Measure what matters

May 08, 2022

Justin Smith, SE, PE, MBA

There is a disconnect between the training and skills that firms want and need for their project managers and what they provide.

The AEC business is often a relationship business. Yet, most popular project management approaches fail to address relationships as core drivers of AEC project value. Why is that? 

Not long ago, Zweig Group surveyed project managers and firms across the country about project management. The questions ranged from addressing the level of responsibility, project management structure, project management policies, and other topics related to project management in modern AEC firms. Zweig Group also asked firms, “What do you think are your firm’s biggest training needs for project managers?”

Interestingly, as seen in Figure 1, many of the responses coalesced around interpersonal skills and relationship building. 

In this same survey, Zweig Group asked firms what training they provide to project managers. As seen in Figure 2, the responses swung the other way toward measurables. 

A disconnect exists between the training and skills that firms want and need for their project managers and what they provide to project managers.

While detailing a complex steel connection, a mentor once told me: “Difficult to draw, difficult to build.”  We can draw some parallels in project management: “Difficult to measure, difficult to teach. Difficult to teach, difficult to do.”

Firms often focus large amounts of time and effort on managing scope, schedule, and resources. These key performance indicators assess project health and provide a basis for employee development and performance management. These are relatively simple elements to measure. Therefore, these elements are simple to teach, and progress in these domains is simple to evaluate. Firms often have good internal tools to execute these items. However, the focus on measurables can cause project managers to neglect relationships. I contend that firms are not measuring relationship value as intentionally as other project metrics, which causes project relationships to only get passive attention. How can we fix that?

Enter the client key performance indicator.

The first step to reorienting your project management function to be more client-focused is to build a client or relationship KPI into every project. Several measurables exist that can be used to create this metric (Net Promoter Score, Client Feedback Scores, Client Success Reports, etc.). The right one for your firm is the one that best aligns with your goals. The key is to define success criteria for the project relationships the same way you do for your other project metrics. Then, measure it the same way you measure other project KPIs. 

Adding another measurable, especially one that might initially be difficult to gauge, might encounter some resistance. Project managers have a lot on their plate, and, as the engine of your firm, they need to be running efficiently to propel your firm forward. That said, the ability of your PMs to build strong relationships with clients is necessary for growing your business and making projects more successful.

Suppose you want to move your project management function toward more intentionally managing project relationships. In that case, there are a few things that you can do right now to begin reorienting the role:

  • Clarify the role. Crystallize how your firm idealizes the PM role and communicate that to your managers, including the project manager’s responsibility for shepherding the client relationship through the project. In the absence of clarity, your project managers are likely to make their own assumptions about what is expected. It is doubtful that they will all arrive at the same conclusion.
  • Identify your success criteria. Identify how your firm evaluates project success and communicate this success criterion to project managers. Much like role clarity, achieving a uniform understanding of your success criterion requires clearly defining it to start.
  • “Lean out” your process. Take your success criteria and build the leanest possible process around these core drivers. Every step in your approach should be evaluated against the question: “Is this step/element critical to our ability to achieve success on this project?” If the answer is no, avoid building it into your project process as a necessary step. 
  • Manager to the front. Finally, move the PM as far to the front of the project as possible. Position the project manager as critical to the project decision-making process. This gives the PM the ability to build deeper and more trusting relationships with their counterparts during the project by having them involved from the very start. If the PM is relegated to the “doer” role, the principal is far more likely to get drawn back into the weeds of the project later on, which erodes relationship quality at the PM level.

When done well, project management is where project relationships live and grow. When working with project managers, I often hear that they are looking for ways to take on more and make more of an impact. Still, they are unsure how to take the step forward in their firm or feel that the role has unnecessary burdens that prevent them from focusing on higher-value tasks. By getting clear on expectations and eliminating unnecessary tasks, you can carve out space for your project managers to take ownership over the relationships that propel your firm forward. 

Justin Smith is a principal at Start 2 Rise, LLC, Zweig Group’s strategic training and advisory partner in project management and leadership development. He can be reached at

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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.