Monday, September 28, 2009

Project Management as the Product?

Bruce Lynch of PSMJ has an interesting post on their blog this week: "Why design isn't king anymore." He draws a parallel between the proliferation of web content and the plentiful availability of A/E design services. The result of abundant supply in both cases is a product of diminished value.

Great content, like great design, is still vitally important. But can you imagine the internet without Google (or other search engines)? How less valuable would all that content be if we didn't have such a tool to sort through it all? It's not content that makes the most-visited web site; it's the site's ability to make others' content more useful.

Is there a similar role in our industry? Program management comes to mind. Clients sometimes hire firms to provide overall guidance and coordination for large, complex programs. Construction management can serve a similar role in the construction phase of projects. But most A/E firms don't provide either service. Is there a Google-like, value-added service opportunity available for them?

Yes there is--project management. You doth protest? I realize that project management in many cases has been more commoditized than design services. Some clients seemingly don't want to pay for it, banishing it as a line item in the project budget. So how can I mention this as a value-added service?

Consider the role of the project manager. He or she (with the project team's help) diagnoses the problem, pulls together the best available resources to address it, develops the right solution, then delivers it to the client. The PM is an integrator, drawing from multiple disciplines, perspectives, and skill sets, and bringing the right mix to the client.

With a little imagination, that's not too far from what Google does for us on the internet. We plug in the search terms (problem) and Google tries to bring the best match (solution) to our desktop. It employs a team (multiple computers, web bots) to filter thousands of possible sources (potential alternatives) to narrow our choices, using ranking criteria, and help us arrive at the best answer.

Design services are delivered through the PM somewhat like internet content is delivered through Google (work with me here). Sounds good in concept. So why isn't project management more highly valued by clients?

First let me suggest that clients don't value project management more highly because they usually don't see it done all that well. In a recent survey by Morrisey-Goodale, project management received an "A" grade from only 7% of clients, the lowest score among 13 service factors. Project managers, not surprisingly, didn't fare much better, with 12% receiving the highest grade.

Complaints about project management are widespread. In client surveys I've conducted for various firms, the vast majority of criticisms relate to the project management role. Project managers commonly fail to communicate adequately, clearly understand client expectations, respond promptly to client concerns, and effectively coordinate with their project team.

These shortcomings, I believe, contribute substantially to the commoditization of our core services. Think about it: If a trip to the store yields slow service and poor product knowledge, what do you expect? Great prices. On the other hand, there are many examples of stores that can charge more for their products because they provide great service and expert advice.

Are those not attributes of the strong project manager--great service and expert advice? Will clients pay a premium for a premier project manager? Yes, many of them will. If you're like most firms, your most profitable clients are usually those who have a solid relationship with the project manager. That relationship is the value-added product that too many A/E firms seem to underestimate.

Obviously, it won't be easy to persuade clients that your project management is a premium product. They've been programmed to expect too little. You'll have to demonstrate the difference. Let me suggest some core qualities of the high-impact project manager:
  • Trusted advice. Provides great counsel, broad insight, problem-solving ability. Doesn't necessarily have to have extraordinary expertise, but knows how to effectively pull together the know-how and skills that are needed.

  • Client focus. Makes the client, not the work, the center of every project. Understands the client's business, technical needs, personal expectations. Tailors service delivery to the unique needs of each client.

  • Proactive communication. Keeps in regular contact with the client, providing advance notice of changes or developing issues or concerns. Makes the same commitment to the project team, including outside subcontractors and stakeholders.

  • Active collaboration. No mavericks here; understands the value of cooperative problem solving and solution development, both with the client and with the team. Integrates multiple perspectives, disciplines, and services to deliver the best possible outcomes.

  • Disciplined performance. Routinely tracks progress and metrics to ensure that the project fully satisfies contract requirements and client expectations. Minimizes surprises, delays, budget overruns, mistakes.

  • Inspired team contributions. Knows how to get the best out of project team members, providing strong leadership and motivation to perform at a high level. Develops people as part of doing projects so that their value on future projects grows.

There are other attributes I could name, but these comprise a worthy goal. A tall order to achieve these? Yes indeed. But you don't have to perfect these to stand out because most firms seem to accept the status quo for project management. You can go further and make project management your most prized product. Then see if the value of your design services doesn't increase as a result. You might call it the Google Effect.

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