American Consulting Engineers Council (ACEC)There were many trends discussed for engineering firms at the 2013 national American Consulting Engineers Council (ACEC) national conference last month in Washington, DC. I always pay close attention to these discussions in order to make sure I am on top of the latest issues, and prepared to address the concerns of our clients as they navigate the ever-changing business environment. One of the catch phrases that I heard a couple times was the idea of a strong project management culture. Since the topic of firm culture is one I have studied and written about, I decided to try and define what it means to have a project management culture and identify criteria for how do you measure the strength of your project management culture.

What Does it Means to Have a Strong Project Management Culture?

At it’s essence, the culture of project management in engineering firms today is varied based on the size of a firm and its ownership makeup. Older firms with older owners tend to be set in their ways, and slow to change or adopt new technology. Younger firms who are more intent on rapid growth, realize that efficiency and enabling their teams is critical to profitable and successful project management.

For the most part, I believe that strong project management culture has to do with developing established processes for everything that the firm does.  From managing opportunities and preparing proposals, to time management, scheduling. project budgeting, and billing and collections. This involves looking at each step in the process for each of the functions that take up the bulk of your employees’ time, and looking for bottlenecks, duplicate steps, and manual processes that can lead to inaccurate data and cumbersome processes. These inefficiencies are slowing down your people and your projects, and leading to lower profit margins, and potentially missed deadlines.

How do you Measure the Strength of your Project Management Culture?

One way to quickly identify problem areas in your project management processes is to look at the various software applications being used in your organization. Many people use Excel to make up for a lack of capability of their systems, or because they don’t understand how to get what they want from their system and are afraid to ask. If your firm has a lot of spreadsheets, then you may be able to find cost savings and increase efficiency by integrating databases, or using business intelligence tools to extract data from your system.

If you are using multiple systems that have patchwork integration, there is a risk of inadequate data capture, or the possibility that your people are performing extra steps in order to get their job done. Interviewing your staff and really understanding a day in their world can lead to a real understanding of how the project lifecycle can improve.

One last area to evaluate is how well your project managers (PMs) have been trained on all the different roles that they have. I find that many PMs have been promoted to a role in which they have responsibility for hiring, business development, managing people, and other difficult tasks, and have had little to no training or orientation as to the company’s processes for these areas. This leaves them feeling inadequate, and actually puts the firm at risk of breaking HR laws, or not effectively performing in a number of areas.

A strong project management culture is a wonderful goal to strive for, and requires some real soul searching in order to truly understand the challenges in your organization. Firm culture is just as much about insuring the profitability and health of a project, as well as the day-to-day operational effectiveness of your team and your processes. 

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