Monday, February 25, 2013

Client-Centered Project Management

Client feedback and anecdotal evidence would suggest that most A/E firms are better at "doing projects" than managing them. In other words, we're more competent in the technical aspects of projects, less so in the areas of client service, quality assurance, team coordination, and financial and schedule control. Of course, there are many exceptions. But in general, I think this is a fair assessment.

We would expect technical professionals to be more inclined to focus on their respective technical disciplines, sometimes to the neglect of other important project components. That not only aligns with their competencies, but is typically the part of the project they most enjoy. Next in the likely hierarchy of priorities is the delivery process, the internally-driven project execution, controls, and documentation. 

All too often, the third priority is what should come first—serving the client. Question my ordering of priorities? Consider the relative expenditures of time and money that your firm makes in mastering these three project elements: technical expertise, delivery process, client service. Does your firm invest the most in improving how you serve clients?

A month ago, I argued in this space that client service should not be viewed as a distinct function, but instead as the "sum of all actions involved in satisfying the client." Now let's apply that principle to project management. Indeed, delivering projects is the primary way you satisfy client needs. Yet it's not uncommon for project work to become somewhat disconnected from the overarching mission of serving clients.

The responsibility of every project manager is to prevent this from happening, to instead keep the client at the very center of the project. Let me describe some of the distinctives of client-centered project management through four primary stages of the project: (1) project definition, (2) project planning, (3) project execution, (4) project closure. 

Project Definition. Many think of project definition as merely determining the scope, schedule, and budget. But equally important is clarifying the needs driving the project, what outcomes the project must achieve, and the resulting business benefits. The client-centered project manager will ensure the project is properly defined before proceeding, including the following:
Project Planning. Proper planning often gets the short shrift in A/E projects. PSMJ concludes that poor planning is the number one cause of project failures. Your project management plan should not only describe what needs to be done, but how you're going to do it. The client-centered project planning process should consider the following:
  • Define the scope that best satisfies the client's budget and schedule needs
  • Actively engage the client in the planning process
  • Document the client's role in making the project successful
  • Seek client endorsement of your project management plan
Project Execution. This stage is the crux of the project, of course. But failing to adequately define and plan the project often leads to problems here. On the other hand, engaging the client up front is no excuse for not working closely together throughout the project. One firm specializing in client feedback has found that clients generally grow less satisfied as the project design is completed and leading into construction. Why? I can only speculate, but communicating regularly with the client in these latter stages is clearly important. Client-centered project execution includes:
Project Closure. The importance of this project stage is often underestimated. There are a number of reasons why it deserves special attention: Inefficiency tends to increase at the end, in part because the project team is often transitioning to other projects. Some problems tend to be pushed to the end of the project, which can lead to an untimely effort to resolve them. And it's important to confirm that the client is happy with the end result. A client-centered approach to closeout will typically include:
  • Maintain appropriate focus on the project as it nears the end
  • Ensure that personnel reassignments don't impede a strong finish
  • Work closely with the client to ensure that the project has met expectations
  • Conduct a final debriefing to identify areas for improvement 
These are but a sampling of the steps you can (and should) take to accomplish your foremost project goal—satisfactorily meeting the client's needs and expectations. This goal provides needed context for all other project activities. What additional steps does your firm need to take to deliver client-centered project management?


Ted Garrison said...

My favorite definition for "Client" is "someone under the protection of."

that concept falls in line perfectly with the article. Great advice.

Mel Lester said...

Thanks for the comment, Ted!

Becky @ Crawler Carriers for Sale said...

I have always tied the bench marks with payment schedules. By setting these goals, we can have the project billed out on the same timeline as the project progresses.