Bad Project Management

Apr 03, 1995

Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask us for help with project management training. There is a huge demand for it. Nobody seems happy with the effectiveness of their project managers. But is lack of training the real problem with project management in the typical A/E/P or environmental firm? While training may be needed, my experience leads me to believe that the problem with project management in this industry goes much deeper than that. Here are some of the reasons why project management performance is often weak, along with what should be done about it: We don’t ask to get paid for project management, so we don’t get paid for it. Too many engineers, architects, and scientists believe an activity is not billable unless it requires engineering, architectural, or scientific education and experience. “Management” is just something incidental to number crunching, picture drawing, or report writing. We think it’s not a worthwhile activity, so we minimize it. We don’t allot enough of this project management time in our project budgets because we don’t expect to get paid for it. To change this mind-set, management has to insist that adequate PM time is budgeted for, and be willing to walk away from projects if the client isn’t willing to pay for it. And to do this, the firm needs to have plenty more opportunities coming in than it can pursue. We don’t give project managers control over the resources they need to complete the job. This is my big gripe with the matrix, and is one important reason that the best-managed companies in this business are changing their organization structures. It just isn’t realistic to think that a project manager will always be able to successfully negotiate internally for resources with department heads, section heads, or division heads who control them. The PMs with the most clout in the organization (usually principals of the firm) will get what they need, and everyone else will fight over the scraps. If priorities change suddenly, those scraps may not even be there. The only cure I know for this problem is to organize the company around teams, studios, or departments that have the bulk of the technical capabilities they need to do a job, with their own exclusive project managers. We don’t give project managers the information they need to manage their jobs. Why do we still go into companies— large and small— and find that project managers aren’t seeing reports that show the amount expended on the project versus the budget? Or how about firms that lie to the PMs and tell them they have a lower budget than they really have? This kind of nonsense clearly tells project managers that top management doesn’t trust them. Another recurring problem is project reports that come out once a month on jobs that are done in a two-week period. You have to give PMs the information they need or you simply cannot hold them accountable for performance. We don’t back up our project managers when they need it. One reason the average firm in this business produces such marginal profitability is that project managers aren’t backed up by principals and other more senior managers when clients walk all over them. I’m talking about PMs being forced to make changes for the umpteenth time at the 11th hour in a project’s time line, and top management not confronting the client (or hampering the PM’s attempts to confront the client) to make sure the changes are paid for. The cure for this problem is a difficult one. It takes top leaders with a strong self-image who won’t tolerate being pushed around by a client. We hire and promote weak project managers. Once again, firms have to crank up the supply line of talent so they can be choosier about whom they bring on-board. We too often choose someone who meets the technical requirements for the job in terms of registrations, degrees, and years of experience. Then we ignore the other “intangible” skills that are probably more important to the ability of someone to be a good project manager. We promote people into the PM slot based on longevity with the firm, or because there’s an opening. The solution is to devote adequate resources to the recruitment function, and to only hire people who can potentially be promoted to positions beyond their entry level. There’s no room for a “good yeoman” who can never do more— anywhere! We don’t clearly distinguish between the best project managers and the most mediocre ones. I have a client with wildly varying degrees of PM performance. Some of the firm’s project managers always make money, get follow-up work, and have happy clients. Others seem to lose money on every job, never get the follow-up work, and have upset clients. But do you know what? The difference in pay between the top-ranked project manager and the weakest project manager is about $6000! And the firm hasn’t fired a project manager in years! Is it any wonder why it doesn’t have consistently good project management? The problems with project management in A/E/P and environmental firms are not always the project manager’s fault. Maybe, instead of throwing the convenient “training band-aid” at project management, you ought to do look to yourself. It’s top management’s job to do something about it. Fix the underlying causes of bad project management first, and then, perhaps you’ll be rewarded with better project performance. Originally published 4/03/1995

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.