Intangible project parameters

May 2008 » Columns
All of us are familiar with the three sides of project management balance—time, money, and performance. Without a means of measuring and managing each of these aspects of a project, it is doomed to some degree of failure. Since budget and schedule are easy to quantify, they provide a solid yardstick against which the project’s progress can be easily monitored. But the remaining criterion—performance, alternatively called things like deliverables, scope, or quality—can encompass a host of tangible and intangible parameters that may be more difficult to track. Unfortunately for the engineering manager, however, those intangibles are likely some of the most important of the client’s requirements.
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM
All of us are familiar with the three sides of project management balance—time, money, and performance. Without a means of measuring and managing each of these aspects of a project, it is doomed to some degree of failure. Since budget and schedule are easy to quantify, they provide a solid yardstick against which the project’s progress can be easily monitored. But the remaining criterion—performance, alternatively called things like deliverables, scope, or quality—can encompass a host of tangible and intangible parameters that may be more difficult to track. Unfortunately for the engineering manager, however, those intangibles are likely some of the most important of the client’s requirements.

While cost and schedule are naturally obvious constraints, a new client may be unsure as to what exactly he or she needs when undertaking an unfamiliar project. It is the professional’s job to educate the client properly and scope the contract to ensure that everyone gets what they want. Ideally, this would occur over the course of a few meetings and everything would be nicely ironed out as the contract is finalized. Rather, it is more likely that the contract will be scoped to cover the main points, but everyone knows that a few "minor" details will need to be worked out once the project is underway. Disputes arise when two things occur: 1) the details relate to some fairly intangible needs that are by nature not objectively quantifiable, and 2) the two contracting parties have different ideas about how and when the new details should start to affect the other legs of the project.

In the AEC industry, we commonly deal with projects that require some aesthetic, architectural, or landscaping "feel" that simply cannot be factored into a contract. All the same, the final look of a project can be just as important—sometimes more so—than the budget or schedule. It is therefore imperative that the professional identify these issues and form a relationship with the client that allows a full understanding of the vision and a project scope that can account for these important constraints. Architects have an advantage over engineers in this respect, since their education deals directly with aesthetics and balance between structure and art form. Civil engineers have been exposed to these aspects of design during the last 15 years or so, as the land development industry continues to address concepts of sustainability and whole communities as marketable products.

Even educators are not immune from the problem of intangible results. How many subjective judgments are required to view each student as a whole person and not simply as a list of test scores? If the task is to produce a product/student that meets the bare minimum criteria of grade point averages and coursework, then universities (and students) are not doing their jobs correctly. There is a large intangible that society desires from educated professionals. It cannot be quantified, nor is it easily evaluated, but it is possible to distinguish those schools that can produce it. It could be called leadership, innovation, determination, or integrity, among other things. It encompasses all those qualities that we find hard to define, but we know it when we see it.

From the engineer’s perspective, it may appear difficult to handle such intangible project features, and it is. The professional must recognize when intangible criteria are a hidden project requirement and adapt accordingly to address them. This can be accomplished with a well-written contract, but is more likely the result of repeat business with existing clients. This further reinforces the advantage of providing design services for a fixed fee, in which the engineer’s expertise is purchased to provide a value to the project that would not otherwise be available. Tangible products such as plan sets, reports, and surveys are valuable products, but they will rarely differentiate the great firm from the typical ones.

Jason Burke works for Allied Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.

Send your comments to civilconnection@cenews.com.

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