Maximizing Project Managers

Posted on December 15, 2010


Owners hire project managers for peace of mind.  Owners hire a safety net:  another person to track issues, advocate for their interests, and look ahead to head off problems before they start costing money.  Owners want someone who has not only done a project before, but someone who does it for a living.

Project managers (PMs) can be an invaluable third-part resource or an expensive and lingering reminder of everything wrong with consultants.  A top project manager will understand the owner’s key worries and partner with the owner while also verifying the reasons behind owner assumptions and decisions.  PMs relate well with designers and builders, fill info gaps, and grease the wheels for a fluid, well-executed project on time and within budget.

As an architect who has worked on numerous projects with and without project managers, I have seen success both ways.  They can be a good confidant and interpreter for an insecure owner, or a project manager can hinder progress with tendencies of your worst employees:  unorganized, emotional, reactive, and always looking to stand on others’ shoulders to justify his existence. 

A handful of best practices can help an owner decide whether a PM a worthy expense, and how to maximize the utility of an existing PM.

1) Clearly define responsibilities.  If an owner needs a project manager to man the purse strings on some items like pay applications, direct purchase items, or equipment procurement, etc., spell that out in the contract.  Be clear what is necessary, and not necessary, for the PM to manage.

2) Verify no duplication of effort.  Along with clearly defining responsibilities, it is important not to antagonize A/E/C members with superfluous paperwork, confusing communication and second copies of logs and schedules.  Most contractors use project management software so reports and logs are easily generated and tracked, with no need for PM intervention.  A team morale and momentum destroyer is worse than no PM at all. 

3) Project managers line up decisions for the owner.  Whether a project newbie or an always-building system veteran, an owner (Business Development, Facilities, COO, CFO) can easily miss something important—and time has an expensive opportunity cost in construction.  A PM’s most valuable service is coordinating decisions in order of importance and urgency so an owner does not sit on the critical path, i.e. on the part of the schedule that holds up project progress in some way.  A PM should always ask:  how important is this action to the project’s success?

4) Focus efforts on something an owner finds valuable.  Owners have pet concerns, certain bugaboos that mean a lot to have in line—maintainability, life cycle cost, fund raising, LEED.  A PM can be a great resource to bolster energy toward covering an issue to which the owner is particularly sensitive. 

5) Expertise-for-hire is expensive; insist on what was paid for.  National construction firms are known for sending their greenest project staff, sometimes only months out of school, to some intense projects to learn via trial-by-fire.  A wet-behind-the-ears kid cutting teeth on an owner’s project is not a valid expectation for a project manager’s substantial fee.  The PM is selling experience and diligence, two things not proven in rookies.  Not everyone will have a robust resume of experience behind them, but the theory of project management learned in school is vastly different from the reality of the trenches. 

For example, I once worked with a young project manager hired as an owner’s rep.  The A/E/C team had a great relationship on the project; we tracked our work and communicated well.  This PM was eventually so overwhelmed with his tasks, one evening he directed the contractor to generate 41 RFIs completely unrelated to A/E/C concerns simply because he could not track open items and manage decisions that required owner input and other consultants’ action. As the architect who had to answer and correctly re-assign each RFI issue for proper resolution, I was more than upset I was doing his job for him.  We came to an understanding afterward and resolved how he could and should track items.  Ironically, the design and build team had control of its jobs and the project manager had the least.

Anyone can call himself a project manager since it is not a state regulated profession. However, the Project Management Institute (PMI) offers five different, recognized certifications with applicability depending on project type and expected task demands.  Ask for PMI-accredited staff, and always verify credentials.

Project managers should be generally consensus-driven in management style (not dictatorial) to be part of the team, not whip participants into submission; yet, so few PMs are trained in consensus decision making, facilitation and negotiation.  Perhaps the most underappreciated trait is a confident yet self-effacing manager who does not derive her self-worth through power play while running a meeting. 

Everyone on a project team has expertise valuable to the project that no one else can provide better than that individual.  Naturally, each team member wants to do his best, and it is the project manager’s role to recognize that and make sure the best is elicited from everyone for the maximization of project performance and benefit to the owner.