At our new “Managing a Growing Firm” seminar series, which kicked off last week in Boston, a hard-driving CEO from a local area firm took exception to one of our recommendations on how to improve project management. We suggested that some firms find it helpful to track and report on all kinds of performance indicators by project manager— everything from what they sold, to the variance from budgeted to actual cost, to average collection period. This guy said he “had to challenge me on this one”— that “trying to use peer pressure is bad,” and that it’s “management’s job” to make sure the PMs are doing their jobs. To paraphrase what he said, if the PMs aren’t performing, then management has to take action, but peer pressure doesn’t work.Of course, I disagreed with this chap. Peer pressure does work, and it works quite well. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t have been up there in front of 50 people telling them that it does. We didn’t get where we are by being theoretical— we know whether or not a concept works because, unlike some others who publish or write management newsletters, we actually get to implement our management thinking in real-world consulting projects (we currently have more than 140 of those) for A/E/P and environmental consulting companies. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciated his point of view and he got me thinking. I certainly understood where this fellow was coming from. He’s a good guy, successful, and I can’t say that I haven’t felt the same way myself. He expects his second lieutenants to take care of the weak PMs— by either fixing them or getting rid of them— because that’s what they are supposed to do. And no one enjoys shaming people into changing their behavior (like posting all the data does). I know I don’t. On the other hand, I am a pragmatist. I learned in my early roles as a marketing and human resources director that just because managers are supposed to do something doesn’t mean that they will actually do it. I got tired of making cold call assignments that never got done— three or five calls in a month doesn’t seem like it’s asking much, does it? Likewise, I got tired of sending out notices for people to do performance appraisals— it’s not too much to ask your managers to sit down once a year with each of their employees for a half-hour, is it? Intellectually, these requests to make a few cold calls or spend a half-hour with an employee one-on-one seem reasonable. Yet, it’s very hard to change human behavior. By the time someone becomes an adult, their behavior patterns are well established. They aren’t going to change. And we (top management) can’t just fire everyone.You see, we believe that our job as managers is not to look over everything, police everything, hold everyone else’s feet to the fire. Instead, our job is to create the setting, the environment, where everyone does what they are supposed to, what they need to do, without our constant involvement. That’s what I call “management.”Sharing information with everyone on individual project managers’ performance helps improve overall project management. Here are three other areas where our experience has shown us that it’s better to change your process than to try to change human behavior:Requiring principals-in-charge (PICs) to know the status of each of their jobs. Many CEOs I know might tell you that this is the PIC’s job. On each job they are assigned, the PIC should make sure that the PMs stay in constant touch with them. And, they’ll say, you cannot “institutionalize” this effort. I disagree. I know that if we leave it up to the PICs, 20% will know what’s going on, and 80% won’t. And you can’t fire all of them (or the PMs) who don’t do it the way you want. On the other hand, we can require that each PM do a one-page project status report on their assigned projects, with a copy each going to the client and the PIC. I have found it much more likely that the PMs will do this report, than the PICs ever will be to call and ask the PMs about each project’s status. Requiring PICs to periodically check with clients to make sure they are happy with the job the firm is doing. We used to advocate this at ZWA, also, but have since learned that these calls are almost never made. A better approach is to pay someone outside your firm to call 10, 20, or 30 clients each month and interview them briefly on this subject. Once again, you can make this happen— the person making the calls is a subcontractor. What’s hard to make happen is getting the PICs to call. Because even though you can logically argue that this is the best use of their time, most would rather be doing something that they consider billable or marketing related (pursuing a new job), instead of “boring” stuff like current client maintenance. Requiring PMs and PICs to serve as the front-line bill collectors. Again, we used to advocate this at ZWA, but have since learned that it doesn’t work as well as having the finance and accounting department make these calls for the 60-day and earlier invoices. The reason? Finance and accounting (support) staff see this as their job; design, production, and management people, en masse, do not. As a result, this activity is de-prioritized among the latter group. Once again, a rational manager who does make his or her assigned collection calls and who realizes that collecting money is as important as anything else— if the firm wants to issue paychecks— would wonder why the other managers don’t do it. This person would say it’s top management’s job to force these other people to make their calls. But I say, why try to change human nature? To summarize, here’s what management’s real job is: get the job done (whatever it is), get it done consistently well, and know that you can continue to get it done because you have changed the process and created the situation that is most likely to produce a consistent set of results without a superhuman policeman effort on your part. When you do that, you’ve really got something— an organization that might stand a chance of surviving without you!Originally published 2/02/1998
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.
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