5 Mistakes That Can Doom Your Project From The Start


Have you ever started a new project with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s going to fail?

Any person who’s had experience as a project manager knows that all projects hit bumps along the road. It’s part of the game.

However, I’m sure it has happened to any project manager: to begin with, the unpleasant feeling that the project will, indeed, go wrong.

Is it imposter syndrome? Or is it that the project feels too big for your small team and you’re genuinely concerned? Is this anxiety related to your very first project?

All of the above are completely normal. But before you can rule out any other possible problems, make sure that the cause of concern is not among these five major mistakes – that may doom your project from the start.

5 mistakes you may be committing before starting your project (and how to fix them):

  1. You’re not working with a signed contract;
  2. There is no exact deadline and timeline;
  3. Too many stakeholders already involved;
  4. There is no appointed “project manager” to the project;
  5. The scope is very broad.

#1 – You’re not working with a signed contract

Probably some readers are rolling their eyes and saying “Who does that?”.

Believe me, that happens.

Sometimes, in the excitement of beginning a project with a big client, or if the client asks you to perform something urgently, the project is greenlit before all the legal contracts and obligations are signed.

Please, do not work without a signed contract. Ever.

Not only you expose yourself to legal issues in case something goes wrong, and there’s no written proof you were “supposed to do that”; not only you’ll risk having issues later on with actually getting paid by the client (“That wasn’t in the contract you signed two months after you started…”): by not having the project’s requirements detailed and written down you risk the project going out of control.

What to do instead:

Needless to say, you have to make sure all the legal and contract issues are settled before starting on the project. If you’re pressed by urgency, you can prepare ready-to-use contract templates for the services you offer frequently.

A client may still pressure you and pull out a “mutual trust” card. You should be collaborative, but firm in stating the importance of signing a written agreement. Reiterate your willingness to work together, but also explain that a written agreement is a form of protection and benefits all parties involved: buyer and contractor.

#2 – There is no exact deadline and timeline

Some clients will run to you and expect the project to be delivered yesterday.

Others are more chill and seem to have no time constraints. It sounds like every office’s dream. However, not having established deadlines and timelines puts you at risk of losing control of the project later on.

What do to instead:

Try to give the project a start and end date, even if your client stays vague on the subject. If you’re unsure about your estimates, take a look at your past, similar projects and see how much time they took you.

Time tracking software gives you the data you need to see how much time it takes to finish projects and create accurate estimates for the future.

#3 – Too many stakeholders already involved

A red flag should rise if you see a lot of different people involved from the very beginning. If there are five people in charge both from the client’s side and from your business, I can 99% guarantee you that it’ll slow down any decision-making process.

Too many cooks in the kitchen is a common reason why projects go overboard. Although multiple contributions and collaborations are appreciated, in the long run, you may end up not knowing who is supposed to do what.

What to do instead:

Try to identify from the beginning the one person you should refer to when updating and getting feedback on the project.

Make it clear from the beginning who will be in charge. Mind you, there is no guarantee that roles will not change and that new stakeholders will arrive later on. But at least, you tried. Also, help the other parts stay updated by enforcing clear communication and transparency on the course of the project.

#4 – There is no appointed “project manager” to the project

The opposite scenario to the one explained in #4, is when no one is really in charge.

In small businesses and startups when people have to wear many hats to optimize resources, it’s easy to forget about roles and responsibilities. Those sound too much like structured enterprises with a strict hierarchy in their staff.

There’s nothing wrong with all-hands-on-deck approaches, but there should always be one person appointed with the overall responsibility of the project. Otherwise, who will take care of the client if they get upset? Who will deal with negotiating features and requests? What if someone who shouldn’t be in charge authorizes changes to the project?

What to do instead:

Put simply, always appoint a person responsible for the whole project.

Only the project manager should speak with the client. I understand that, sometimes, it may be easier to involve a member of your team – like, for example, having your client explain directly to your designer how they want their website to look like. But all the decisions and updates should always be reported back to the project manager.

#5 – The scope is too wide, or undefined

A client who hasn’t got a real idea of what they want is potentially problematic because you don’t know how the project will end up.

It’s nice to be given free rein on a project, but don’t forget that the client could at some point change the direction or realize that they don’t actually like what you have done.

What to do instead:

Get everything down in writing very early on, and have a scope statement written down. Use it to guide the set course of the project, and to bring it back on track. That doesn’t mean that the project cannot change at all, but at least you’ll have an idea of the direction and you won’t be fumbling in the dark.

Even if you made sure that this little checklist is respected, there is no guarantee that the project would be smooth sailing. That is part of any business's daily life. But at least you’ll have established a safety net to hold on to in case things go wrong.

What are your tips to start a project on the right foot? Let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to track your time for your projects!

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