The project business plan

Oct 14, 2022

Justin Smith, SE, PE, MBA

Committing to this will make your firm safer, more resistant to adversity, and change cashflow and profit for the better.

Which parts of your project cause you the most headaches? What are those project issues that, no matter how hard you try, seem to come up time and time again? It might be hard to see, but those difficult moments are some of the most significant opportunities to create value for any project.

There are only a few reasons why people start businesses. It’s when they see:

  • An opportunity to solve a problem.
  • A chance to meet an unmet need.
  • A way to improve something that already exists.

The modern AEC landscape is no different. Many individuals branch out and start companies to solve a problem they uncover through industry work. These problems might involve getting work done faster, more cost-effectively, meeting a need for clients that is currently unmet, or delivering a better process or experience, among others. Project delivery is the primary vehicle through which any of these businesses achieve their goals; however, conventional project management approaches do not always align with business value. We need to shift the project management focus away from tasking and budgets and schedules and move toward project management being a key driver of business value for your firm.  

If you were starting a business tomorrow and writing a business plan today, what would be in it? Regardless of the format you use, a good business plan typically includes three main components:

  1. A value opportunity.
  2. A clear set of goals to realize that opportunity.
  3. A roadmap to get there.

Creating business value through your projects is no different. We need to establish value opportunities, clear goals to realize the opportunity, and a roadmap to get there. We need a project business plan.

Your project value. A 2012 study (Found, P. and Harrison, R., 2012) sought to determine how customers perceive value in working with professional services firms. This research was built on prior works that studied how professional services companies could better understand customer desires and how professional services providers could optimally align their services to the expectations of their customers. The 2012 study concluded that the key to creating and sustaining high-value customer relationships lies in the service provider’s ability to continuously meet or exceed customer expectations. In addition to prior research, the kicker is that this is true whether customer expectations are known to the provider or not.

Your project’s business starts by uncovering and understanding your client’s expectations as much as possible. These are the metrics your clients will use to evaluate your value as a service provider. Whether you know of them or not, they are there, and they are the measuring stick for your firm.

Uncovering expectations. When working with companies, we often start with a deliberate discovery process. The discovery process serves two purposes for us as a service provider: 

  1. It helps us to understand their expectations and goals.
  2. It allows us to ensure we can meet them. 

Challenges exist when expectations are not well-articulated. These challenges are nobody’s fault, and they occur for various reasons. The key is to identify what kind of expectations you are working with and make them known to you so that, by meeting them, you can deliver a high-value project experience.

A research study on expectations management for professional services providers studied this topic and provided a framework for making unknown expectations known to you. This study indicates that client value is derived through focusing, revealing, and calibrating expectations, then delivering services that meet those expectations.  

What does this look like in practice? We want to focus the fuzzy, reveal the implicit, and calibrate the unrealistic, and open-ended questions are one of the best ways to do that. The key is to ask the questions in plain language and then allow your client to describe their ideal outcome in their words.

(Ojasalo 2001)

When done well, this process helps you understand what your client expects throughout the project. The only thing left for you to do at that point is to deliver, and I have yet to meet an AEC firm that is not willing to bet on itself to deliver.

So back to the beginning of this article. Why does this issue keep coming up? Are the expectations fuzzy, implicit, or unrealistic? Regardless of the reason, you now have one more tool in your toolkit to derive value in your projects and, hopefully, one fewer problem to solve.  

Justin Smith, P.E., is an advisor at Zweig Group specializing in project management and leadership development. He can be reached at

Project Management for AEC Professionals Attendees will learn to identify and track key project data, to structure project interactions to get information to the right people at the right time, and the interpersonal behaviors that build successful teams, and will leave armed with a process framework that can be adapted to their firms so they can immediately begin driving greater project value. 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.