The state of project management

Editor’s note: Originally published June 22, 1996

I’ll come clean. It’s time to fess up and share how I feel about the state of the art in project management today for A/E/P and environmental firms. It flat out stinks.

Look at a firm in this business with 20 PMs and here’s what you’ll find. Three really know what they are doing. Three more have the potential to be good PMs, but are unproved. Six are mediocre and produce inconsistent results. Six are completely ineffective. Two don’t even know they are project managers!

I know I’m being harsh, but how many CEOs would tell me I’m completely wrong? Here’s more of my thinking:

    1. There’s a big difference between being a PM and holding a project management position. When you manage something, it means you get results in spite of obstacles that crop up. When you just hold a position, it means you have no impact on the outcome of things. Too many of the PMs I talk to fall into the latter category. And the truth is, unless the PM is unusually motivated and aggressive, it’s easy to understand how he could start thinking results are beyond his control.
      In a matrix organization, none of the people he needs to get the project out actually report to him. He has no control over any employee’s rewards. He doesn’t get accurate and timely project management reports. The scheduling system is non-existent or it follows the “he who has the most ownership gets the best staff” model. PICs are making promises to clients that can’t be kept or that are not disclosed to the PM. And to top it off, nobody really expects things to go well because too often they don’t.
    2. PMs can’t manage anything until they get the sale. I hear PMs in client companies say it all of the time: “I don’t mind managing projects, but I really don’t want to have to sell.” Well guess what folks. We all have to sell, especially PMs. Clients want to feel comfortable that the person who will be responsible for getting their project completed is excited about working for them and has the confidence that the job can be done within the budget and time frame required. They don’t want a techno-geek with no confidence, who is unwilling to vary from his two-syllable monotone responses to questions posed during the selling stage. Not to mention that the best PMs always sell extra services, when possible, while they’re doing the project. Weak PMs walk right past these opportunities.
    3. Creating a satisfied client that will use the firm again is the ultimate goal of the PM. I call this process “leaving a wake of goodwill.” That’s what it’s all about. Unless we are talking about very large projects, a firm rarely makes any money the first time they work for a new client. The ramp-up time to develop relationships is very costly. The only way this expense is recouped is to work for the client again and again.
    4. Communication skills are more important than any other skill for PMs. The ability to write a clear meeting memo that all project team members can understand, explain to the client why things aren’t going as planned, ask for extra fee when the client changes the scope of services required, or get somebody who doesn’t work for you to want to help is what project management is all about. PMs can have all of the full-wall schedules, PERT charts, project incentive bonuses, and kick-off meetings they want, but if they don’t have good communications skills, the project will turn out lousy.
    5. No PM training program can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Just like selling, some people are inherently more adept at project management than others. And despite your best efforts, some people working in A/E/P and environmental firms will not be bolstered by more training. Take the example of a 53-year-old engineer who we’ll call “Chuck.” Chuck has been designing highways for 30 years. He’s an engineer’s engineer – you know the stereotype – multiple pens in the pocket, short-sleeve dress shirt, and dated tie. Chuck is darn good at what he does when we are talking about design. His numbers add up, his projects get built, and he knows how to prepare a set of highway plans and specs that the Arkansas DOT will like.
      But Chuck is a lousy communicator. He doesn’t want to sell, doesn’t look successful or inspire confidence in clients, and he really doesn’t have any interest in running projects. He likes – and is good at – technical work. Sometimes stereotypes exist for a good reason. There are plenty of “Chucks” out there who get moved into project management, but who will never be decent project managers. They simply aren’t wired for it. Yet most companies feel compelled to run someone like Chuck through countless in-house and outside seminars in an attempt to change him into something that he isn’t and doesn’t want to be.
    6. Disorganized people make lousy PMs. You show me someone whose office looks like hell, who is always late, who can’t find files he or she once had, and who generally operates in a state of chaos, and I’ll show you someone who has a problem running a project in such a way that the firm makes money, the schedule is met, and the client ends up happy. And once again, no amount of training is likely to help. This disorganized project manager was probably showing signs of disorganization when he or she was five years old – the behavior pattern is well established by adulthood!
    7. No PM can work to his potential in an undisciplined firm. When I speak of an “undisciplined firm,” I am referring to one that doesn’t have budgets on half the projects loaded into their project cost accounting system; a firm that assigns both PMs and PICs to every job, yet can’t define the differences in those very different roles; or the company that doesn’t maintain a central project file system and instead leaves all that up to chance.

I have seen situations where good project managers were ruined by a lousy, undisciplined company. The PM fails, and the company can’t even blame him for non-performance due to the fact that so many other people in the rm aren’t performing. So perhaps it’s time to revisit the state of the art in project management in your firm. Are you doing what should be done to advance it, or continuing down the same path that isn’t giving you what you want from your PMs?

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s founder and chairman. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1185 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here to subscribe or get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

Posted in Project Management, The Zweig Letter, Zweig Blog | February 9th, 2017 by