Let us assume that you have been appointed by a client and that you have made progress in understanding them, their aims and objectives and their way of working. Then, you are informed that they have made an agreement with another firm who are expert in some aspect of the site or project that your client is not. The commercial logic of the arrangement is understood, but what may not yet have been examined is how the two organisations are going to work together.
As a competent Project Manager, you may immediately suggest that there is a project board, with members drawn from each of the partners, to act as a forum at client level. That would be a good start, but it does not mean that underlying differences of attitude have gone away, just that there is a place to discuss them.
An example of this would be risk. Some organisations are much more risk-averse than others, and allergic to certain sorts of risk, such as risk to reputation. Such an organisation may want to take extreme care in working with external stakeholders. Other organisations may be less consultative and more gung-ho.
So, which attitude is going to prevail in the project in question, and what policies are going to arise from that decision? Another example is the procurement route. The more risk-averse partner may want to avoid the routes that give more exposure (like Construction Management), and instead try to get the contractor to take on most of the risk by used Design and Build. They may favour this even if they realise that a sacrifice in quality may be involved.
Commercial logic may lead to project management situations that are hard to resolve. If the risks are appreciated in good time, then there are various options. The project organisation can be given autonomy so that it can itself be a vehicle for change; or, the job can be re-configured as a programme so as to avoid some of the clashes. All of this depends on the Project manager being wise, experienced, and acting in a timely way.
Constructing the Project Team
Most project teams in the construction industry are thrown together. In some cases, of course, this is not the case: they are teams which have worked together successfully before, but this is far from being the rule.
All too often, they are assembled ad hoc, and this may mean that there are in-built factors of incompatibility which from the start give rise to tensions and a failing project culture.
The project manager needs to be appointed early and thus have a chance of influencing the composition of the team. This is an area where developed project management skills can add significant value to a project. The PM is not merely a technically-adept administrator; s/he has skills which can add to the synergy of a team: its horsepower.
Failure at the first meeting
What do you set out to achieve at the first project meeting? I’m sure you have a list which includes such things as a programme or timetable, setting up a sequence of meetings, establishing communication lines, the procedure for issuing instructions, and that sort of thing.
But how do you, at that first meeting, make sure that your project is targeted on success, not failure? It’s not just a matter of being methodical and correct in your procedures. It also has to do with the achievability of the project targets, and the way the team comes together with a commitment to mutual aims, a cohesive culture, and a will to be successful.
There are no ready-made, off-the-shelf solutions to these matters. Team-building awaydays, involving lashing oil drums together and crossing rivers, are old hat now, though they did sometimes yield a story on how the teams members naturally interact, and what roles they tended to adopt. They may even have hinted at the cultures of the parent organisations from which those members came, which may have powerful, controlling systems which limit individual agility and stifle compromise arrangements.
Project Managers have the exceptionally difficult task of understanding and acting upon such issues within a very short time period at the start of a project. They need to meet, visit, and get beneath the skin of the participating individuals -and their organisations. And, having done this, they need to form a judgement on how the team will work, and how it will respond to what is being asked of it.
This is particularly the case when teams are novated and the modified agenda of a design and build contract comes into force. Will the contrary forces of the client’s insistence on quality, and the relentless drive towards cost savings, which is central to the contractor’s business case, result in tensions, rework and even stalemate?
Part of the art of the Project Manager is to see these situations coming, and prepare the way for them, carrot and stick in place.
Getting on with it – but what?
Lots of clients are very keen to see progress on site as soon as possible. This is understandable impatience; something done means that there is that much less still to do. An item on the list has been ticked off.
However, it may not be all that wise. What really matters is not when you start, as when you finish. Therefore, as project managers, we must decide what will put us in the best position to finish on time, or even early.
A key feature of any such plan will be to avoid changes of mind, scope creep, forced changes because of discoveries in the ground, ongoing design or the rework that goes with any or all of these things.
Traditionally, we avoid these possibilities by making sure that the planning is complete before the work is done. In some ways, though, we have a problem, because it is so much a feature of construction procurement these days that design and procurement is interleaved, both within design & build and construction management routes. High-pressure working, which so often goes with this, greatly increases the risk of clashes and incompatibilities.
Highly developed design management is the key to keeping a forward-looking perspective in the ongoing design process. We are talking here about a management process which is enabled to spot clashes, incompatibilities and gaps between design packages in good time. Many will say, “that’s BIM!” but only be partly right, because BIM tells you these things retrospectively. What is needed is a particular use of BIM, or even of a sketchpad. It is arrived at by a form of leadership in which an experienced design manager draws out from the team what is required in their next phase of work to
- Meet the client’s needs (a revisitation of the Brief).
- Be truly susceptible to an efficient construction process.
- Embody the aspirations of all concerned.
Repeating our favourite mistakes
We all do it. We do things our own way, hoping to replicate the successes of the past and avoid its problems and failures. We are earnest in this, but are we systematic?
Because what tends to happen then is that we forget ourselves, and do things in the usual way – which has led to problems before. We know we shouldn’t do it, but it’s a human failing. We never quite have the power to ‘see ourselves as others see us’, as Burns put it; habit takes over. We do things in a way which comes to us as automatic, but which others will spot as ‘in character’.
So, how to protect against ourselves? The first thing is to give some serious thought to what mistakes we tend to make, and understand the pattern. It can be a big help to have someone else to help us do this, as a critic with positive motivation.
Having done this, we have the basis for planning a process which will enable us to flag up the danger points in advance. This will often involve creating space. So, if one of our mistakes is to get impatient and cut corners, then creating space might involve an ‘impatience process’, backed up by a procedure to deal with, for instance, change control.
Such a simple response, of course has its own weaknesses – it is susceptible to corner-cutting, too. If we get into a blind rush, or a rage, or (worse still) loose patience with the methods of the people we are working with, and begin to think, “That’s their problem”, then little procedures might not stop us. If we have a dislike of fussy clients or aggressive claims surveyors, then we need to get on top of those emotions, and just not let them sway our behaviour. This is a tough call, and dealing with it may take some time and effort. But it will be worth it.