Productivity, Project Management

19 Lessons in Project Management Mistakes from NASA

nasa project managementEven NASA makes mistakes.

Thankfully, Jerry Madden documented 37 years of lessons he learned as Associate Director of Flight Projects at NASA, so we can learn from them.  

Here are 19 of Madden’s best as it relates to project management mistakes, and how understanding them can keep you sane.

1. “The source of most problems is people.” 

Understand the people on your team. When you can predict their weaknesses, you can prevent foreseeable hiccups by taking action to keep them from happening. For instance, if you know Resource 1 takes five days for a task and Resource 2 takes three, you can budget the appropriate timelines for the slower resource.

2. “Never undercut your staff in public.” 

Save surprises for one-on-ones. Your team should never learn new important information in a large meeting when everyone else already knew. Make time to communicate high-value information.

3. “Knowing something will work never takes the place of proving that it will.” 

Whether you’ve done one project or a thousand, each one is different. The only test of value you added is the results you deliver — each time.

4. “Don’t offer excuses: just state the facts.” 

Mistakes happen. Let your management, executives, and other stakeholders know what happened and steps you’re taking to resolve it.

“History is prologue.” — Jerry Madden, NASA

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5. “History is prologue.” 

Every project comes from somewhere. It has a client background, unique objectives, and a historical development. Invest the time upfront to learn why your client’s project exists.

6. “Talk is not cheap.” 

In fact, it’s gold. Constant, transparent, high-value communication is core to any successful project. If a resource, client, or stakeholder is quiet, reach out to learn any issues potentially brewing. You’ll do better to proactively learn these and solve them than wait.

7. “Wrong decisions made early can be salvaged, but ‘right’ decisions made late cannot.” 

Know your project status in real time. Track task progress, overall project health, burn rates, and other critical metrics. As soon as issues arise, expose and solve them.

8. “There are simple courses available to learn ‘computerese,’ communicationese,’ and all the rest of the modern ese’s of the world. You can’t manage if you don’t understand what is being said or written.” 

Know your industry. It’s not enough to plan and schedule resources and tasks. If you work in web campaigns, learn about design and coding. If you work in software implementation, learn about hardware and software. Set up Gmail alerts, join LinkedIn groups, and scan Twitter for a few minutes each day to stay current in your niche market.

9. “Too many project managers think a spoken agreement carries the same weight as one put in writing.” 

Get it in writing. When your team member or client stakeholder agrees to a task, schedule it in a system, put it in email, or otherwise document this. People can leave, shift to other projects, or simply not follow through.

Download My Guide To Writing A SOW

10. “A project manager should visit everyone who is building anything for his project at least once.” 

Know your team. Learn their professional and personal goals. You should have a working relationship with all individuals on your team. Check in with them regularly in person and, for remote resources, host one-on-one video calls to forge trust across long distances.

11. “Most people want to do a good job, and if they don’t, the problem is they probably don’t know how or exactly what is expected.” 

Set clear expectations for each individual. This includes tasks, utilization targets (or other incentive plan targets), and quality goals. Regularly remind individuals of their high-level goals, and when it looks like they might not hit them, tell them right away so you can both work toward a solution.

“You cannot watch everything. What you can watch is the people.”  — Jerry Madden, NASA

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12. “You cannot watch everything. What you can watch is the people.” 

You will never do every task, time log, and activity feed update yourself. What you can do is watch your people. Look for signs of communication lags, such as not posting completed work or collaborating with peers on a project. This can move you off schedule. Tackle issues as soon as they begin.


13. “Remember most teams have a coach and not a boss, but the coach still has to call some of the plays.” 

Guide your teams to success. Hire people with deep knowledge of their skillset and who can also problem solve and think critically. When they get stuck, guide them to the solution that most easily meets their core objectives.

14. “The project manager who is the smartest man on his project has done a lousy job of recruitment.” 

Hire people who are smarter than you and get out of the way. Your resources should feel comfortable pushing back on decisions and explaining their reasoning for doing so. Listen to how they apply past experience to current tasks and decide if their experience is leading them to a better solution than you had considered.

15. “Know your management. Some like a good joke; others only like a joke if they tell it.” 

Speak to your audience. Don’t change who you are, because your management hired you because of that. But do speak their language.

16. “Other centers, if they have the resources, are normally happy to help.” 

Ask for backup when you need it. Many organizations will use a utilization incentive plan. This means resources with extra hours from other teams or locations may be able to add bandwidth to one of your projects. But if you don’t ask, you certainly won’t receive.

17. “Cooperative efforts require good communications and early warning systems.” 

Create or purchase COTS executive dashboards that track your deadlines, margins, utilization, and other rates in real time. Today’s technology makes it easy to early-identify issues and solve them, and most platforms put spreadsheets to bed at prices affordable for most services providers. We recommend Insights for project delivery service providers.

18. “Too many people at Headquarters believe the myth that you can reduce the food to the horse every day till you get a horse that requires no food. They try to do the same with projects, which eventually end up as dead as the horse.”

Don’t burn out your resources. Getting utilization rates up to 85 percent is a great target. Getting above 95 percent may cause burn-out. In addition, keep an eye on particular clients that may demand more than others. Resources on these teams should have support for meeting high demands.

19. “Being friendly with a contractor is fine: being a friend of a contractor is dangerous to your objectivity.”

Don’t blur lines. Take a positive personal interest in your contractors, but don’t hire friends just because you enjoy their company. Contract your work to friendly workers, not worker friends.

There you have it. NASA makes mistakes, but they also evaluate what they can learn from them. As you apply Madden’s tips to your daily interactions, consider what you can learn from your own mistakes.

What project management mistake taught you the most? Let us know in the comments. We reply to every comment.

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