A Project Manager could kill a project

April 26, 2019
A Project Manager could kill a project

A Project Manager could kill a project.

A couple of years ago, I was consulting for a for-profit start-up that had a potentially powerful project going. This project had the power to become a great business idea as it filled a void that existed in India.

The project feasibility had been done and the project was on a pilot mode.

However, the project was being managed by a Project Manager who was struggling to keep the project lights on. Since the project was on a pilot mode, it was being closely watched by the stakeholders. The feasibility was actually being tested now on the ground.

It was key that the project received the best attention, had the right processes and systems and most importantly, was being reviewed effectively. It was important to learn quickly from any issues and ensure that the learning was quickly incorporated into the project to prevent a recurrence of such issues. This way, the idea’s scaling up potential could also be explored. All of this made the Project Manager’s role extremely critical.

A Project Manager could kill a project

In this case, the Project Manager was all over the place.

He was highly distracted and had his fingers in too many pies. Making himself reluctantly available for the project meetings, he did no self-reviews before coming into the project meeting. From his body language, it was clear that he was resistant to the idea of a Review itself.

It appeared that he had enjoyed unbridled freedom in his career in the past and was never asked any pointed questions. I felt he considered it beneath himself to respond to questions. He would fiddle with the phone while questions were being asked of him. A couple of times, he walked out of the room when the questions became pointed.

He was never into the details of the project. I had set up processes and systems but they were not adhered to or not adhered to consistently. All his solutions were Band-Aids – for the here and now. The same issues were recurring and the stakeholders were gradually losing interest. However, he continued to believe that he was doing a great job.

It is at such moments that we come upon a dilemma: what is more critical? A good chance for the project to succeed or repeated lifelines for the Project Manager?

Unfortunately, a poor Project Manager could kill the potential of a great project.

In my view, a great Project Manager should:

  1. Have relevant and successful experience: The Project Manager should have managed similar projects in the past and should have had proven success. There is no point in experience when his track record has been full of failures. If the Project Manager has not managed similar projects, this factor needs to be built into the project risks. Appropriate coaching support needs to be provided after a buy-in on coaching is obtained from the Project Manager. However, the stakeholders must know that a steep learning curve of the Project Manager is likely to adversely impact the project.
  2. Have the experience to do an effective task and competence assessment. He should know how to assess the complexity of the tasks and the competence of the people running the project. Underestimation of the complexity of tasks and/or overestimation of people’s capabilities could have a serious adverse impact. Whatever the people working on the project may convey to him, he must have a way of forming his own opinion.
  3. Have a learning mindset: For a learning mindset to be developed, it is key to be vulnerable, to introspect and to acknowledge areas of failure and demonstrate a willingness to learn.
  4. Subsume his ego in the interest of the project: Working with a king-size ego comes in the way of seeking help. Such Project Managers will not even escalate matters in time lest the stakeholders feel that they are not in control. Such a Project Manager could also demonstrate his resistance to the Reviews by paying scant respect to the findings of the Review and also by arguing privately against holding such Reviews.
  5. Ensure he participates fully in Reviews: Being on time during every single Review meeting, being prepared ahead of time and fully owning the Review process are key. It will be clear during the Review meeting whether he is acknowledging and escalating issues in time, and whether he is learning from the process so that the same issues do not recur.

So, what would be an effective role of a stakeholder?

The stakeholder should:

  1. Review the project: Irrespective of whether the Project Manager likes Reviews or not, a project that is in a pilot phase has to be effectively reviewed.
  2. Assess the Project Manager’s real capability: Overestimation of the Project Manager’s capability can ruin the chances for the project. The capability can be seen if he is seen to be learning from feedback and if there is a quick improvement.
  3. Ensure that the Project Manager is a learner: A Project Manager needs to be like a sponge. My Quote #197 says, ‘When it comes to absorbing new learning, be a sponge, not a stone.’
  4. Assess in a timely manner, the impact of the Project Manager’s role on the project: If the Project Manager’s incapability is adversely affecting the project’s prospects, a course-correction is the stakeholder’s responsibility.
  5. Dispassionately call the shots: The stakeholder should have a detached perspective and call the shots. Like a doctor who would not hesitate to go in for surgery even if there is some pain, the stakeholder must act on time.
  6. Draw the right conclusions: The stakeholder needs to remember that when a Project Manager is incapable, the conclusions from the pilot phase could be completely wrong. It would appear that the project cannot succeed. This could be completely wrong because the project was never set up for success.

A stakeholder’s life is not easy. Just by definition, he has stakes in the project and when a project is going through a real on-the-ground feasibility phase, the stakes are usually very high.

The stakeholder needs to decide quickly if this is a case where a Project Manager could kill a project.

Every day counts.


I coach Project Managers in building a great Review process and also help them with the science and art of Project Management.

Come to think of it, our lives are also made up of many small, medium and large projects. Mastering the science and art of Project Management can help you take control of your life and be on top of things – in other words, you could be a great Life Manager.

Interested in being coached to become an effective Life Manager? Contact me at [email protected] Let me help you scale new peaks.

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