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10 Mistakes Project Managers and Product Owners Still Make in 2021

...and What to Do Instead

With companies moving towards working-from-anywhere, the ante has been raised when it comes to leadership practices.

There has been a trend for a while towards more agile teams that are able to themselves manage their work and adapt to change. Good managers are facilitators of collaborative planning rather than dictators micromanaging every task.

Now, with distributed teams working-from-anywhere, these leadership practices are no longer only an opportunity for business agility but a necessity to be productive and retain a happy team.

Here are ten mistakes Project Managers and Product Owners continue to be guilty of and pragmatic alternatives.

Mistake 1: Still assigning detailed tasks to people.

Do instead: Set mission-oriented objectives, goals, and expected outcomes, then let the experts make it happen the way they know best. Due dates at the task level cause undue stress and demoralize teams. Team members should be empowered to break down objectives into their own deliverables and tasks, focusing on hitting goal commitments instead of task-level deadlines. Don’t be afraid of self-managed teams. They free leaders to focus on the bigger picture, driving the organization forward.


Mistake 2: Creating a false sense of control and predictability with Gantt (or Gantt-like) detailed schedules, coupled with traditional “command & control” management practices.

Do instead: Manage flow, not tasks. Manage, track, and optimize the flow of value from idea to customer delivery, removing blocks, clearing the way, and fostering a culture of continuous improvement. With proper servant leadership, teams manage themselves, and capacity planning is built into the flow. Leaders are not dictators, but rather facilitators and coaches, on a high-performing autonomous team. Hyper-performing teams are empowered and able to work independently towards company goals.


Mistake 3: Product Owner by proxy = Product Owner with insufficient power.

Do instead: The Product Owner must have the authority to make decisions and prioritize the product backlog without having to constantly seek approval from stakeholders higher up in the organization’s hierarchy. A Product Owner should be the proxy for the customer, not for someone in senior management with real decision-making power. A true Product Owner is the CEO of the product (or part of the product). 


Mistake 4: Spending too much time on repetitive tasks.

Do instead: Use automation to schedule meetings, send notifications when something is ready for review, visualize flow across multiple teams, archive finished work, and other time-consuming activities. Let automation take care of the busy work for you.

Mistake 5: Relying on a separate QA department for product quality.

Do instead: Quality shouldn’t be delegated to a department or separate team at the end of a development cycle. Quality should be built into your entire development process. The cost of detecting and fixing defects rises exponentially as a feature travels from requirements to development to integration and release. Follow the lean method of Jidoka to ensure bugs don’t escape and make it to the customer. 

Read more about How Running QA in Favro Makes a Big Difference


Mistake 6: Mismanaging cross-team collaboration. Cross-team dependencies becoming blockers rather than collaborations.

Do Instead: If planned or emergent work between multiple teams is always coordinated through the manager, the manager becomes the bottleneck. Instead, the manager should make sure the teams have clear goals and transparency to each other’s planning so they can sync themselves. A good manager coaches the team to manage and remove their own impediments and removes larger organizational constraints. 


Mistake 7: Too much work in progress at the same time.

Do Instead: An excess of work in progress is bad. Just as too many cars on a highway cause a traffic jam, too much work in progress causes waste and slower value delivery to customers. Focus on finishing fewer things rather than starting many things. Finish the most valuable things first and limit work in progress to reduce lead times and receive faster customer feedback.


Mistake 8: Measuring things that don't matter like activity, time spent, task percentage complete, employee utilization, etc.

Do instead: Ensuring everyone is busy and spending lots of time working does not equal getting things done. You get what you measure, so measure what matters. Measure the flow of value with Lean metrics, including cycle times, lead times, and flow efficiency, along with progress towards goals expressed as Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).


Mistake 9: Treating external partners like outsourcers, throwing work back and forth over a virtual wall.

Do instead: Think of them as true partners and collaborate with them like an extension of your team. Included them in the process and keep them as part of the internal teams with seamless collaboration in the same app.

Read more about Working with Externals in Favro

Mistake 10: Creating feature-based roadmaps with hard dates or very narrow time frames. i.e. Turning your backlog into a Product Roadmap with start and end dates on each feature/user story.

Do instead: Roadmaps are an essential tool but all too often, they’re misused as glorified Gantt charts. Think of it like this: Product Roadmap = your strategic view (outcomes, goals, impacts) and Product Backlog = your tactical view (Product features to hit those outcomes and goals and create those impacts). Create outcome-based roadmaps with flexible time allotments such as “Now, Next, Later” ensuring lots of room for learning and adapting based on customer feedback.


Project and Product Leadership Evolved

Evolving from a command & control micro-management mindset to an agile facilitator mindset is essential for modern organizations to survive and thrive in the new normal. If the ten mistakes listed above ring true, then it’s time to rethink your leadership practices and take deliberate steps towards business agility. It’s not as hard as you might think. Simply changing to some of the approaches we’ve recommended will get you headed on the right path.

The above illustrations are from Favro, the #1 app for collaborative planning, within and between teams in fast moving organizations. Try it yourselves for free at Favro.com


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