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Project Management Insights: Is Project Management a Weakness in the Armor?

Christine Brack on April 16, 2018 - in Articles, Column

When my consulting firm (Morrissey Goodale) works with clients to develop a strategic plan, several elements go into the effort well before we bring everyone around the table. Conversations with the firm’s leaders and top managers are one such component. In addition to discussing the firm’s competencies and market opportunities, we want to know about the threats standing in the way of future success.

Asking “what do you see as the firm’s weaknesses?” draws out everything from the lack of a leadership transition plan to slow adaptation to market changes to inconsistent application of project management processes. When you consider that architecture, engineering and environmental consulting firms work on projects for a living, project management should be the last area that’s flawed or breaks down.

When we discuss a firm’s points of differentiation, superior quality of work, sound solutions and technical expertise frequently are mentioned. Unfortunately, these are commonly juxtaposed with project management frustrations. If you consider your own organization, would you say the same or hear similar statements as the following from your colleagues?

• Project Manager (PM) readiness.

“I’m not sure that all the people who are managing projects know what they are doing. How do we get four months into a project, and it’s already off the rails? We have tried training in the past, but it’s easily forgotten in the daily chaos.”

Just as there are fundamentals in civil engineering and design that can’t be ignored, there are project management tenants that must be applied to reach the most minimum of success requirements. Some firms are guilty of handing out the PM role prematurely as a method of retaining good employees. Others simply have too many projects in play and need to free up the principal. Waiting for the manager to go into the role with all the necessary skills isn’t plausible, and principals have to stay aware no matter what the PM competence level is. Don’t blame a one-off training session. Mentoring, learning and proficiency building are an ongoing endeavor.

• Authority and accountability.

“I’ve had designers miss deadlines for my projects, and there are no repercussions. I have a project meeting, and half the team doesn’t report to me. If I had control of their schedule, or if they reported to me, my projects would get done.”

When we draw organizational charts with dotted lines to the PM, we’re really saying “it doesn’t carry any weight, but we wish it did.” Each employee should have someone in the organization who is responsible for their career and knowledge building. But being on a project team and managed by a PM doesn’t mean you have two bosses. Together, the team has the mission of creating value for the client regardless of what business unit or discipline one identifies with. The PM should have the authority to hold teams accountable for missed deadlines and sloppy work. If principals don’t support this, the problem is certain to continue.

• Standards and practices.

“Our project management is really variable across the firm, and we waste a lot of time navigating it. Each principal has their own process. Everyone has a different method to the madness.”

This occurs in firms of 25 employees and in organizations with 10 branch offices. Individual clients may have certain requirements we must adhere to, but there shouldn’t be multiple ways of managing projects developed out of personal preferences. Standards are an insurance policy against mismanagement, poor client service, loss of profitability and team anxiety. Firm culture is truly unique, but frustration arising from this type of cultural madness isn’t sustainable. It’s also the sort of thing that would drive a talented PM to consider working at a better-managed organization.

• Continuous improvement.

“We used to do project drill-downs and dissect the good and bad on a project. When that information was shared, we all learned. That sharing has been turned off. We aren’t improving.”

Bad habits are just as contagious as good habits, and individuals and firms will never change or improve if not allowed or encouraged. There’s no shame in making mistakes—we all make them—but it’s unfortunate and costly when we deny the opportunity to improve.

What do you see as your firm’s weaknesses? Is project management on the list? It’s how your revenue is generated—maybe it’s time to turn that around.

Christine Brack

About Christine Brack

Christine Brack, PMP, is a Principal at ChrismarGroup, a training and consultancy firm; email: cbrack@chrismargroup.com.

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