Plan with a pencil

May 15, 2022

Justin Smith, SE, PE, MBA

Write your project goals in ink and your plan in pencil, because you’ll likely need to make some changes and adapt your plan as your project unfolds.

Project management is a widely studied, often misunderstood field, especially in the AEC industry. An individual firm’s definition of the function and role can vary considerably depending on the firm’s structure, client base, market segment, and project size and type. A “best practice” in one firm might inhibit performance in another firm.

Last week, I wrote an article that commented on previous Zweig Group statistics concerning project manager training and development. In that article, I highlighted a disconnect between the training that firms provide to their project managers and the training firms believe their project managers need. To a degree, this makes sense. Firms do a great job of training their managers in the various procedural elements of project management. Firms also recognize the need for outside perspectives to enable additional skill development beyond their internal programs. Interestingly, one core competency was missing from both lists: flexibility.

Research demonstrates that the leadership ability of the project manager is the most significant predictor of project success. Researchers that studied AEC project performance lay out four pillars of project leadership that provide the foundation for successful projects across a wide range of AEC firm and project types:

  1. Leadership and team development
  2. People skills and trust-building
  3. Verbal communication and listening
  4. Expectations management, conflict resolution

When you consider your successful project managers, the chances are good that they bring some or all of these skills to their projects. But what about flexibility?

This same research looked at various team structures and project types. It aimed to rank the importance of each of these skills to establish a hierarchy of project manager skills and competencies. The results were surprising.

While the four core skills remained strong predictors of project success, their relative importance to project outcomes shifted depending on the project type, as seen below.

These data highlight that flexibility is an underpinning, often invisible, competency of successful project managers. The most successful project managers draw on these core competencies, and they do that by recognizing the project environment and flexibly matching the hierarchy of skills to the environment. The skills are universal, but the way successful project managers deliver the skills depends on the unique facets of each project, and this is where a lot of project manager development stumbles.

Project management that focuses on creating a constrained process also constrains the project manager’s ability to be effective in different circumstances. I admit that projects benefit from some structure. Still, the system should focus on project outcomes and goals rather than the process. Shifting the focus in this way gives the project manager the flexibility to “call the right play” at the right point in the project based on their read of the situation. This approach is in stark contrast to establishing cookie-cutter steps that must be followed in all cases.

When working with project managers, flexibility is a common area of struggle. More than 50 percent of project managers that we surveyed will not change approaches mid-project even when they recognize they are not meeting project success criteria. Many cite adherence to the original project plan. They feel they need to “stick to the process” as core reasons they cannot or will not deviate from a preset plan, even when it is not working. As you can imagine, this often takes projects on a poor trajectory and pushes them further in the wrong direction.

If you want to improve the flexibility of your project managers and give them the flexibility to work creatively within the project environment, write your project goals in ink and write your plan in pencil. Chances are you’ll need to make some changes and adapt your plan as the project unfolds, which should be viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. 

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

Project Management for AEC Professionals This is a modern training for project managers led by a panel of experts, backed by proven research on how to best train project managers to be more effective. This course provides people-focused, science and data driven practical skills to help project leaders harness the power of their team and to create a better client experience. This course provides practical techniques that can be immediately implemented for a positive impact on any AEC team or business. Click here to learn more!

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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.