The PM conundrum

Apr 23, 2015

1477789_10152791298915678_4946862984534976341_nFlaws in current system can be overcome through strategic adjustments.

Being a project manager in the typical A/E/P or environmental firm is rarely easy. Think about it: In most firms in this business, it is a role that gets assigned to someone in addition to all of their “normal” responsibilities as an engineer, architect, department manager, principal, or something else. And then, on top of it, the majority of PMs have little or no staff reporting directly to them. They have to negotiate with technical department heads and office managers, who control the actual human resources they need to fulfill their responsibilities to their clients. It’s really a pretty bad deal, and one we don’t often talk about. The fact that PMs rarely have the staff they need to do jobs directly reporting to them is a real conundrum. It’s the fundamental reason why we don’t blame PMs for poor project performance, too. If you agree with me that this is a problem, let me give you some ways to cope with it:
  1. Have less PMs. Not everyone is good at project management and getting the most out of people who don’t actually work for them. Those who have proven to be effective PMs should get more projects to manage. Those who have proven ineffective PMs should not be managing jobs. Most companies could reduce the number of PMs by about half and improve their overall PM performance.
  2. Get the RIGHT people in your PM roles. This isn’t necessarily the best technical person or designer nor the most senior employee. It is someone who knows how to deal with people inside and outside of the firm, someone who knows how to treat a client, someone who can juggle a lot of stuff at once, and someone who can overcome obstacles. These aren’t the skills most companies even consider the first time they assign someone to a PM role; they’re inclined to worry more about degrees and registrations and years of experience than anything else.
  3. Consider changing your organizational structure. You don’t HAVE to accept the matrix as a way of life. There are other structures – standing teams, studios, market-sector based groups – that minimize work across departments and give PMs direct control of more resources than other structures. You’ll never have enough people who are just good PMs in spite of a structure that minimizes their power. Fix it.
  4. Publish PM performance metrics and share them firm-wide. If you do nothing else, doing just this will improve your PM effectiveness. Budgets to actual variance. Client service ratings. Average collection periods. WIP write offs. Total volume of work managed. Effective multipliers. There are MANY different metrics you can set goals for. Track how you’re doing and share with everyone in the firm. Do it.
Yes – project management, as we know it, is a flawed discipline. But that doesn’t mean we can give up on the idea of doing it better! Mark Zweig is president and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

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.