Yours or theirs?

Feb 06, 2017

In the A/E industry, it’s easy for PMs and firms to claim ownership of projects, but the only owners are the clients, and they always make the final call.

Over the last four decades, I have worked with a lot of A/E firms that really believed that any project on which they worked was their project. The project manager believed it was his or her project. The project engineer thought it was his or her project. Everyone wanted to claim ownership.

Actually, the project was always the owner’s project.

The owner determines what the project is. The owner determines what the facility is, how it will be used, the budget and schedule, and a host of other attributes. In order words, everything the project is, the what of the project, is ultimately determined by the owner.

The consultant (regardless of what type of person or firm), then determines what it will take for the owner to realize the project that he/she has defined. That is the project approach, the how of the project.

If the how of the project identifies a necessary change in the what, the consultant may recommend a change in the scope, the schedule, the budget, or some other aspect of the project. Or you may provide a set of alternative recommendations for consideration.

In either case, the owner will be the one making the final decision(s). The project is, after all, their project.

Even if your firm is hired to help with the earliest planning phase of the project – the site selection, fatal flaw studies, permitting, facility planning, land/ROW/easement acquisition – you will only make preliminary and/or final recommendations. Every final decision will ultimately be made by the owner.

From my perspective, a major part of the problem involves a kind of professional arrogance based on the assumed importance of the consultant’s knowledge. After all, you are the expert to whom the owner has come for help. Under those circumstances, it can be difficult to remember that, even if the owner agrees with all your recommendations, the decisions are still only yours to recommend – they are theirs to make.

I have seen a fast-growing 300-person regional A/E firm get fired from a large land development project because its project manager was so busy telling the owner what he should want that he never heard when the owner told him what he really wanted.

I have also seen a 1,000-person national A/E firm get fired from a project to design a branch bank because they didn’t want to accept the facility planning work done by another firm. Their attitude was, “If we didn’t do the planning ourselves, how can we trust its completeness and accuracy?” So they blew the entire agreed-to project budget redoing the planning phase, despite the owner’s instruction not to do that.

For many years, the organization chart in the proposal showed the owner/client in the top box, but upon selection, that box seemed to disappear. More recently, we are learning that successful projects keep the owner/client as an active and contributing member of the project team. This ensures that there are no surprises for the owner and that all of his/her newly-arising concerns are addressed as soon as possible.

An important way to show the owner (your client) that you value the contribution they make to your firm’s success is to allow them to function in their proper project role, treating their ideas, their words, their sketches, their questions as having great value to defining and refining the project, your role, and the criteria by which your work will be judged.

Don’t think of it as the owner not being smart enough to do the work themselves. Think of it as the owner being smart enough to come to you for help in the first place.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant with the Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultant located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at

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