Potential Hazards

Potential Hazards

This Story is part of a series.

  • Andreas Rieger
    Andreas Rieger Executive Director Internal Operations, IT & Project Management, designaffairs

In this episode of our journey through PM, I want to share some of the nasty risks that I’ve encountered during my career. Yes, it’s exciting to enter the unknown when taking on a new project, but there’s also a risk of becoming frustrated in certain situations.

It’s a bit like being a Sherpa who’s been asked to bring a bunch of people to the peak of a mountain. There’s no guarantee it will work out, and you – and they – need to know that going up is a very different task to coming down.

Here are nine potential hazards that a project manager needs to be aware of – from innovations and solutions to concepts and design work – and how they can be avoided.

Hazard 1: It proves impossible to convince the client that a fixed contract is not feasible due to the project type. The client is used to fully plannable projects and demands strict timelines and results.

My observations: This is a common issue when dealing with clients with powerful purchasing departments, especially big corporations. Their world does not provide much space for future imponderables that cannot be calculated on time and numbers alone.

Mitigation: Sales must convince the sponsors about the right approach. If a client is not willing to understand that there are different project types, the agency needs to walk away from the opportunity. If the project was signed and contracted, the project team should discuss how to handle the situation. An ideal outcome will probably not be possible.

Experienced project managers rely on the possibility that the client will agree to revise the project objectives and that the scope will change accordingly.

Hazard 2: The briefing is poor and the project manager has to start scoping the project from scratch. Additionally, the client has certain expectations that do not match with the project manager’s understanding. 

My observations:  Here and there, some projects are not well prepared. Selling includes an emotional component and sometimes the deal with the client is based on a feeling of trust.

On occasion, there’s pressure to start a project quickly without thinking about the details.

Mitigation: What has not been done needs to be done now. The project manager must sit down with the client and work out a measurable scope – and, of course, all the things which are most likely out of scope. A scope that is ultimately based on assumptions, experience, and gut feeling.

Hazard 3: The project manager or client sponsor hates what you (and your team) produce. 

My observations:  Sometimes, a service supplier is surprised by people who have no respect in terms of agreements and contracts. Most organizations really don’t want to fight with their clients.

Mitigation: It’s the sales team’s responsibility to find the “right” clients. It is unrealistic to think that that every client relationship will work. When analyzing a client, it is crucial to have full alignment with the project sponsor and decision makers.

Remain souvereign when facing unexpected situation.
Remain souvereign when facing unexpected situation.

Hazard 4: The client is never satisfied and always wants more. A variant on this is that the client does not want to choose a certain direction to take and thinks that none of your solutions are good enough. 

My observations:  “Your ideas aren’t innovative enough”, “You have no clue about our business”, “We are not there yet” – just some of the quotes you might encounter. Defining the quality of creative work is extremely difficult. You can try to outline the way a concept or solution will be defined, illustrated, and specified. If the contract fails to give any indication about the quality of the deliverables, the project team could well end up doing endless iterations.

Mitigation: Double check and map the expectations of the client’s project manager. Make sure that he or she discusses any discrepancies with the project sponsor.  If the two project managers cannot agree expectations, it might be time to request a Steering Committee meeting, where management from all parties can discuss the issue. Ideally, the Steering Committee’s composition has been defined before the project starts.

Hazard 5: The project work gets constantly interrupted because the client has no time or capacity to oversee the deliverables or think about specific requirements. 

My observations: There will always be sections in the contract about feedback times, but they are frequently ignored. The project manager often must point that interruptions cause headaches in terms of resource planning and project planning in general.

Mitigation: Sales should define in detail the client’s obligations as regards its required contribution. Even more importantly, they need to establish a plan for the client, explain exactly when their people are needed, and the extent of their required input. Get names and responsibilities.

Establish a collegial relationship with the client to ensure they understand that both teams (agency and client) are on the same page.

Hazard 6: Your project team members are not overly excited about the project and don’t seem willing to perform.

My observations: They come late to meetings. They use excuses like not being able to complete their tasks due to other projects. They do not want to work with other team members. They don’t like the type of project or what the client does.

Mitigation: The project manager needs to ensure that all team members understand that the team is composed of adults with responsibilities. The more experienced ones must take care of the less experienced folk and share their knowledge with them. Everybody needs to understand that there are no ideal projects. In other words, no matter what the job involves, the team needs to treat every project as if it’s the project of their lives.

Hazard 7: It’s impossible to concentrate on the core project. Every day brings something new. 

My observations: Sickness, resources pulled partly or fully from the project, resources that do not have the skills and experience to execute the job in time, and any other kind of distraction: these are not uncommon in project management.

Mitigation: No matter what, you need deputies for every role in your project. Sometimes the size of your project/budget may not allow for that, but it’s crucial. It’s better to create “non-ideal” deputy roles than none.

Andreas at his work as project manager.
Andreas at his work as project manager.

Hazard 8:  The agency has already done a project like “this” many times. From its perspective, it’s a piece of a cake. Team and internal sponsors consider the project a non-brainer.

My observations: These kinds of projects can become particularly difficult. The project team thinks it’s going to be easy and that it can reuse a load of stuff from other projects.

Mitigation: The project manager should not repeat what others may say about the complexity or non-complexity of the project. Start the project like all the others. The fact that there might be previous experience with the topic has to be handled pragmatically. There is no evidence or guarantee at all that previous knowledge will make the project team’s life easier.

Certain people generate better ideas from scratch rather than copying and pasting stuff from other people.

Hazard 9: The project is running out of time and budget

My observations: It is extremely difficult to control the quality of project outcomes and results. Sometimes, results aren’t good enough; sometimes the project team’s own expectations are simply too great.

Mitigation: It might sound strange, but that’s the way it goes – you can have as much budget as you want but it will never be enough. Sometimes, there’s too much controlling and too many conversations about money and budget. Experienced project managers should have a natural sensor in respect of where the money goes. Tell your team members that the project manager is in control of the budget, and that they should concentrate on their own role instead thinking about whether something can be paid for or not.

In Chapter 4 | Project Management: The Future, I dare to look into the future of project management. Join me!

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