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In design and owner organizations, project managers are unique individuals. They possess a special set of skills different from all others on project teams. Designers are concerned with the form of a building, road, bridge, or other facility. Technical staff is concerned with function. They need to ensure that the lights work, that the heating and cooling systems operate properly, that the structure is sound, that the roof doesn’t leak, that the building is safe for people to be in, and a thousand other details. Owners are concerned with the cost of a facility, does it meet their functional needs, how difficult it is to maintain (life cycle costing), and so on.

Project managers need to be aware of all of these concerns and many of their own, including meeting a design and construction budget, schedule, and program. They must apply sound planning and management techniques if they are to be successful in their work.

Management theory requires that project managers follow a disciplined approach to their decision-making efforts. Normally, this requires five steps.

Step 1: Define the problem and needs — In an owner/client organization, this requires extensive effort to achieve a consensus on project goals, objectives, problems, solutions, and approaches. Some owner organizations have large and experienced facilities staffs (e.g., the U.S. federal government), who devote a great deal of effort to define or resolve many of these issues before design consultants are hired. Other owners hire specialized consultants to define needs and goals, and then retain architects or engineers. A third option, now less common than in the past, owners/clients hire architects or engineers to help define needs, goals, and objectives.

On the project level, it is important to include project managers in the effort of defining goals, objectives, and needs for their own project. The project manager is ultimately accountable for project profitability and performance and must have a major role in this process.

Step 2: Analyze project needs and requirements — In owner organizations, the facilities staff is often brought into the definition-of-need process after many key decisions have already been made. Unfortunately, this means that the people who know the most about the design and construction process are the last to be consulted. It is not uncommon for client needs to become a moving target as the project program continually changes. This occurs because internal user needs were never fully defined in the first place or because internal politics create a competitive environment where a group or a manager places their own self interest first.

The design firm project manager often ends up attempting to reconcile the needs and demands of the various groups within the owner’s organization. Without this reconciliation, it becomes extremely difficult for designers and technical staff to focus on the project needs and requirements and to move toward solution of the client’s problems. In design firms, project managers also must analyze the project and determine their own fees, schedules, team members, and approaches.

Step 3: Provide alternatives for solutions — Project managers are the key communications link in an organization involved in the design and construction process. Externally, their role is to represent their own firm to the other members of the project team and to communicate their concerns, problems, and solutions. They also need to encourage a smooth working relationship with all others involved in the project.

In their own firm, they must encourage, motivate, and push their staff to perform in the best interest of the project and their firm. They must attempt to reconcile the differing priorities of designers and technical staff and seek compromise when necessary. Project managers’ own design ability and technical knowledge must be sufficient to allow them to propose solutions and alternatives when others are unable to.

When various options and choices exist, it is important that project managers avoid imposing their own solution to a problem. It is vital that those who have the assignment as a project’s designer, technician, or other role be given full opportunity to undertake their assignment. Project managers who jump into each and every issue that arises and usurp the responsibility and authority of others will quickly find themselves overwhelmed with detail and unable to perform in their primary role as leaders of the project team. Leadership does not mean doing everything yourself. Project managers who forget this important point will likely fail.

Step 4: Compare, contrast, evaluate, and choose — Decisions are required on all design and construction projects. Committees and experts must have the opportunity to weigh in with opinions and advice. Eventually, someone must be responsible for a final decision, and this is an important part of the project manager’s job. Indecisive people do not make successful project managers.

At the same time, it is important to listen to others. Seek out advice and carefully evaluate options. Often, all options will have drawbacks and limitations. Be willing to choose what you believe to be the best from among a list of uncertain choices.

This situation was best highlighted by Percy Barnevik, former chairman and ex-CEO of Asea Brown Boveri, one of the largest electrical engineering companies in the world. In Information Strategy magazine in December 1996 he said, “I tell my people that if we make 100 decisions and 70 turn out to be right, that’s good enough. I’d rather be roughly right and fast than exactly right and slow … the costs of delay are vastly greater than the costs of an occasional mistake.”

Step 5: Implement — Once decisions are made, it is important to communicate them to all members of the project team, both internal and external to your own organization. It is crucial to have an effective system to communicate decisions and information to all parties for implementation. Design and construction are complex undertakings involving vast numbers of details and decisions. Err on the side of sharing too much rather than too little information. It is a very common complaint in design: “No one told me!”

Changes made by an architect are often not conveyed to the consulting engineers and frequently the reverse is true. Unfortunately, contractors and subcontractors receive drawings with differing or contradictory information from various design team members who are working from different sets of data. The evolving concept of Building Information Modeling (BIM) is attempting to solve this problem, but BIM is not yet a mature approach and the interoperability of computer software remains an obstacle.

Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers. He may be reached at 312-664-2300 or hbirnberg@gmail.com

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