Monday, August 25, 2008

Escaping the Activity Trap

The Activity Trap is a common occupational hazard in our business. You've undoubtedly been impaired by it and some of you are routinely entangled in it. It's a serious problem, costing us clients, profits, and peace of mind.

So what is it? The Activity Trap is what happens when we get so caught up in the busyness of doing tasks that we lose sight of the desired outcomes. Obviously, inadequate planning is a root cause. In my experience, poor project planning is a notorious shortcoming in our profession.

But the problem of the Activity Trap runs deeper than merely shortchanging an important step of the project delivery process. It has to do with prevalent mindsets in our ranks. Most engineers are inclined to view projects as a list of tasks to be done, giving too little focus to what they ultimately need to achieve. Most architects do a better job of thinking about outcomes but are prone to neglecting the work process, so they too fall in the Activity Trap.

I know these are stereotypes and not everyone fits the characterization. But the patterns are common enough to be problematic. What are some of the costs of the Activity Trap?
  • Start with rework, which according to best estimates constitutes 15-25% of our project budgets. The most common cause, according to one study, is improper sequencing of work tasks (i.e., poor planning).

  • Productivity in the AEC industry lags behind almost every other business sector. We have actually lost productivity over the last 30 years while other non-farm businesses have realized huge productivity gains. Suspected reasons: Poor planning and inefficient work processes.

  • According to PSMJ, the most common cause of project-related problems is inadequate planning. These problems result in financial losses, increased liability exposure, and unhappy (and often lost) clients.

  • In my own consulting experience, the primary source of stress and conflict in our offices is clumsily executed projects, most of which can be directly attributed to the impact of the Activity Trap.

To say we need to do better at project planning seems too obvious an answer. The problem, however, is not so easily solved. We all acknowledge that planning is important. So why don't we do more of it when it's so apparent it's needed?

I suggest we need to get back to the basics of client focus, problem solving, and leadership. Clients don't hire us to do tasks, they want us to deliver value and solutions. They want us to understand their problems in broader perspective than just our expertise. They face strategic, economic, operational, and political needs that should demand our attention and force us out of the usual default task execution. And they expect our project managers and principals to supply the kind of leadership that transforms our task-oriented culture to one driven by service and value.

But first we need to take an inventory the real impacts of the Activity Trap. That may well motivate us to then figure out how to free ourselves from it.

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