Putting an End to Toxic Project Management

June 14, 2023

5 major pitfalls and how to avoid them

Project management gone wrong can do great damage: from causing astronomical costs and frustrating entire teams to steering a company with a long tradition into bankruptcy. Project management expert Martina Huemann discusses the five major PM pitfalls observed in business practice, following it up with advice on what companies can do to prevent toxic project management and make full use of its opportunities instead.

Doesn't have to bet this way: frustration in the team because of incorrect project management. Image: shutterstock - Roman Samborskyi
Doesn't have to bet this way: frustration in the team because of incorrect project management. Image: shutterstock - Roman Samborskyi

In the beginning, it was simply stressful, and then the project ended up being filed away in some cabinet after having caused tremendous costs, leaving the team spirit at an all-time low.

Martina Huemann, Academic Director of the MBA Strategic Project Management at the WU Executive Academy and a long-time project management consultant, describes 5 ways in which projects can turn sour – as well as effective antidotes:

1. Fuzzy Goals and Unrealistic Plans

The budget’s too tight, the goals are overly ambitious, and let’s not even talk about the deadlines and busy schedule. In such a situation, more pressure and speed will do the trick, right? “The faster you run, the more quickly you reach your goal: unfortunately, this misconception still prevails in many projects,” Martina Huemann says. The result will be team members in panic, frantically engaging in uncoordinated actions. “This means acting and doing without thinking first. If you are not clear about what exactly you want to develop or implement and if you fail to include end users and stakeholders, problems are bound to happen,” the expert points out. She provides an example: “In such a situation, a software solution is purchased because it’s fashionable and used by a competitor – without assessing what it is for and whether it’s compatible with existing IT programs.”

The solution: Remind yourself that your role as a project manager is not to implement but to develop and design, and make sure the board has your back in this regard. Before you kick off a project, take a step back and assess its purpose and goal: “These days, project managers must often shape the process by returning the ball to the client’s quarter and ensuring that goals are both transparent and realistic. If you fail to do so, you’ll suffer at the implementation stage and be blamed on top of it,” she says. “PM also greatly benefits from design thinking, which can be used to define the purpose, goals, and expectations in advance and to develop rapid prototyping pilots in the implementation stage, through which the product can be quickly and efficiently tested on the market and further developed,” Martina Huemann explains.

2. Blissful Ignorance

The project has been up and running for five years, and now it slowly dawns on everyone that it hasn’t quite kept up with market demands and that success has become extremely unlikely. Twice already, the management board has agreed to considerable budget increases. Considering the pile of money that has already been spent, admitting defeat seems impossible and so the project is kept on life support. And so it happens that nobody is stepping up to the responsibility to put everyone out of their misery, neither the commissioning party nor the steering committee.

The solution: In such a situation, it takes a person courageous enough to speak the truth and remind the others to stop beating a dead horse. This might in itself cause a good deal of work, costs, and grief, but refusing to bite this bullet would turn out way more costly in the end. “My advice: When everything seems lost and you as the project manager are ignored when you point out the problem, bring in external expertise, particularly in large-scale projects. A project audit can do wonders and even stop a project. Sunk costs should never be an excuse to continue on the wrong path.”

Know when to call it quits: just because a project has been running for a long time doesn't mean you can't pull the ripcord. Image: shutterstock - alphaspirit.it
Know when to call it quits: just because a project has been running for a long time doesn't mean you can't pull the ripcord. Image: shutterstock - alphaspirit.it

3. Narcissistic Maniacs Driving the Project

In the client’s vision, the project is the lighthouse of the century, reflecting their power, strength, and charisma. And then it all goes down the drain. The Berlin airport is a recent, prominent example of a lack of project management. For a city as hip as Berlin, home to so many creative businesses and minds, a low-tech container airport might have been a good fit and a statement to boot.

The solution: Have the courage to say no. This should be the easiest thing in the world, but somehow, few people manage to do it when push comes to shove. The times when project managers were expected to simply follow instructions is clearly over. As a project manager, you should feel responsible for the business case and ensuring the outcome is sustainable: does the project fulfil its economic, ecological, and social purpose? Collaborate with the client and your team as you adjust the project to actual needs, the company, and the target group. This will save resources and, even more importantly, spare everyone involved a lot of stress. Be brave and always strive to create a sustainable benefit with your projects.

4. Glossing over or Ignoring Mistakes

Mistakes were made, information was not shared, cost calculations do not reflect reality, relations with stakeholders have become strained, and important data have been lost? If the whole team shuns responsibility and is busy covering up mistakes or looking the other way in such a situation, things can quickly spiral out of control.

Martina Huemann

Martina Huemann

  • Acaemic Director MBA Strategic Project Management

Many a project could be saved (or at least the damage could be curbed) if only the people involved had the guts to openly address errors and steer it in a solution-oriented and constructive way.

The solution: In the expert’s opinion, this is a typical sign of a lack of error culture that dominates many companies. If a project turns out to be a total strike-out, this should be seen as an opportunity to revisit the company’s approach to dealing with mistakes. It should be possible to address errors without delay and openly discuss them within the organization.

5. When Documentation Deals a Death Blow

Martina Huemann knows that particularly large corporations have a special taste for extensive and detailed instructions regarding project management standards and project documentation: a requirement that can drive project managers nuts. “Overly rigid structures like that can force people to waste valuable time and resources that could be used much more effectively, e.g. to align the project with the market and stakeholders’ needs,” Huemann points out.

The solution: If you can, break out of this prison. Planning and documentation are important, but don’t spend all your energy on it. In other words: do just as much as necessary. As the project manager, you are an intrapreneur shaping the project. This means it’s also your job to steer the process and choose an adequate implementation model. Adaptive, predictive, hybrid – which approach will work best? This will also depend on the client who has commissioned the project and their willingness to engage with it. And even if you choose an agile approach, this would not necessarily mean that you entirely forego documentation. Also in this case, there are clear instructions. In any case, make sure to use digital infrastructure in your projects to ensure they are transparent and everybody involved can collaborate effectively.

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