Project managers spend their days communicating, scheduling, reporting, and putting out fires.

Days are unpredictable and often Plan A doesn’t work. Each project comes with its own set of challenges, but during my years of running projects, I’ve developed a list of certainties that keep me laughing and managing on.

1. Any project can be estimated accurately (once it’s completed)

Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to estimate how long it will take, the work hours, or how much it will cost once you have the answers or, as we generally refer to them, the actuals. The reality is estimates are nothing more than guesses; educated ones I hope, but still guesses. There is no crystal ball to give us the answers. We strive to improve the accuracy of our estimates as we perform similar efforts with comparable actuals, but in the end estimates are still our best guess. However, an educated guess is still far better than no estimate or plan at all.

2. Good project managers know when not to manage a project

Project management is a good thing, but you can have too much of a good thing. Good project managers know when it is time to manage and when it is time to step back – don’t micromanage. I have yet to meet an individual who thoroughly enjoys returning to their supervisor for direction, guidance, or approval before every step they take. Sometimes you need to trust your team will produce the desired results. When things are going well, step back and watch the magic.

3. Fast – cheap – good: you can have any two

The Rolling Stones come to mind: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

If the project management triple constraint triangle comes to mind, it should. The triangle contains four components; time, cost, scope, and quality. Generally changes to any one of these elements is met with a corresponding change to the others. Maintaining two is more of a challenge, but will always result in changes to the other two. You should consult with your stakeholders to determine what is most important – guiding the flexibility you have with each of these components.

4.The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time the last 10% takes the other 90%

You are probably reading that again and thinking my math is flawed – 90 and 90 do not add up to 100. You would be correct, but you read that correctly. Everything is going well on your project until you reach an unexpected complication. When reality hits, we discover the project will take longer and incremental progress gets smaller. What was going swimmingly is spiraling into a long dark tunnel, where we seek the proverbial light from the end. Proactivity and objective progress measurement go a long way to help remedy the dismay towards the end of a project.

 5. Warning: dates in the calendar are closer than you think

We have all seen the warning on the side mirror about objects being closer than they appear, in project management that mirror is our view into the future. Time flies when you are having fun, but in the case of project management a lot faster than we care to admit. Deadlines that seemed so far away are suddenly upon us, with much yet to accomplish. As the project manager, it’s imperative to constant look toward the future and steer your team accordingly to meet deadlines. Planning and preparation up front goes a long way in relieving the stress of fast approaching deadlines.

6. A project gets a year late one day at a time

No one goes into an endeavor planning to be late, but with each day, you are one step closer to the project’s end. Seemingly small issues left unchecked, slowly accumulate and become the reasons for being late and/or over budget. Nobody likes surprises, especially when they are of the bad news variety. Project managers must keep a pulse on these issues and keep everyone informed of the good, the bad, and the ugly early and often. More and frequent communication helps to avoid the shock and surprise later on.

7. Bad news does not improve with age and should be acted upon immediately

Unlike fine wine, bad news does not improve with age. Quite the opposite, it becomes the bitter pill we swallow when it’s time for explanations. Risk Management 101 – the further in advance you plan for and act on bad news, the more time you have to react in a manner that minimally impacts your project. Small steps taken early on mitigate risks and issues. Waiting until later limits the time and type of opportunities available to resolve the problem. Keeping your team and stakeholders informed reduces stress and equips them with the information to act appropriately.

8. People make a plan work, a plan alone seldom makes people work – Confucius

Have you ever presented a new project schedule to your team and received curious and/or questionable looks about your state of mind? Just because you think the plan will work, doesn’t mean it will. You may receive a fair amount of resistance if the team doesn’t feel represented – planning involves people and their buy in. Involving your team in the planning process extends a sense of good will that their voice is heard and concerns will been adequately addressed.

9. Good control reveals problems early, which only means you’ll have longer to worry about them

How many of us put together a project schedule that only surfaces when you hit a snag? Generally, if you only look at the plan when you have a problem, it’s already too late to affect meaning changes. Actively and routinely engaging project control activities brings problems to light sooner and gives you more time to react appropriately. Like #7, the earlier we act the better chance we have of navigating through or around problems.

10. The project would not have been started if the truth had been told about the cost and timescale

Too often we start an effort with a great degree of optimism and idealism. As we progress and the realities begin to pile up, costs go up, and/or the planned finish is in the rear view mirror, we begin to question what we were thinking. Many a projects would never begin if the truth was known at the beginning. The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal has a plan. A detailed plan is essential for project success – providing the measuring stick to show how we are performing: good, bad, or indifferent. It can also give us an early warning that goals may not be achieved and in the worst case, cancelling the project early rather than dragging it kicking and screaming to a bitter end.


Mike is a Senior Project Manager with focus on Microsoft Project and Project Server. He develops many Microsoft Project training courses, custom schedule management and reporting solutions, and Project Server implementations for clients in both federal and commercial markets.