- Jeff Cloutier
6 Essentials to Project Management That Will Make or Break Your Project
I received a frantic call from a potential client last week. He was looking for a project manager to help with a house flip going poorly. My client, Carl, had taken two days of unplanned vacation that week to deal with the renovation delays. I could tell this was putting Carl’s entire life on end and creating vast amounts of stress.
You see, Carl wasn’t a general contractor or a professional renovator. He’s an east coast IT Director that invested in real estate on the side with a partner. The ongoing issues combined with the steady stream of past problems was turning this investment gem into a funding and timing nightmare.
While such situations aren’t in the majority, they happen more frequently than people believe. Such fiascos can happen whether the project is a total house remodel or a new medical device. American planning culture is ingrained with optimism in place of risk mitigation. In many situations the trouble could have been avoided or reduced with some fundamental, proactive project management activities.
Project management means different things to different people. But in the worlds of construction, product development, information technology, etc. project management is a critical, lead role managing effective execution and delivery. The Project Manager (PM) is the conductor that keeps the symphony on tempo and in-tune. Professional project managers usually spend years gaining real-world experience and certification through the Project Management Institute as a Project Management Professional (PMP).
Don’t have time to manage projects for 3-5 years and take the all-day PMP exam? No problem. Here's a couple of key things you can do to help avoid pitfalls in your next project.
Resources – People
Selecting the best people, processes and tools is probably the best way to mitigate and avoid issues. Approach the hiring step as you would with any other business employment decision. You can hire less expensive (i.e. less experienced and/or qualified) people but expect to spend more time and effort overseeing the effort. This probably isn’t the best choice if you don’t have the time or expertise to oversee the efforts. My customer Carl tried to save money by hiring a less experienced general contractor. Yes, he saved money on the front end…but the project likely cost more when considering added project manager wages, delays, and emergency time off. And this doesn’t consider the mental stress and lost sleep caused by the situation. Takeaway: Hire the right people for the job. Do your research and ask for multiple references. A capable contractor or engineer doesn’t have to be the most expensive, but they’re definitely not the least expensive. Don’t be penny wise, but pound foolish.
The triple constraint - Schedule. Budget. Quality.
Management of the triple constraint will ultimately determine project success. The triple constraint consists of time (schedule), cost (budget), and quality (code compliance, happiness with final product.) They are constraints because one can’t change without altering at least one of the others. Think of them as sides of a triangle. You can’t change the length of a triangle side without changing one of the other sides. For example, something is going to change if you ask the contractor to reduce cost by 20%? Schedule? Quality? Keep the triple constraint in mind as you make decisions. Carl was unsuccessful in managing schedule changes without affecting budget or quality because it’s almost impossible to accomplish. Takeaway: Project management is confined by this unavoidable law. Realize that there’s a cause-effect relationship to changes within a project…nothing changes for free.
Planning & Scheduling
A written, consolidated schedule provides the perfect tool for oversight. It’s a top-level management tool that shows when milestones will be accomplished and doesn’t require you to understand all the smaller technical steps needed to accomplish the top-level benchmarks. There is a fine line between effective oversight and micro-management. Stick to the top-level goals and let the contractor(s) handle the subtasks. Further involvement becomes counterproductive in most cases.
Before work begins, ask your general contractor for a top-level, consolidated schedule with signatures/approvals from all the subcontractors. This powerful tool provides two major advantages: 1. It instills accountability across the work group. 2. It provides a common reference for communication between you and your general contractor. It’s the roadmap to your project destination. Now the catch…most early-on schedules will change, so expect some changes. A detailed schedule will help avoid and mitigate some issues, but it can’t guarantee total avoidance of issues and delays…. sometimes, stuff happens. But, the schedule will provide you with a tool for conversations with the contractors and a roadmap to determine the effects of the issue/delay. My client Carl had an expected completion date, but he didn’t understand all the interim milestones and tasks. As a result, he overlooked how each delay/issue would affect the completion date. He had to rely on the contractor’s determination alone. Takeaway: Create an agreed-to plan before project start. Review milestone attainment often with contractors. Hold people accountable but realize that unforeseen issues sometimes arise in projects. Try to be understanding but use the schedule to determine how the contractor will recover to plan.
Milestones and metrics
Milestone are key accomplishments that make up a project schedule. Metrics are how milestone success is tracked and evaluated. Often the triple constraints (schedule, budget, and quality) are used as metrics. Was the milestone met on time? Did it stay within budget? Was the expected quality reached? Most projects will want to track all three metrics in the project plan/schedule. Track the metrics that matter to you. Make sure to involve the general contractor and subcontractors in determining milestones and metrics during schedule creation. Input and collaboration go a long way in obtaining contractor buy-in and compliance. Takeaway: People pay attention to how they are measured and tracked. Follow the milestones and metrics that are important to you and the project.
For most people, a real estate investment or product line expansion is a big deal. So it’s understandable that owners watch expenses like a hawk. Unfortunately, many projects begin with a budget that’s maxed out from day 1 with little capacity to manage change. As a result, modest budget changes can result in big problems for a project. Rather that linking success to a single forecasted number, create a budget range that works for the project and your savings account. Consider all the variables in your project and create best case, expected case, and worst-case scenarios. This provides you with an expected budget band rather than a single number and instills more confidence in your budget capabilities. As I mentioned above, unexpected things happen. But, they don’t necessarily have to blow your budget. Takeaway: Financially plan for all major variables and ensure the project plan and your sanity stay intact. Drive your project towards the ‘best case’ scenario, but plan for the ‘worst case’ situation.
Communication seems like an obvious point, but one that often gets discounted when things get busy. And there’s a big different between conversation and effective communication. Good project communication is determined by frequency, completeness, and clarity. My client Carl was a very busy guy, so communication was mostly reactive and driven by the contractor. In the end, this didn’t serve Carl’s interests.
Frequency: Set a predetermined cadence of status calls with the contractor and get them scheduled. It’s much easier to cancel a status meeting than schedule a last minute, emergency meeting.
Completeness: Dedicate 20 minutes to preparing for each status call. Review action items, collect new questions, and draft next steps to ensure the important topics are covered. Next, follow-up phone calls with written emails to ensure clear agreement and to document action items. Emails are easily referenced and reviewed; phone calls are not so easily recalled. Set the expectation that recipients respond to such emails with agreement confirmation.
Clarity: Clearly establish responsibilities and deadlines for action items. This creates accountability early-on and helps avoid the retrospective finger pointing. Don’t assume something is understood. Takeaway: There’s no such thing as over communication in an important project. Don’t assume that everyone reads your email. Don’t assume that readers internalize the entire email.
I didn’t take on Carl as a client. He really needed someone local to better resolve the urgent permitting problems, subcontractor disagreements, and accountability issues. Carl was already exceeding budget and needed solutions fast. I gave him some recommendations similar to the ones above and wished him luck. Maybe I’ll give Carl a call in a year to see how things turned out. Keep an eye out for part II of the story!