Your project managers (PMs) face daily challenges to their success that they are unprepared for. Becoming a PM can feel like moving to a foreign country – everything feels strange and everyone is speaking a different language. 

PMs today have more demands on their time with less resources, and more to learn. Changes to technology require constant updating of skills and many more ways to communicate. 

For these reasons, it is imperative to do everything possible to ensure your PMs are given the tools, support and skills to deliver successful and profitable projects. But significant changes in their mindset and behavior are not going to come from a two-day bootcamp or in-house training.

With the recent growth we are experiencing in the AEC industry, it can be harder to find skilled PMs, evaluate PM performance, and hold them accountable to deliver profitable projects.

The key is to agree on what makes a successful PM. Surprisingly, profitability is rarely on the top 3 list for most firms, but ultimately, it is essential for true success. A lack of accountability will lower the bar for PM performance and reduce rather than increase performance.

With project profitability so low on the list, it is easy to see why many firms will do anything to keep clients happy, despite continuous budget overruns and write-offs.

There are some steps you can take to increase the likelihood of project management success as defined by happy clients and employees, and profitable projects. The following are 5 steps you can take to improve PM skills, reduce frustration, and stop many of the bad habits that have been handed down through multiple generations of PM mentors:


1. Assess what is really happening in your firm every day.

You can’t address the specific issues causing project management ineffectiveness unless you know exactly what is going on at a granular level. This type of an assessment should include a detailed evaluation of 3 essential components – people, processes and technology. I recommend conducting a firm-wide assessment that will enable staff from every level of the company to weigh-in on where they see bottlenecks, inefficiencies and gaps in training and accountability. You should be asking the following questions to understand what is hampering PMs from performing at their top level:


  • What slows them down every day as they try to respond to project deadlines, client inquiries and team management?
  • Does the firm have clear processes for handling important PM responsibilities such as managing new opportunities, writing proposals, estimating, managing project scope, time management, and billing and collections?
  • Are your systems helping or hindering the execution of all of their key responsibilities?
  • Are employees relying on lots of spreadsheets, and are they wasting time looking for information?
  • Are employees following important processes such as timesheet entry and submittal?
  • Is the company holding people accountable to hit target utilization, revenue, and profitability goals?
  • Are the employees and particularly the PMs trained to do all aspects of their jobs?

2. Understand the impact of improving processes, systems and people.

In order to prioritize how to improve your project management, you need to understand how big the problem is and the financial and intangible benefits of revamping processes, upgrading systems and developing your people. You can do this by calculating the potential financial and efficiency effects of just a 1% increase in 3 of your key metrics such as your win rate, utilization rates and project profit margins – evaluated by PM, discipline, client type and office / geography. Once you realize the impact of just a small change in these metrics, it will be easier to prioritize which areas to focus on first.

3. Develop a plan for improvement.

Now with a better understanding of what is holding your PMs and the firm back from maximum profitability, and the impact of improving it, develop a detailed plan which takes each of the issues you have found and evaluate what needs to be done in each of the 3 key components – people, processes and systems. Create initiatives for your company including responsibilities, priorities and deadlines. These initiatives may include developing new processes to ensure that everyone is following best practices, new systems to automate key functions, training to ensure that everyone on the team knows what to do, and internal practices to hold PMs accountable.

4. Implement the improvements.

Now it is time to start to implement the improvements that will provide the biggest benefit to your PMs and the bottom line of your firm. However, this is where most firms fall flat. Change is difficult, and with everyone so busy, well intentioned internal improvement projects often don’t get the priority or focus they need to be successful. Here are a few suggestions to ensure that your most important non-client related projects are effective at improving PM behavior and project profitability:


  • Executive sponsorship – without support at the top, no internal initiative will be successful. Ensure that firm leaders are onboard with providing the budget and resources needed, and support the changes that need to happen.
  • Treat the initiative as a project – give internal projects the same treatment you would for client projects with a scope, budget, timeline and responsibilities. You already know what it takes for a billable project to be successful and internal initiatives need the same level of planning.
  • Communicate well and often – explain to the entire team why the improvements are so important to the company, including the value to clients, the team, stockholders, and to them personally. This will go a long way to getting everyone engaged and supportive.
  • Set goals and expected outcomes – develop measurable goals so that you can determine if the initiative is successful.

5. Measure and monitor results frequently.

In order to ensure continued effort and focus are placed on the initiatives that the firm has deemed as top priorities, you need to decide on specific metrics and financial results that can be measured and monitored on a monthly basis. Your PMs will give their attention to the issues that are given the most emphasis. Improving PM success will come from holding them accountable, and will require a regular pattern of reviewing results, coaching and consequences.

Your PMs may not all be superstars, but by following the 5 steps above, you can make measurable improvement to the bottom line, make their jobs easier, and ultimately improve the overall quality and service delivered to your clients.


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