Managing projects is the heartbeat of the typical A/E firm. You'd think, then, that it would be something that we generally do well. But that's not the case. There's an abundance of evidence—from industry data, client feedback, and personal experience—that most firms could stand to substantially improve how they deliver projects.
Thus I offer 10 simple steps for improvement. By "simple," I don't necessarily mean easy. Some of the following steps are relatively easy to implement; others not so much. But all are straightforward, proven solutions to common project delivery problems. They key is to acknowledge the shortcomings, for they provide opportunities for getting better at a central function that's critical to our corporate and personal success.
#1. Establish clear project goals. Every project is intended to accomplish something. There is a problem to be solved or an improvement to be made. Oddly, we often diminish the goals and focus instead on completing a set of tasks (if you doubt me on this, read your project descriptions). Great projects start with a clear recognition of what needs to be achieved—why the project is happening and what end results are desired. Revisit how you define project success. It's not completing the scope on time and on budget; it's realizing the outcomes the client intended.
#2. Engage reviewers early. The A/E industry still largely relies on a method of quality control that has long since been discarded by most industries—inspection at the end of the assembly line. Just catching mistakes rather than taking steps to prevent them is an inefficient and costly approach. One simple step to improve in this regard is to get reviewers involved in planning the project. Ask them to clarify what they will be looking for (particularly in terms of project strategy) and what errors they most commonly see for this kind of project, hopefully preempting the larger revisions that occur when this discussion doesn't take place.
By the way, the same principle can apply to regulatory authorities who must review and approve your project before it can proceed. Get them involved early to understand what they need to see before they can give you their approval, with the goal of reducing the changes you must make later in response to their comments.
#3. Uncover the client's real needs. We deliver greater success to clients when we are better aligned with how they perceive their projects. Whereas we might be inclined to see a technical problem needing a technical solution, the client is more likely to see the business impacts arising from that problem, requiring a solution that provides business results. To better enable A/E professionals to uncover the client's "real needs," I advocate identifying needs at three levels: (1) strategic, (2) technical, and (3) people. Of course, not all needs fit easily within these three categories. But experience proves that using this framework will help project teams better align their diagnosis with the client's perspective.
#4. Benchmark client expectations. Tangible client needs and objectives shape the project scope, but the quality of the client experience comprises a large share of how project success is defined by the client. Unfortunately, unlike scope elements, the client is much less likely to volunteer what is expected with regards to that experience. You typically have to ask the right questions to gain this insight. This can be done formally or informally through a process I call "benchmarking expectations," wherein you and the client explore mutual expectations about the working relationship. You might find my Client Service Planner helpful for this process.
#5. Solicit periodic in-project feedback. Most A/E firms remarkably don't have any process for gathering regular feedback from clients. Most of those who do only solicit feedback annually. Neither approach is very helpful in uncovering project-related concerns in a timely fashion (i.e., when you can still make course corrections during the project). If you're counting on project managers to informally collect such feedback, you could be disappointed. Unhappy clients may not be forthcoming with PMs when the PM is perceived to be part of the problem. It's best to have a third party—an outside consultant or senior manager who's not heavily involved in the project—to seek feedback periodically as mutually agreed upon during the previous benchmarking step.
#6. Take steps to promote greater collaboration. Whenever I write on the topic of collaboration, relatively few people read it. That seems to mirror the level of interest in this topic within our industry, for whatever reason. It's clearly a hot topic in other industries. We're missing out! Many of the project delivery problems we struggle with are at least in part due to poor collaboration and coordination—both internally and externally. Likewise, we forfeit the opportunity to build better solutions when we shortcut collaboration among diverse parties who can provide a greater breadth of insight and creativity. I encourage you to step up collaborative efforts at the following levels: (1) between you and the client, (2) within your project teams, (3) between different disciplines, (4) among the different stages of the project (planning/design/construction/operation), and (5) even between experts and nonexperts.
#7. Map your work flow. Whenever I've had the opportunity to explore this within firms or between firms that are partnered on major projects or contracts, the participants have always uncovered a few surprises. We presume to know how other individuals, departments, or firms operate within the project delivery process we share with them. Yet that's often not the case. The misunderstandings are sometimes substantial, and the revelation of them can lead to major improvements. Or sometimes charting our work flow (using precedence diagramming) can simply reveal several opportunities for refining the delivery process. Don't underestimate the potential here; it can be well worth your time to do this every 2-3 years for complex project types that you work on repeatedly.
#8. Hold regular project meetings—but do it right. Business meetings have a reputation of being our biggest time wasters. Yet they can also potentially be significant time savers. The difference is in how we do meetings. Most firms probably hold too many operational meetings and too few project meetings. The first rule of meeting management is to be judicious in determining when or when not to have a meeting. Simple exchanges of information, for example, can be handled by other means. But you shouldn't try doing collaboration, brainstorming, debating, or team building via email. Regularly scheduled project meetings have advantages, but you need to give them the attention they deserve—making sure there's good reason to meet, planning the meeting, distributing an agenda in advance, carefully managing the discussion and group dynamics, and providing a written summary of meeting outcomes.
#9. Conduct periodic project reviews. This is a technique I learned from the folks at PSMJ and it has proven to be immensely valuable. The purpose of project reviews is to have a third party (often a project principal or senior reviewer) take an objective look at the project's status and direction and support the PM in recalibrating the path forward. For very large projects, having a panel of reviewers can be well worth the extra expense. I have seen this process uncover major issues or potential problems that even a veteran PM can miss on occasion. Plus I've witnessed many value-added contributions from outside reviewers. Check out this post for more on the suggested content of the reviews.
#10. Consider splitting the PM role on larger projects. Project managers have a tough job. There are multiple demands for their attention and too little time to adequately address them all. This is especially true where larger, more complex projects are involved. A little more PM capacity would be welcome, wouldn't it? Well, consider this step: Divide the job in two. Have your best PMs (now perhaps called Project Leaders) focus on the more strategic, high-value aspects of project management. Assign mid-level staff to handle the more routine, administrative elements of project management that often consume 70% or more of a PM's time.
There are multiple benefits of this approach, including: (1) it enables your top PMs to work on more projects, (2) it provides hands-on training to your future PMs, (3) it delivers better value to your clients, and (4) it distinguishes your firm from competitors. Perhaps best of all, it allows PMs to focus on the most important aspects of the project, including implementing some of the performance-improving strategies outlined above.