Effective Project Management

Apr 14, 2003

I had a nice woman come up to me before a talk I gave in Rochester, New York, last week. She asked me if we had ever considered doing an article on how to recognize effective project management. I thanked her for the idea and when I got back, passed it on to our editorial staff to investigate what exactly some of the top firms have to say about this subject. But it got me thinking. Is it even possible to recognize effective project management in a design or environmental firm? I think so! But first things first. What is the definition of “effective,” and what statistics we use to track it? There are so many variables that we can use to judge whether or not a given PM is effective. That’s part of the problem! Is the job done on time? Is it completed within budget (the internal fee budget AND the client’s construction budget). Is the job a high-quality job with little or no rework or client complaint? How would the client judge the firm’s performance long after the facility is operational? How much in the way of extra services did the PM sell? Have we gotten repeat work since doing the project with this same client? How much work does the PM manage over the course of a year? These and many other questions provide the answers to whether or not someone is effective as a project manager. But it’s not that simple. What if the PM always got the job done on time and within budget, but the client would never hire the firm again? Is this an effective PM? Or what if the client is happy as a clam yet the firm lost money on the project? Is this an effective PM? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. There’s no black and white. For example, if the A/E or environmental firm lost money on every job it ever did for a particular client who was hard to deal with and the decision was made to make money serving them or drop them as a client, then the PM who stayed within budget and fulfilled all contractual obligations but who lost the client for future work was effective. If, on the other hand, the client was seen as one that could provide millions of dollars in fees over the course of the coming years and the PM decided that making money on the current $10,000 fee project was the most important thing, you might be able to say that this PM was ineffective. There is no black and white. The situation changes from job to job, client to client, and firm to firm for a variety of reasons. The important thing for the PM to do is the right thing. What’s right at that time, for that job, and for that client? I find that tracking all of this data— budgeted to actual variance, construction budget to actual cost variance, multiplier, collection period, client satisfaction score, repeat work volume, extra services volume, and more is valuable. Then sharing this information with everyone— not just the PMs (that’s the way most firms handle it) is also critical. And the information should be presented in such a way that you can see the PM’s performance over time, spot trends, compare one PM to another… and more. It should be easy for anyone to read and understand. And it should have some narrative interpretation, either verbally in a meeting to discuss the firm’s performance metrics, or in a written summary that accompanies this hard data. But this still may not be enough. Because the dirty secret that anyone who has been around longer than the Anna Nicole Smith show can tell you is that we can’t really hold PMs accountable for effective performance. What if they never participated in setting the fee and have an unworkable budget? What if a deadline was set that is undoable? What if no one works directly for the PM and instead he or she has to get talent from other managers in the firm who don’t want to see him or her succeed? These are real situations that happen in design and environmental firms every day. Originally published 4/14/2003

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