Practice Advisory: Leading Vulnerable & Complex Projects

Part 1: How to Identify Vulnerable Projects

Author: Mark B. Steppan, AIA, CSI, NCARB

There are many existing articles and publications describing processes of project management. These publications fit a bill for general overview (and of course also very specific information) of how to manage all types of projects successfully. This applies to large, small, simple, complex, private, public, government projects of all types.

But what about those projects, simple or complex, that could be somehow defined as “vulnerable”? What does “vulnerable” mean and how do you recognize such a project? This article, Part 1 of a multi part series, will discuss how to recognize vulnerable projects. Part 2 discusses proposed suggestions for techniques for managing just such “vulnerable” projects successfully. Part 2 will also address the need to have a successful working team on “vulnerable” projects to make them successful. We will discuss how to create, maintain, or improve teamwork in these instances.

All projects require management of one kind or another. If they are not managed well even the smallest and simplest of projects can become troublesome, not turn a profit, turn into a nightmare, or become out of control if not managed properly. There are risks for all projects and as such project management processes should always be discussed alongside the Risk Management aspects of the project in question.  Determining if a project is of a “vulnerable” type puts it in a category that should be at the front and center of your firm’s Risk Management discussions.

Identifying a Vulnerable Projects

What makes a project “vulnerable”? This could stem from a multitude of areas or concerns about a project. Common issues that lead to a project becoming “vulnerable”, many of them often overlooked, can include:

  1. Internal Team structure issues
  2. External Team structure issues
  3. Complexity of project versus assigned Team
  4. Unrealistic goals & schedules by Client or Contractor
  5. Unrealistic goals set by the architectural firm
  6. An inexperienced Project Manager

Any one of these can cause a project that otherwise would be treated as “normal” turn into a “vulnerable” project with potential risks. Any combination of these issues could prove extremely impactful, negatively, to the success of a project if not recognized and dealt with in a timely fashion. Delving into these issues one at a time we can further understand their impact.

A. Internal Team structure issues

This involves the architectural firm’s internal office team handing the project. If the team structure is not sound, then the project is not starting out ideally. Sound structure should include: an appropriately experienced Project Manager and a Project Architect; or a PM/PA combination staff member; an appropriate amount of support staff based on project size and scope usually including a Job Captain; project designer; including Firm Principal oversight; QA/QC staff member. All of those roles, or some such combination, would usually be required to thoroughly design and document a project. Obviously, team sizes and staffing can vary greatly depending on the project but a strong team structure with appropriate experience is still the best way to staff a project team.

But what happens when some of those staff positions are not adequately filled? Or what happens when the PM/PA is clearly not experienced enough to run the project? Or if your JC has never worked on this project type before? These are clear examples of internal structure issues that can turn a reasonable project into a “vulnerable” project. Inadequate and/or inexperienced staffing leads to less thorough or coordinated documentation, poor design resolution, inconsistent, poor or inadequate communication with other internal team members or to external team members. The success of a project can be greatly impacted by such staffing or team failings. One has to notice any internal team misalignment and possibly even turmoil before it gets out of control also. If internal turmoil exists between team members then managing it should be dealt with professionally, diplomatically, and expeditiously, and especially with appropriate empathy. If there is a misfit team member then possible removal from the team could be required. What if the PM is not getting along with all the rest of the team and is causing team strife, distrust, or creating a loss of morale? This is a very tricky situation to deal with as the PM/PA should be a leader of the project.  Listening and understanding what exactly is going on with your team, and determining how to appropriately deal with the situation, will be critical to the success of the team and the project.

B. External Team structure issues

What if the Client, consultant, or contractor team member is at odds or is having a conflict with the rest of the design team? This can be more difficult in some ways than dealing with an internal issue. With an external team situation, per standard practice, the architect is working for the Client, or may or may not be contracted with the consultant, and may or may not be in contract with the construction entity. The PM or the firm needs to realize early on if there is an issue with an external team member. Given the potential project impact of the entity in conflict with the architecture team, this can become a more important firm discussion that dealing with an internal structure issue would require. There may be long term relationship impacts. You may need to replace a consultant. This can work out two ways at a minimum. First this ends a relationship with a consultant or second starts a new relationship.

There needs to be open and honest communication with all of the external team, but especially with your Client. Bring up for discussion what appear to be significant issues so they can be resolved. In the long run this serves everyone best. In my experience honest, clear, communication and presented with professionalism will be appreciated and respected by Clients and others alike. Quality communication greatly assists with resolution to issues. There could also be an issue with an external team member that was created by an internal team member. An example: Your JC continually provides inaccurate schedule deadlines to some consultants as a response to what he/she perceives to be poor delivery timing, while providing more generous schedules to other consultants. This can create distrust and poor engagement. Again, determining what is occurring and dealing with it in a timely fashion is the goal. If there is a clear issue that the firm determines cannot be resolved in a satisfactory manner, then, from a Risk Management standpoint it may be in the best interest of the firm to remove themselves from the project.

C. Complexity of project versus assigned Team

If the projects scope or complexity exceeds the assigned architectural teams experience, or capabilities, then strategies should be employed early on to rectify the situation. Improving the team experience level would be paramount. Adding a staff member with more experience and/or potentially adding a principal’s oversight is a good option here. Making sure that there is a QA/QC plan in place and an appropriate staff member assigned to execute the quality review is critical. Creating, maintaining, and enforcing the use of office standards is also critical to assist the team in executing the project appropriately. Adjustments to team member project staffing and the structure behind the team will help reduce the possibility of a project becoming “vulnerable”. Making better use of staff assignments and standards can help turn a “vulnerable” project around into a successful one.

Other methods for dealing with a project in which the architectural team may not truly be qualified enough to handle include: A: Team or Joint Venture with another architectural firm who does have the requisite experience; or B: Turn down the project knowing honestly that the firm cannot execute the project completely and professionally, or C: Be the design firm and have a different architecture firm be the executive architect covering the Design Development through Construction Administration Phases. There are times, when from a Risk Management standpoint, that it makes complete sense to turn down a job or investigate how to leave a project which you just started. Continuing work on a project when you know it is not staffed well, or when the firm is too busy to pay attention to it, simply to have such a project in their portfolio, is a quite risky way to approach work. This is also why it is imperative to fully understand, honestly, the real capabilities of the firm and its staff. This understanding leads to adjusting levels of project management to avoid risk. Avoiding risk leads to project success, firm success and profitability.

D. Unrealistic goals & schedules by Client or Contractor

When a project starts with unrealistic goals or schedules, or budgets, it becomes potentially a “vulnerable” project. Unattainable goals can sink a project from the start. Be honest in the assessment of a projects scope, schedule, and budget. Be honest in the assessment of the team make up and experience, internally and externally, to be able to execute the project. Being honest, clear, and professional in communications about unrealistic schedules, goals, or budgets, is being responsible but could cost a firm a project, if the client reacts poorly to your honesty. This kind of honesty and professionalism can create a level of trust with clients, consultants etc. that is unattainable in any other way. In the end this can lead to future work not otherwise attainable without this previous level of honesty and clarity.

E. Unrealistic goals set by the architectural firm

Even the architecture firm itself can place unrealistic goals onto its internal team. This can create a “vulnerable” project and can lead to project failure. As mentioned previously, be honest as a firm with full capabilities as a team. Understanding the real capabilities and experience available to execute the project in question can mitigate unrealistic goals. Unrealistic goals by the firm can include too short a schedule; moving forward with the project knowing full well the team is too inexperienced, or that even with a small fee that the goal is to make a profit while full well knowing of the shortfalls which the project is encountering. Unrealistic goals, especially when the leadership of the firm attempts to enforce them, can break the morale of the team and lead to disillusionment and lack of caring. Having team engagement and caring, and belief, is critical to not only the success of a project, the removing of it from being “vulnerable”, but to the growth of the staff professionally. If you do not have this kind of growth, then the viability of the firm comes into question. Also, the team leader will need to take on the “heat” or issues if the firm is pushing unrealistic outcomes. The leader needs to protect the team/staff and work the issues out with ownership or principals of the firm.

F. An inexperienced Project Manager

What if your PM is simply too inexperienced either in years or project type/scale to manage the project? Options in this situation may be few. Can you replace the PM? You may not have another available PM to take over for the less experienced one. Yes, you could replace the PM but this action takes a special kind of communication to explain to the team as well as the PM. If you do not have a suitable replacement PM then providing support for the PM, along with mentoring and leadership, should be put in place immediately. In addition, this will help grow the PM which has long term beneficial impacts for the firm. If staff morale and their working relationship with the PM is sound, then this technique for handling the less experienced PM makes sense. If there appears to be morale issue, or team engagement issues, then probably replacing the PM is still the necessary step. The options of training, teaching, mentoring as the approach should usually be investigated as the first option in these situations as the best long-term investment of time.

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