The better project delivery equation

May 01, 2022

Justin Smith, SE, PE, MBA

When done well, this approach allows you to create a lean, flexible process that empowers your project managers to focus on maximizing value.

At the end of the day, all AEC firms rely upon their ability to deliver successful projects as the fuel for all strategic endeavors. Successful projects are the lifeblood of the AEC firm and, without them, nothing else is possible.

When it comes to driving project performance, most firms look inward at ways to gain incremental efficiency. This commonly involves looking at the people they have on the team, the processes they use to complete their work, the tools they give their people, and searching for any edge they can find in each of these domains, and there is typically an edge to gain if you look closely enough.

The idea for many firms is to look at all the different elements of the project delivery and install best practices for each element to build an overall project delivery system “best practice,” and there can be tangible value in this. I see a lot of firms work through this process and find areas of wasted effort, tasks that add little value to the overall project, or areas where they are unnecessarily “gold-plating” the deliverable. Refining elements of your project delivery system will drive increased project performance, but does it enhance project value?

Make no mistake, there is a difference between performance and value, and understanding the difference between the two is the missing link in most project management approaches.

Most firms and most project management “best practices” look at project performance as a simple equation:

The idea is that being good at what you do and delivering your expertise well will create high performance. The problem here is that your clients are not buying performance, they are buying value, or they want to buy value. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, being good at what you do and doing it well is expected. They are the current table stakes. These are the things that get you into the room where the decisions are made, but they do not differentiate your firm. There is a missing component of this equation that is where your value is derived.

Enter client experience.

The key to great project management lies in reorienting the project management function from managing performance to managing experience. When we reconsider the function, the equation might look a little something like this:

When we consider value in this light, value is diminished when the experience is diminished, even when you perform well. When clients consider high performance to be table stakes, your primary opportunity to derive value lies in your ability to give them the type of experience they want to have. So how do you do that?

It starts by designing your project delivery system around your unique value proposition, which is the intersection between what you do best, how you do it best, and the experience that your clients want to have working with you, as seen below.

What is unique about this notion is that no two firms will have the same expertise or the same process, but every firm needs a system to consistently deliver its value proposition, and your project managers are the ones on the front lines of this effort. If you want to deliver consistently high value experiences, consider the following:

  • Get clarity. Chances are good that the Pareto principle applies in your firm and 20 percent of your clients contribute to 80 percent of your value. Get clear about who these key accounts are and develop an understanding of the types of experiences they want to have working with you.
  • Map your success blueprint. Look carefully at your expertise and your execution and map out how you can deliver your services in a way that delivers the successful client experiences, keeping in mind that “success” means the type of experience they want to have, not the experience you want to have.
  • Develop your PM toolkit. Develop the project manager toolkit that allows your project managers to consistently deliver high value projects, which includes performance and experience. The key to doing this well lies in realizing that you do not need many tools, but rather a lean set of the right tools that focus on the key drivers of value.
  • Create your playbook. Look at the key points along the project where you have an opportunity to drive (or diminish) value and develop a set of “plays to call” at those unique opportunities to capitalize on the opportunity.

When done well, this approach allows you to create a lean, flexible process that empowers your project managers to focus on maximizing value in project delivery which, after all, is typically the goal in the first place. 

Justin Smith, P.E. is a principal at Start 2 Rise, LLC, a Zweig Group strategic partner, that delivers project management training and consulting services for AEC firms across the country. He can be reached at

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