas when we encounter a set of attitudes and behaviours that conform to our expectations of authority, credibility and wisdom.

What makes gravitas does depend, to a degree, on the culture and society you live and work in. My expertise is in Western, English-speaking cultures. But there is one thing that I am confident transcends all human cultures.

How Your Speak

If gravitas means not rushing, this applies to your speech, as well as to your movement. A steady, deliberate pace conveys your confidence in what you are saying.

As a bonus, speaking slowly increases your control over your speech and your ability to relax your vocal cords, allowing your voice to express all of its natural resonances. This will allow people to hear the components that are at the bottom end of your tonal register. Deeper tones tend to convey authority.

People who are absolutely confident don’t need to shout, so keep the volume down too. When people choose to strain to catch your important ideas, you know you have got their attention. And, having worked hard to hear you, they wil value what you say to a far higher degree.

The Power of Silence

The ultimate in slowing your speech, the linguistic equivalent of still… is silence.

Yet, this is something few can master. Used at the right time, it can be a devastating contribution to your argument. How much more subtle and understated can your contribution be?

If you don’t have an insight or contribution to make, remember that smart people will always find something smart to say. But Ludwig Wittgenstein was wise when he said:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.'

Don’t be afraid to not have an opinion or an answer: no insight is better than shallow insight.

But silence has a power all of its own. I constantly advise the people I coach that, in a conversation,

the person who is most comfortable with silence has an advantage: they have control.

You can use silence as a question, as an answer, and as a way to win an argument.

The person who is most comfortable with silence has an advantage: they have control. Click To Tweet

A Question

Have you noticed how desperate most people are to fill a silence in a conversation?

If you ask a question, you’ll get an answer. But if you respond to the answer with silence, you will often get more. Desperate to fill the silence, the other person will say anything to ease their discomfort. Sometimes they will give you a new answer to your question – something buried deeper, and perhaps something they didn’t intend to let out.

An Answer

And silence is a great answer in itself.

We often rush to give our answers to people’s questions, fearing any delay indicates we don’t have a response readily to hand. So clearly, we are poorly informed or a slow thinker. This is wrong. Your quick answer says to me:

My question was easy, the answer was obvious, I’m a fool.

Why would you want to make me feel like a fool?'

Of course, you don’t easily make me feel like a fool. So maybe your quick answer makes me think:

You jumped in, you didn’t think, you don’t care much about my question, you didn’t listen to it’s subtleties, you’re giving me a stock answer, you’re a fool..'

Why would you want to look a fool?

A slow answer, following a silence, on the other hand, says to me:

you paused, you thought about my question, it was a good question and you recognized that, you paid me the respect of thinking afresh about how to answer it, you’re a wise person, I should listen to your answer.'

Why wouldn’t you pause?

An Argument

When you are debating a topic, sometimes a silence is the strongest point you make.

It lets your audience make your point for you. It can say not 'I have nothing to say' but instead 'what you expect me to say is not worth saying'. Silence creates space for listeners to fill in the gaps.

Use silence wisely, and it adds weight to your words.

Silence is the real power behind gravitas. Click To Tweet

How to Develop Gravitas

Now available at OnlinePMCourses: my online video program, 'How to Develop Gravitas'.

This course contains 21 short videos, with over an hour of content. Most of the videos contain a short lecture of under 5 minutes that will introduce you to a simple idea that will help you strengthen your gravitas and authority.

Together, they build into a comprehensive set of techniques that will make you a professional - and a project manager - of substance. You will become someone whom people look to for advice, insight, and guidance.

How to Develop Gravitas

Find out More and Get Started Now

Three Powerful Tips for Gaining Gravitas

I have already discussed the importance of Stillness and Silence. I’d like to offer you three more techniques to develop gravitas that start with S.


We talk about an aura of gravitas as if it generates a space around you. You can do a lot to create this.

We all have a ‘bubble’ of personal space, that others can detect and will usually respect. When you are with people, imagine your bubble expanding to twice, three times, four times the volume of your normal space, out to the edges of the room. As you visualise this, it will change the subtle cues that your body language gives out to the people around you. You will notice that they will respect a greater distance.

You can also choose to draw people in, by turning down the volume and leaning forward. This will give them a sense of occasion, and underline the extent to which you are in control of the conversation.


I have said nothing so far about the content of what you say. I need to assume that, if you want people to listen to you and value what you say, you have something worthwhile for them to hear. But what is the essential character of what people with gravitas say.

One of the things you will most often hear is synthesis. Many of the people we look to as wise, and who speak with deep authority, are able to see from different perspectives, and understand a broad array of disciplines. They will almost certainly have deep expertise in a narrow field, but this depth does not come at the cost of breadth. Because what they are able to do, is to bring together the understanding from different quarters and create new insights from their combination.

Gravitas demands the ability to learn broadly and form new connections that help move ideas forward.


Another talent that people with gravitas will put on display is their ability to make the complex simple, and the murky clear. They simplify (another S).

Smart people will usually dive in with their ideas to ensure that they are heard. They will have opinions on everything and feel the need to share all of them, as soon as possible. Wiser souls wait, observe, then assess and summarise what they have heard. They bring clarity, informed evaluation and, above all, penetrating insight.

There's more...

How to Develop Gravitas

The topic of professional gravitas is a big one. And there is far more to learn that I can possibly cover - even in this long article. So I have decided to make my online video program, 'How to Develop Gravitas' available through OnlinePMCourses. This course contains 21 short videos, with over an hour of content. Most of the videos contain a short lecture of under 5 minutes that will introduce you to a simple idea that will help you strengthen your gravitas and authority.

Together, they build into a comprehensive set of techniques that will make you a professional - and a project manager - of substance. You will become someone whom people look to for advice, insight, and guidance.

How to Develop Gravitas

Find out More and Get Started Now

What is Monkey Management (Onken’s Monkey)? | Video

What is Monkey Management (Oncken's Monkey)?

Do you ever find yourself overworked? Is it a little like you are carrying everyone else's monkeys on your back? Too often, project managers make a deadly mistake. Just four words... 'Leave it with me.' So, what is Monkey Management?

So, what is Monkey Management?

Dr Mike Clayton is founder of
Here, he answers this question, and tells you all about William Oncken's Monkey, in under 5 minutes.

PMI Talent Triangle - Leadership

Project Management in Under 5.
What is Monkey Management?

Please: subscribe to our YouTube Channel by clicking here.

The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

Team Leadership itself is not hard.  What makes it difficult is fitting it in among a load of other project priorities that are facing you. You're under pressure to do this and do that. So, you often default to a combination of doing it yourself, telling people what to do, and getting annoyed with a general lack of progress.

And, if this is your first opportunity to lead a project team, you want to do well. So, these pressures can mount up and suck the energy out of you.

In this article, I want to hone down to the four essentials of project team leadership. None of the fancy stuff. Just the four things that make the biggest difference.

PMI Talent Triangle - Leadership

The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

You Get the Team You Deserve

Leadership isn't something you are born with, like brown eyes. And it is not something your parents give you like a doll. It is a talent that comes from learning, practicing, and mastering many different skills.

Some people get the opportunity to do this from early in their lives, whilst others need to wait a little longer.

Some people seize every opportunity they get, while others let them pass by.

I believe there is a simple truth about team leadership.
And all project managers need to understand it...

You get the team you deserve Click To Tweet

First and Foremost Team Leadership is about Attitude

'You get the team you deserve' does not mean that the universe will reward good people with a good team.. And punish bad people with a bad team.

If only life were that fair.

Instead, it is about the attitude you take to the people you have. Never confuse rank, position, grade, or status, for leadership. They are very different. Leadership is about who you are, what you do, and how you do it.

Good leadership is about the attitude you take to the people you have.

Let’s face it: few Project Managers are privileged to hand-pick our ideal team. Most often, we get who are allocated to us, and these are the people we must lead. If you take the attitude that this is not the team you wanted, then all is lost.

How to Deserve the Team You Want

On the other hand, if you take the attitude that this is the best team you could have had...

If you invest your time, your energy, and you commitment into helping this team succeed...

Then, perhaps, you'll deserve a great team.

So, what are the essentials to helping your team succeed?

There are four:

  1. The Individual
    Give everyone the attention they need
  2. The Plan
    People will only follow you if they are confident that you know where you are going
  3. The Team
    People need to feel part of something worthwhile
  4. Communication
    Create an environment where your people can succeed

The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

Focus Your Team Leadership on Individuals

There's no 'I' in Team

That's a pretty old joke, and we know what it means. But it's wrong.

If there is no sense of individuality in your project team, then where is the diversity that gives a team its:

  • Strength in problems solving
  • Robustness in challenge and decision making, or
  • Joy in learning from one another?

Your first priority in project team leadership is to get to know each team member and find out their strengths. It is easy to deprecate people for what they aren't good at. Go beyond this, though.

Value people for what they can offer – rather than deprecating them for what they cannot. Click To Tweet

Invest your time and energy in helping each one to develop and grow as a result of involvement in your project.  There are two dimensions you can stretch people in:

  1. Skills
    The chance to learn new things and to strengthen existing skills towards mastery is intrinsically motivating as well as good for careers and therefore for employers.
  2. Responsibilities
    Opportunities to take and discharge more responsibility grow character and judgement.

To learn more...

Build and Share a Clear Plan

A project team needs to feel confidence in you as a team leader. And, for that, they need a sense of control and certainty. This is what a plan brings.  Without it they can have little confidence in you.

But it is important to involve your team in creating your plan.

You are the project manager. So, it is easy to believe that you have a monopoly on wisdom and foresight, when it comes to planning. You don't.  There are three compelling reasons to involve team members in planning:

  1. Together, you have greater collective wisdom than any one of you alone.
  2. Involving people in the planning process is a recognition of their experience, knowledge and judgement - which is highly motivating.
  3. When team members get involved in planning, they become more committed to the plan. They have a reputational stake in making the plan work.

But what about Agile Projects?

The plan you need, to foster confidence is about making sure your team knows what you expect of them, and the part they have to play. This means that what matters are:

  • a clear goal
  • operational processes
  • certainty about what tomorrow holds

A well-run Agile project can offer all of this, without a traditional plan.

Fostering a Sense of Team Spirit

People want to feel a sense of belonging and a project team is ideally placed to provide that.  So, team leadership can offer three things we value particularly highly at work:

  1. relationships,
  2. recognition and
  3. respect.

Your job is to cultivate a team spirit and the best place to start is with a clear goal.  A shared and compelling purpose is both motivating and unifying.

What you don't need, is complex 'team-building' events. Instead, establish a few simple team traditions, like cakes on Friday or celebrating team successes on a Monday morning. These are the sorts of things that will bring people together and foster the loyalty, mutual regard and collaborative behaviours that will carry you all through easy times and hard.

Communicating Relentlessly... and well.

Nothing stifles enthusiasm more than the feeling of not knowing what is going on, what is expected of me, and what the future holds.

So, a vital part of team leadership is creating effective communication channels. You must take responsibility not just for communicating well yourself, but also for building a culture of good, collaborative team communication among your team members. Done well, this leads to spontaneous collaboration, seamless conflict resolution and real caring between colleagues.

This is important, because if all you do is become a hub of good communication; then you will become a point of weakness for your team. If you aren't there, communication will break down.

If all you do is become a hub of good communication; then you will become a point of weakness for your team. Click To Tweet

Feedback: the Primary Team Leadership Communication Mode

Developing your team members needs constant attention. And the way you can best do this is by offering high quality performance feedback.

Use feedback to constantly balance the levels of support and challenge you offer. And feed your team members with the resources they need, when they need them.

Basic Care and Maintenance

My principle attitude to team leadership is that you are there to take care of your team. Your job is to ensure that they have the resources they need, and also that you remove unwanted heat and contaminants from your team before they stifle enthusiasm and productivity.

It's like your job is to keep your team motivated by acting as a human environmental control mechanism.

This means Showing Courage

Problems build up and, just like the fizzing bombs in Tom and Jerry. And, if you don't tackle them quickly, they will explode in your face.

Not only does this hurt you and the people around you, but avoiding problems looks weak to your team. It creates a climate of 'what next?' fear.  A positive willingness to take on issues rapidly, work the problems, and make decisions will create the confidence in your leadership that motivates followers.

Deserving Your Team

An enthusiastic team will want to work hard for you.

What will you give them in return?

There is no need for elaborate gifts and bonuses: their role in motivation is exaggerated by the people who have become accustomed to them.  Remember that deserving a great team boils down to attitude. Fundamentally, people need to feel valued for their efforts. A three step process works well:

  1. Recognise your team members' contributions
    ...and help them to learn valuable lessons from their experience
  2. Reward their efforts
    ...with something as simple as your praise and thanks
  3. Celebrate their successes recognising them in front of their peers

Here is the most important thing, though.  Do not save all of your feedback, praise, and opportunities to learn from experience to the end of the work.  Build it into the regular cycle of progress checks and support.  This way, you can harvest its benefits throughout the life of your team.

The Essence of Project Team Leadership

People want to follow leaders.

So be the leader whom people want to follow.

Define your own leadership template to build the style that feels right to you and creates the culture that you want. Integrity is not negotiable, but here's what I would also want:

  • enthusiasm and confidence,
  • optimism and flexibility,
  • openness and compassion,
  • challenge and excitement.

To find out how teams form:

What are your Team Leadership Essentials?

What will your leadership watchwords be?

And how hard are you prepared to work to make them a day-to-day reality; even on the toughest of days?

Tell us about what you think are the project team leadership essentials in the comments below. And, we'll look forward to respondng to everything you contribute.

This article is adapted from an extract from How to Manage a great Project (US|UK) by Mike Clayton (Pearson, 2014)

Tips for Developing your Professional Skills in 2018

2018 - Happy New Year

What will you do differently to enhance your Project Management practice in 2018?

In this short New Year article, I’ll tell you what my New Year’s resolutions are, as a project manager. And I’ll also share my tips for developing your professional skills.

Continue reading…

What are the Best Project Management Books?

Yes, we've had a huge revolution in how we can learn and teach ourselves. And you may be ready for a project management course. But, for a new project manager, project management books are still a great way to learn. And for those of us with experience under our belts, the right project management books can offer new insights and ideas.

So, what project management books would I recommend to a new project manager?

That's the question I have set out to answer in this article. Any selection of the best project management books must be subjective and this is no different. But in this revised version of an old article, I have tried to make it as useful as possible, by dividing it into four sections:

  1. Easy to read introductory project management books
  2. Next step project management books for PMs with a little experience under your belt
  3. Next step books on specific project management disciplines
  4. More demanding reads, with a higher technical content

So with this explanation, but with no apology for the subjective selections, here are my recommendations. Please add your own to the comments section below.

PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

Part 1: Easy to Read Introductory Project Management Books

What are the Best Project Management BooksLet's say you are a real beginner. You've been tasked with a project and have no formal project management training. You may have no experience either. But perhaps more likely, you've delivered small personal projects before... and maybe even some small organizational projects.

What project management books will give you a straightforward, easy to follow, intro to doing your first structured project?

Here, I am looking for:

  • Easy to read - the author must be a confident and effective communicator
  • Simple but authoritative - the author's project process must be straightforward, but be rooted in strong best practice
  • Clearly structured - the book needs to follow a solid structure, making it easy for the reader to get repeatable results

The result is five project management books.

And this time, I am not going to be coy. I wrote my own introductory book to meet the three criteria above, so I shall start with that one.

How to Manage a Great Project: On budget. On target. On time.
Mike Clayton

How to Manage a Great Project by Mike Clayton

Of all my project management books, this is the fundamental one. I designed it to take a beginer to a good level of competence, in eight easy steps.

So instead of telling you what I think, here is what Anne-Marie O'Hara, Head of Projects at The National Trust for Scotland, said:

'Read this book, follow his advice and you will succeed.'

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What You Need to Know about Project Management
Fergus O'Connell

What You Need to Know about Project Management

In my opinion, this is the next best of the lightweight mass market trade paperbacks about project management. It has all the basics written clearly in bite sized chunks.

Rather than follow a project lifecycle approach (like How to Manage a Great Project), this project management book focuses on the key skills you need to focus on, to deliver a successful project.

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Project Management For Dummies
Stanley E Portney

Project Management for Dummies

I'll admit it... For years, I held out against Dummies books for, well, snobbish reasons. I'm not a Dummy. But this book, like its modern stable mates, does not treat you like a dummy.

Quite simply, it's very good.

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Project Management for You: How to Turn Your Ideas Into Reality, Deliver On Your Promises, and Get Things Done
Cesar Abeid

Project Management for You

I don't usually like nor recommend self-published, Kindle-only books. But I will make an exception for this well-written ebook.

It is written in a personal, first person style that you may or may not like, but it is full of good pragmatic advice, clearly explained.

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20:20 Project Management: How to Deliver on Time, on Budget and on Spec
Tony Marks

20:20 Project Management

This is a project management book that was recommended by OnlinePMCourses reader, Angus Duncan in his comment to the previous version of this article. I have taken a look at this book, though not thoroughly. And I was impressed.

It takes a similar, lifecycle approach to How to Manage a Great Project. It is written for a slightly more experienced reader, but I think it still fits with this group, rather than the next.

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Part 2: Next-step Project Management Books for PMs with a Little Experience under Your Belt

The first set of books is great for beginners. And they also offer plenty to learn for those readers who have done a few projects and want to refresh their learning and spot areas where you can brush up.

But what if you want to go further?

You have a few projects under your belt. So, now you want to stretch your thinking and improve your project management practice. What are the next-step project management books to speed you on your way to mastery of your craft?

My criteria for these books are:

  • The author is eminent and clearly writes from a standpoint of their own mastery
  • The book will make you think - it has ideas that take you beyond our Part 1 project management books
  • Yet the author still writes in a clear and compelling way, without hiding behind jargon and unnecessary complexity.


Performance-Based Project Management: Increasing the Probability of Project Success
Glen B Alleman

Performance-Based Project Management

Glen Alleman really knows his stuff, so this is rigorous, reliable, yet completely straightforward. This represents the distillation into simple ideas of a vast wealth of experience delivering high value, high criticality projects - often in software systems. As soon as I knew Glen was writing a book, I was confident it would rank highly among my best project management books.

Glen is also a frequent project management blogger and has contributed an excellent article on Capabilities Based Planning to OnlinePMCourses.

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Alpha Project Managers
Andy Crowe

Alpha Project Managers

This book blew me away.

Andy Crowe has created a thorough survey and deftly extracted large amounts of gold from the data he's mined. I learnt so much from it that I wrote a comprehensive review of the book for an earlier article. Please do take a look at that.

Then buy and read this book.

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Herding Chickens. Innovative Techniques for Project Management
Dan Bradbary and David Garrett

Herding Chickens

Glen Alleman's blog is called 'Herding Cats'. Here is a similar metaphor for the challenges of project management. The book's principal author, Dan Bradary, has clearly been around the block a few times (he's a PMP with 30 years' experience when he wrote the book).

So Herding Chickens tackles some of the thorny challenges project managers face day-to-day. And he offers a range of valuable insights drawing on a wide range of ideas and models. His is an approach very similar to mine: read widely, learn from anything, draw it into your practice to test it out, then pass it on if it works.

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Making Sense of Project Realities
Charles Smith

Making Sense of Project Realities

Here's another book that will give you insights and ideas for dealing with the day-to-day practicalities of leading a project.

The books style is to create mini case studies and then discuss options and solutions. It's a thoughtful book that sometimes strays into a philosophical mode. The main challenge is that it is a hardback that's out of print, making it expensive to source in book form. But what is inexcusable is the outrageous price Gower charge for the Kindle edition. Order it from your local library, or find a second-hand copy at a good price. It is not worth the $100 or so you'd pay for the Kindle version.

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Project Management Coaching Workbook: Six Steps to Unleashing Your Potential
Susanne Madsen

Project Management Coaching Workbook

If you want to self-coach, to become a better PM, and are prepared to put in the work of doing her exercises, Susanne offers a great book. It is one of those project management books you are likely to return to at different stages of your career. She comes from a business project background.

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Brilliant Project Leader: What the Best Project Leaders Know, DO, and Say to Get Results, Evert Time
Mike Clayton

Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton

Declaration: this is another one of mine.

This books has three parts. The first looks at the four essentials of team leadership in a project context, and offers a wealth of tools and tips for each. Part 2 sets out the things you need to do to move from project manager to project leader, in each of the four primary project stages. And finally, the last part offers tips and tools for a project leader who needs to deal with tough times - which you will do one day.

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Part 3: Next-step Books on Specific Project Management Disciplines

In this part, let's look at some of the specific topics you'll want to study, as you develop your project management career. Here, I'm looking for pretty much the same things as I was in Part 2.


Risk Happens! Managing Risk and Avoiding Failure in Business Projects
Mike Clayton

Risk Happens! by Mike Clayton

This is another of my own books, but I firmly believe it is the best introductory level project risk management book out there.

It's written for early-stage project managers who want to go beyond the hour or so of coverage the subject got in their project management training. And it is stuffed full of tables, tools, and diagrams to make a tricky subject easy to understand and practical to implement.

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Effective Risk Management: Some Keys to Success
Edmund H Conrow

Effective Risk Management

Here's a book with one of the most self-effacing subtitles: 'some keys to success'. It hides the fact that this is the book you go to when you want an authoritative guide to project risk management... and you are prepared to put the work in.

This is not an easy book. But it is well written and, if you are a serious PM who needs to manage risk rigorously on major projects, it's the book for you.

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Identifying and Managing Project Risk
Tom Kendrick

Identifying and Managing Project Risk

This is the intermediate volume between Risk Happens! and Effective Risk Management. It's a big read with more detail than the former. But it is far less rigorous and technical than the latter.

I love Kendrick's telling of the story of the Panama canal, as the end piece to each chapter.

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The Influence Agenda: A Systematic Approach to Aligning Stakeholders in Times of Change
Mike Clayton

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

This is the fourth (and last) of my own project management books that I am listing. And I think it's the best.

It is a comprehensive guide to project stakeholder engagement. It avoids proprietary models and cover a huge range of ideas: from stakeholder analysis techniques to persuasive writing, to behavioral economics, to stakeholder campaign management. This is a topic with a paucity of decent books, so this one fills a big gap. It will also give you a three page history of the concept of a stakeholder!

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The Project Manager's Guide to Mastering Agile: Principles and Practices for an Adaptive Approach
Charles (Chuck) Cobb

The Project Managers Guide to Mastering Agile- Chuck Cobb

Chuck Cobb is a good friend of OnlinePMCourses, and if you want to learn Agile Project Management, then we recommend his courses.

But we choose our friends carefully. Chuck knows his stuff and has a highly pragmatic approach to Agile, which allows you to adopt it at any level from the local to the enterprise, and in any degree of rigor, from pure Scrum through to an adaptive blend of methodologies.

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Agile Project Management for Dummies
Mark C Layton and Steven J Ostermiller

Agile Project Management for Dummies

This is not the book if you want a rigorous text on applying Agile to your projects. But, if you want an easy-to-read introduction that will leave you feeling fully familiar with the principles and practices of Agile, it's a great book.

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Managing successful projects with PRINCE2
Nigel Bennett

Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2

There are lots of introductory and explanatory guides to PRINCE2 on the market, but if your serious...

This is the authoritative guide published by the current owners of the PRINCE2 methodology set. The methodology has evolved a lot since I bought my 1998 edition, so do spend the money and get a current copy, if you are going to be studying the PRINCE@ methodology.

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Part 4: More Demanding Project Management Books, with a Higher Technical Content

Our last part is dedicated to serious students of Project Management. I've only listed three project management books here, and one of them os more a catalogue.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge: PMBOK Guide 6th Edition
Project Management Institute

PMBOK Guide 6th Edition

This is the PMI's guide to its body of knowledge. It is a hugely valuable reference book but a poor place to start learning from. It contains a huge amount of information but does not set out to teach or to describe the underlying principles.

If you plan to get either the PMI's Project Management Professional or Certified Associate in Project Management qualification, this will be your primary reference work.

Darn it but every edition grows massively, and this 6th Edition (September 2017) dwarfs my first edition (1996)! This is quintessentially a reference book, but if you are serious about a project management career, this is one of the few essential project management books.

You can also get PMBOK packaged with PMI's Agile Practice Guide, co-authored with the gile Alliance. That's the link I'll give below. The price is only a little more.

But I can't complete this without my BIG GRIPE about this book. PMI cares about copyright theft. So this book is printed on special anti-counterfeit paper that has a sort of watermark that renders its pages a not-quite-uniform gray. This makes it hard to read. It's a slap in the face for everyone who pays a lot of money to buy a copy, including PMI's own members, whom I believe PMI should treat with more respect. </rant>

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Project Management: A Managerial Approach 9th Edition
Jack R. Meredith & Samuel J. Mantel Jr.

Project Management: A Managerial Approach

To be honest, my copy is the third edition and 20 years old. But this was my reference manual when I was learning, so I can heartily recommend the latest edition. It's a textbook, so you get a huge amount of content, lots of detail and, whilst easily readable, it ain't reading-for-pleasure.

But if you're a serious student of PM, or you want a good solid reference book on your shelves, to see you through years of 'let me just look that up', then you'll want this. Maybe save some money by picking up a second hand 7th or 8th edition. For me, this is one of my truly indispensible project management books.

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Project Management in Practice 6th Edition
Jack R. Meredith, Samuel J. Mantel Jr, Scott M. Shafer & Margaret M. Sutton

Project Management in Practice

A lighter-weight text book than its cousin (above). I haven't seen it, but this may suit you as a halfway house (though it's priced a little beyond half way).

Textbook pricing is shocking (and arguably unethical). And, for reasons I cannot fathom, the 6th Edition is currently not on sale as a print copy n the UK Amazon, so the button links to the previous, 5th, edition.

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Would you like a PDF version of this list?

Thank you very much for supporting us.

Just click this link to get your free PDF version of our Project Management book recommendations.

My Own Project Management Bookshelf

In case you think I am bluffing on all of this, here is a picture of my own project management bookshelf a couple of years ago...

It's grown since then!

Project Management Bookshelf - Mike Clayton's Project Management Books

What Project Management Books do You Recommend?

We'd love to hear about the books you liked, or your comments on our own recommendations. Add your thoughts to the comments below, and we'll respond to every contribution.


The links here are affiliate links. If you are interested in buying one of these books, please use these links, to support our blog. Many thanks... Mike

Do You Know What your Project Sponsor Wants?

Do You Know What Your Project Sponsor Wants?

Call them your sponsor, your boss, or your client if you like. But one thing we all know as a Project Manager is this. Our job is to do what our Project Sponsor wants.

But here’s the question… Do you know what your Project Sponsor wants? If you don’t, you’d better find out quickly.

And that’s what this article is all about.

By the way, is your job to do what your Project Sponsor wants?

Some will argue that it isn’t. It is to do what your employer needs, to serve your stakeholders, or to meet the expectations of the organization that’s paying the bills. These are all true.

But this article is going to make one giant assumption: that your sponsor’s job is to represent these faithfully. In another article, we’ll examine the vexed question of what to do if your sponsor goes rogue. For now, we’ll assume that serving our sponsor, and delivering what they want, is at the heart of your role.

Continue reading…

12 Project Planning Mistakes… and How to Fix Them

12 Project Planning Mistakes... and How to Fix Them

Why do projects fail? We answered that in two earlier articles, and a course. But one thing to be brutally aware of, is that it is often your plan that's at fault. So, in this article, we'll survey 12 project planning mistakes. And because our job is to equip you to succeed, we'll offer you a solution for each.

When you implement all these solutions, you'll have a far more robust basis for delivering a successful project. And that's what we all want.

PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

Summary of our 12 Project Planning Mistakes

12 Project Planning Mistakes... and How to Fix Them

12 Project Planning Mistakes... and How to Fix Them

  1. Forgetting the Real World
  2. Believing Your Plan
  3. Planning Fallacy
  4. History Neglect
  5. Narrow Focus
  6. Competition Neglect
  7. The Illusion of Control
  8. Murphy’s Arrogance
  9. Hero Pressure
  10. Requirement Creep
  11. Complexity Effect
  12. Black Swans

Mistake No.1: Forgetting the Real World

The first thing to know, is that the universe has no respect for your plans. I first learned this from a colleague who had served in the UK armed forces (thank you, Nick). In a presentation, he put up a slide that paraphrased the Seventeenth Century Prussian General, Helmuth von Moltke:

No plan survives contact with the enemy.’

In the our world of project, events are the enemy. Randomness and the unforeseen constantly vie to kick your plans and disrupt your hopes and expectations. 'Luck be a Lady tonight' sang Sky Masterson. But as a project manager, you need your luck to hold for weeks, months, or years.

Solution: Flexibility

The first of our project planning mistakes is to forget that the real world throws events at you constantly. So sticking to a rapidly out-dated plan is foolish. The solution is flexibility and a willingness to rapidly change your plan. A great model for the way to do this was first articulated in a military context: Col Boyd's OODA Loop. This is an essential tool for all project managers. I've not heard anyone claim it, but it won't surprise me if someday an Agile practitioner claims Boyd as an originator of the idea. The two have much in common.

PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

Mistake No.2: Believing Your Plan

The impact of events is compounded by my second mistake. We tend to recognize the truth of von Moltke's quote and then immediately forget what it means. So, when we come to planning and executing our projects, we put so much work into the planning process, that we start to believe our plan. So I will offer you a simple rule of my own:

The principal planning failure is to believe your plan Click To Tweet

So, what should you do? Should you just create plans in the hope they are as good as they can be? And then resign yourself to the scorn of a vengeful universe, actively disbelieve your plans?

No. You can do better.

Solution: Contingency

Instead, you should build our plans based on an understanding of estimation and error. You need to research the specific mistakes that you and your predecessors have made, time and time again.

And then it's time to recognize the reality of self-referential marvel that is Hofstadter’s Law. This was posited by Douglas Hofstadter, in his Book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

Hofstadter's Law

It always takes longer than you expect,
even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.’

I believe Hofstadter’s law applies equally to cost, as well. And we can also adapt it to error rates and any other aspect of your plan.

Mistake No.3: Planning Fallacy

Perhaps it's inevitable. The commonest cause of project planning mistakes is when we forget Hofstadter’s Law. As a result, you under-estimate the time, cost or resources you'll need.  This is most often the result of over-optimism about what you can achieve. It is therefore also called 'Optimism Bias'. But it also often results from political pressures. These may come from within your organization (for internal projects) or commercial pressures (when you are working for a client).

Solution: Red Team Review.

Don't rely on your judgement alone. Get other people to look independently at the estimates. Or, if you are dealing with a large, complex plan, find a team of people to review your plans with a skeptical eye. This is your Red Team. They can help with both causes of planning fallacy.

  1. Optimism Bias
    It's known that, while we all typically over-estimate what we can achieve, most of us equally have a more realistic view of what others can do. A red team will not assume that you and your team have superhuman prowess. Yet, that's the subconscious assumption many of us seem to make about our own work.
  2. Political Pressure
    Second, if the over-optimism is driven by political or commercial pressures, a formal red team review is a structured mechanism to counter those pressures. Ideally, you would make this review a necessary part of your project governance procedures. To reduce the biggest and most costly project planning mistakes, make red team review a necessary stage for projects that have:

    • high expenditure
    • political sensitivity, or
    • a high level of complexity

Mistake No.4: History Neglect

I hope you are diligent and always conduct a lessons learned review at the end of your projects. If you aren’t; you should be. It is one of the most valuable parts of your development as a mature project manager. So, of all our project planning mistakes, this is my personal favorite to work on.

But how often do you seek out the reviews of other projects? And do you speak to their senior team members, to find out what they fave learned? Do you find out what happened on a predecessor project, before you start planning the next one? And when other project professionals give you warnings, how often do you really listen? Or do you just think:

That was them; that was then.
This is me and this is now.’

A common failure is not looking back and learning from the lessons of the past. So, it leads us to repeat the same mistakes.  D’oh.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

George Santayana

Solution: Lessons Learned Checklist

Undertake a deliberate process of reviewing all relevant recollections, records and data. Use your review to make a checklist of all the planning failures you find, and risks that materialised. And then use that list to review and adjust your final plan. Even better, give the checklist to someone else, so they can look for project planning mistakes objectively.

Mistake No.5: Narrow Focus

Projects can be all consuming. So, too often, PMs get so immersed in their projects that the projects become their whole world. If this happens, you can easily become too inwardly focused – particularly on the aspects of the project you see as your job. As a project manager, it’s all your job. Yes, you have some specific tasks. But, if you focus too much on them, you can find yourself ignoring critical external factors, stakeholders, or even what other members of your team are doing... or not doing.

Solution: Deliberate Observation

Think like a meerkat. Put your head up and look around you. What else is happening in your team, your organization, among your stakeholders, and in your social and commercial environment? What's out on the horizon? Look for trends and changes. Ask how they can affect your project.

Mistake No.6: Competition Neglect

This is related to Narrow Focus, but it's a lot more specific. This source of project planning mistakes arises when you ignore the actions of other people or organizations that are, in some way, competing with you and your project.  When is it in their interests to:

  • seize resources
  • misrepresent your situation, or
  • change to environment in which you are operating?

Who else stands to gain an advantage.  While narrow focus refers to benign or neutral forces, competition neglect addresses potentially malevolent interests. This really is conspiracy, and if you are paranoid, then that may be a good thing! Sometimes in a political organization, people really are plotting against you. And, if your project is working on a commercial product launch, for example, your competitors may be too.

Solution: Get inside the minds of your competitors

Consider role-playing a simulation, taking the perspective of a potential competitor, to identify their possible strategies and how they may affect your initiative. You may like our article The Secret to Reading Minds with Perceptual Positions. At the very least, set team members the task of doing ‘opposition research’ and figuring out what they would be doing, were they on the other side of the tracks.

Mistake No.7: The Illusion of Control

We often have an implicit believe that we are more in control of circumstances than we really are. Two things combine to create this 'illusion of control'.

  1. First: the tendency to ignore events and forces that are out of your control and focus only on those that you can influence.
  2. Second is the belief that we can control events that are, in fact, outside our control.

Solution: Understand where failure can happen

Look for the critical points where your plan can fail and focus on those.  If you start to believe there aren't any, then ask a different question:

what would be the worst points in our plan for a failure to occur?'

Control what you can control and monitor everything else constantly. This way, you'll be ready to act on any events or changes that can render your plan out-of-date.

Mistake No.8: Murphy’s Arrogance

Murphy’s Law says that"

if anything can go wrong – it will go wrong.’

Murphy’s arrogance is acting as if your project is somehow special; that Murphy’s Law does not apply to you.

It does.

Solution: Pre-mortem

This solution also works nicely for many other project planning mistakes - notably 1, 2, 3 and 7. Before you finalize your plan – and certainly before you start work on executing it – think about what total failure could look like. List everything that could go wrong. Now ask why each of these could have happened. Then, amend your plan to deal with each possibility, according to its seriousness.

Mistake No.9: Hero Pressure

Have you ever succumbed to the temptation to accept a heroic – but impossible – challenge?

That’s hero pressure, and it is a particular trait of project managers, in my experience. I don’t know whether it is because we need the excitement, the adrenalin rush, enjoy the sense of achievement, or crave the adulation it brings. Maybe it’s all of them. It may bring out the best in us, in some ways; but succumbing also leads to wasted effort and the risk of burn-out.

Solution: Wise Counsel

It is hard to spot hero pressure until it is too late.  But your friends and colleagues can see it coming and recognize in you the telltale signs.  The solution is therefore to adopt a trusted colleague to act as an alarm bell; a critical friend or mentor, who can say: ‘hey, look out!’

Mistake No.10: Requirement Creep

The world changes, and people change their minds. Or they realize they got it wrong. What they commissioned isn't what they want or need any more. Some people even take any opportunity to take advantage.  You have a project… ‘could you just…’ These are the three words that project managers fear above all others.

Solution: Formal Change Control

Constantly review what is needed pro-actively and, when needs change or new opportunities arise, evaluate them using a formal change control process.

Mistake No.11: Complexity Effect

Far too often, we underestimate the time, budget and resources that we will need to cope with the complexity of inter-dependencies.

This is unlike narrow focus. There, we don’t see the complexities. Instead, here we just oversimplify them.

The complexity effect kicks in as soon as people need to work together, or you need co-operation from other agencies. We assume, implicitly, that negotiating with twenty people, will take twice as long as negotiating with ten. It won’t: it will probably take four times as long. Complexity rises with the square of the number of interacting parts.

Solution: Simplify

Where you can: simplify. Separate out free-standing work streams and strands of your project. Then build interfaces between them, so you have several simple mini-projects rather than one large and very complex one. Where you cannot do this: understand the complexity effect and that time and resource requirements grow as the square of the scaling of links. And also build in lots of contingency.

Mistake No.12: Black Swans

Nassim Nicholas Taleb named the Black Swan effect in his book of the same name (US|UK). It stands for those unknowable future events that will catch us out. The project planning mistakes are that you focus on the things you know. So, you are over-confident in your belief that all you know is all there is.

Solution: Commander’s Intent

In the face of uncertainty and rapid change, the most valuable single piece of information is your goal: what do you most want to achieve?

In military language, this is the ‘commander’s intent’. It gives every officer the context within which to make decisions. This is vital, in the face of changing battlefield circumstances and an inability to communicate with their commander. It was perhaps most famously used by Lord Nelson, in his briefing to Captains on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Your project definition, the goal and objectives your Sponsor or Board have signed off, serves as your commander’s intent.

With uncertainty & rapid change, the most valuable piece of information is your goal Click To Tweet


Don’t let your plan be the source of unnecessary project failure. I have offered 12 solutions to project planning mistakes, on a one-to-one basis. I have matched each solution to a single planning mistake.  But each solution can address multiple problems. And each mistake can deserve several fixes.

But here is the most important planning mistake to avoid. Whatever you do, do not consider the difficulties of planning as a reason to not plan. Planning is one of the most important secrets to success, so if all of this sounds a little off-putting, remember this:

The biggest project planning mistake is to not make a plan.’

The biggest #project #planning mistake is to not make a plan Click To Tweet

This article is adapted from an earlier article I wrote for

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