Given that project management is likely the most important function in the organization, many civil engineering firms simply make it into more than it has to be and, in the process, make it messy and difficult to navigate. Most of you work in small- to medium-sized consulting firms. They are not complex businesses. Here are some things to look for and ways to simplify things:
Too many project managers – More often than not, firms have way too many "project managers" (PMs). I put that in quotes because the only qualifier firms have for doing a head count on PMs is "sometimes they are and sometimes they are not, depending on the size of the project." That isn't a good definition. It's vague and confusing to the PM and the rest of the team.
If you have more PMs or associate PMs than designers, or if your entire team qualifies as PM or associate PM at any given time, you have too many. Being a PM is a tough role, requiring skills and abilities most of your teams don't have (yet). Establish what it means to be a PM in your firm to really carry a project successfully from start to finish – including financial management, resource balancing, client relations, design judgment, diplomacy, and decision-making abilities. Everyone else supports the PM and works toward building their skills.
Too many reports and numbers – I was with a client recently to discuss project profitability. They covered the table with stacks of reports that presented the same dismal information in lots of different ways. This industry loves reports and data, but you only need one way to illustrate a project isn't doing well, not dozens. Maybe there is hope that one more report will show the situation differently. With current software, we can know the real financial picture instantly. However, many firms only begin the analysis after the fact or when it is too late to do anything about it. The purpose of all this data is to make decisions from it, so if you're just printing out endless reports and not doing anything about it, you're defeating that purpose.
Too many "active" projects – The last few years saw budgets and project sizes diminish and firms were fortunate to at least win a few small projects from clients. As a result, firms began to stretch out their list of "active" projects and this suddenly became very unmanageable too. Project managers talked of having 25 projects under their realm of responsibility and they were getting burned out. As a reality check, only about five projects were truly in process – the rest were never closed out properly.
At one firm, post-project conversations with the client warranted keeping the project "open" in the accounting system. The final installment had been received and these chats were never going to be invoiced; they were either feel good conversations or legitimate follow-up questions months later. So, projects like these appeared on the project accounting list week after week and PMs became more stressed that their list of duties got longer and longer. Our relationships with clients continue long after, but the project gets closed out.
Too much time spent on time – It's because leaders are obsessed with watching every billable minute of the day that projects remain "open" so employees can account for all that expensive time and prove their utilization. Sometimes there is just too much analysis being done that steals away from the business you really have at hand – designing great projects and developing your teams to do it even better. If you know your teams well enough, then you know what they spend their time on, where they waste it, and that they need time to grow to be more efficient. You don't need reports to tell you that.
Running a business is always going to be a challenge and the flood of information at our fingertips makes it tempting to dissect the organization to pieces. Unless real transformations are taking place after this analysis, too much is too much. Simplify these things and you'll find that your teams are more at ease and you have more time to do things you would rather be doing – things that really help your firm.
Read this and more articles about project management at www.aectechstrategies.com/project-management.html
Christine Brack, PMP, is a principal with ZweigWhite specializing in business planning and project management best practices. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.