Practice Advisory: Learning How to Successfully Navigate Vulnerable Projects

Headshot of Mark Steppan

Originally Posted on AIA California’s Site

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

Part 1: Leading Vulnerable & Complex Projects

Part 2: Learning How to Successfully Navigate Vulnerable Projects


In “Leading Vulnerable and Complex Projects” Part 1, we discussed ways to identify if you have a “vulnerable” project on your hands and what creates this “vulnerability”. In Part 2 here we discuss jumping in to a “vulnerable” project and the impactful leadership techniques that one can employ for the project and staff.

While there has been much written about project management (PM) approaches and specifics of PM techniques, and a multitude of books published about critical path scheduling, pull scheduling, and how to be a Project Manager, in this article we present additional “soft” but extremely impactful aspects of management and leadership that can be applied in a multitude of professions. I passionately believe these are critical methods and approaches that a strong leader should employ daily.

If we separate additional aspects of project and staff management, leadership, and how to engage “vulnerable” projects with break down the process discussion into the following headings:

  • Learning How to Jump in Midstream
  • Creating Collaborative Engagement and Team Investment
  • Leadership Techniques to Support Internal Office Teams
  • Leadership Techniques to Support External Team Stakeholders
  • Project Retrospectives
  • Conclusion
  • Example “Vulnerable” Project and its Turnaround

Learning How to Jump in Midstream

Once you determine that you have a “vulnerable” project on your hands you should take control to save it. The best scenario is if you are jumping in at the beginning of the project. But what if you find that you have a “vulnerable” project on your hands during the design development phase, or even during the construction document phase? First, you assess the situation and confirm you have such a project. What makes it “vulnerable”? Is it internal team issues, external team issues, unrealistic goals set by you or the client, relying on an inexperienced project manager, or even something else? Once you determine the cause of this vulnerability then you can create a plan to improve the situation.

Jumping in midstream means that improvement and change must be implemented quickly as the project is clearly in process. Create a plan of attack and explain it to the Project Manager and team. Or, have the PM explain it. Always continue to be honest, clear, professional, and remember to show empathy. These actions will improve the project and presumably will move it out of this vulnerable stage.

  • Should you replace the PM?
  • Should you replace some team members?
  • Are there documentation issues?
  • Is your client unhappy or concerned about the project?
  • Are consultants coordinating poorly or not at all?
  • Is the team missing important deadlines or deliverable requirements?

Handling significant consultant issues or dealing with client issues are all situations that you could face midstream. While determining that a project is “vulnerable” or even more simply problematic midstream will certainly be a challenge, if approached as mentioned here, it can be a terrific teaching tool to the team. Teaching and mentoring will reap benefits for the firm and the individual staff members. This kind of experience simply cannot be gained through just working on a project that does not go through these types of issues.

Creating Collaborative Engagement and Team Investment

I believe team engagement and personal investment is critical to a project’s success and to each staff member’s growth. Not all projects have a high level of engagement and investment. Why don’t they?

Not enough firms and their leaders truly consider the importance of staff morale, growth, engagement, mentoring, and teaching as a required component of a project, and thus a firm’s success. A project may be successfully completed, or it can win an award, or make a profit, but those results, without gaining real staff engagement and growth, do not create as collaborative or as invested a team that successfully navigating a “vulnerable” project can.

One of our charges as leaders is to teach, nurture, and mentor our next set of leaders for our firms and the architecture profession. In order to meet this charge, we need always be concerned with our staff’s welfare and to support their needs. Providing an opportunity for growth and learning, especially from within a “vulnerable” project is a win-win situation. It generates critical engagement and investment of the staff.

Without caring about engagement and investment, and thus staff growth, we leave ourselves open for potential staff turnover, which has lasting impacts to firm long-term viability. Additionally, what if team morale is at a low point, or the teamwork is failing? This can be disastrous and needs to be handled adroitly and quickly. Do not hide issues. Deal with them and communicate honestly about them.

Adding a level of fun and enjoyment to the process improves morale, and thus investment, as well as a surprising level of trust. When we enjoy our work and feel invested, we also perform better. These are goals to achieve.

  • Fun
  • Honesty
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Active listening
  • Open communication

These are all leadership qualities and approaches that cannot be understated in their importance for team growth, project execution, project success, and has the biproduct of turning around a “vulnerable” project.

Leadership Techniques to Support Internal Office Teams

Techniques can include simple leadership methods for improving communication within the internal office team.

  • Lead your team.
  • Support your team.
  • Take on any negative issues with openness and honesty.
  • Communicate clearly and effectively with your team.
  • Laugh and have fun during the process.

Explain all the positive and negative situations that can occur or are currently happening on the project. Empower staff to initiate solutions, but with your guidance. Providing all the answers is not the long-term solution to staff growth and learning. Take an interest in each teammate as an individual. Provide clear ground rules for your firm and project leadership expectations for production at each phase. Be clear on the project schedule and expected milestones and deliverables. Have empathy.

In tackling a project’s difficulties, as the leader, you help protect your team. Make sure you communicate those difficulties/situations to the team so that they are aware of what is going on, what you are doing and how the team can join in the participation of solving these situations. This engagement and inclusion create trust and respect. Be honest with your team, your client, your consultants, and you often will feel fulfilled for doing so. Remember to invite participation in the different aspects of a project’s execution. Spread the work across your team members. Do not try to do everything yourself. Your team’s engagement and investment in your current situation will increase through these efforts. With your newly invested team you are more prepared to handle even the most difficult situations and projects.

Leadership Techniques to Support External Team Stakeholders

These techniques are essentially the same as you would employ for your own internal team but applied with some different specifics. My suggestions for general improvements to communication style and techniques include:

  • Lead well planned team meetings.
  • Promptly send meeting minutes or any follow-up communications
  • Take your time in answering questions, especially those received via email or mail.
  • Make your responses well thought out and complete.
  • Take your time to create a better response or solution.
  • Think clearly to analyze a situation or issue.
  • Try to understand the basis behind a question.
  • Try to understand why a particular question might be upsetting you.
  • Do not respond under duress or in a hurry when you are upset at a question or situation.

Did you make a mistake you do not want to acknowledge? Have you given inaccurate direction, or incomplete answers? Be honest with yourself, and you will more successfully navigate through these issues.

Clients, consultants, and agencies, as well as your staff, will always appreciate your taking your time to respond clearly, honestly, accurately, and professionally. Show the less experienced staff methods for tackling difficult situations by controlling one’s emotions. Be calm. Your actions in these difficult situations can create newfound respect for your leadership skills.

Remember that every line on a drawing, every line in a computer file, and every word used in an email response, in a phone call, or during an in-person discussion, means something to somebody, and possibly not what you intended. It should be clear now that for leading your external team, clarity, honesty, open communications, transparency, respecting others, and a calm understanding of a project’s complete “big” picture are all critical for supporting your team whether involved in a “vulnerable” project or not.

Project Retrospectives

Now, assume your “vulnerable” project is nearing its Certificate of Substantial Completion point, or it has been recently completed. Now what?

This is an excellent time to do a project retrospective analysis. Create a list of each phase and note what went right and what went wrong during each phase. Include analysis as to why something went wrong or sideways. Review what went right with the same honesty as what went wrong.

  • Were deadlines missed? If so, what was the reason?
  • Unrealistic schedule?
  • Poor team chemistry?
  • Was it a lack of staff experience in the project type or size/complexity?
  • Was it clearly the wrong team makeup?

Maybe it was the right team but there were issues with consultants or the client that simply could not be overcome. Thus, it may have remained a project in a vulnerable state most of the time. “Vulnerable” projects can remain that way and still be executed, but strong leadership that acknowledges the risks involved, and some luck, is required.

Were there errors that should have been caught? If so, why were they not found? Was there a QA/QC review? Maybe the reviews occurred but the comments were not picked up, due to internal time constraints, or a client generated unrealistic schedule that did not allow for the time to pick up the QC comments.

  • How did consultant coordination go?
  • Were the right team members in charge of that aspect of the project coordination?
  • How was the team internal and external communication? Were there flaws? Could they have been corrected?
  • What worked well?
  • How can that be duplicated on future projects?

Make a list, and review it with your team. Review it with your firm leadership. Leading from the ownership level, especially in a larger firm, can mean a certain level of separation between the leaders and the teams and thus a lack of full understanding of what is going on in a project at any point in time. Delegation and trust of mid-level leaders such as Associates and Senior PM’s, PM’s, or PA’s becomes critical to the success of projects and firms.

Example “Vulnerable” Project and its Turnaround

Let us briefly look at a hypothetical “vulnerable” example project, and how leadership might approach the situation prior to the project failing and having a demoralized team. What issues might become known to leadership? How might the client communicate specific concerns to ownership?


  • The project team is floundering under its current project manager.
  • The project manager is not well experienced in the project type.
  • The project manager is not a strong communicator.
  • Poor Revit model setup requires the team to partially rework the model after Construction Documents are well underway.
  • Poor project leadership is generating a lack of team trust.
  • The project’s progress and issue resolutions are suffering as the team is trying to complete the documents for city plan check submittal.
  • Little is going right at this point and team is appearing fractured.

While there might be other issues in addition considering the extent of those described, these noted issues alone clearly define this project as “vulnerable” and one that needs critical and close attention.

How such a project could be turned around at this stage of completion:

  • Due to the evident project management issues, change the role of the current project manager to be more supporting versus leading, such as a project architect.
  • Appoint a high-level project firm leader to take on the role of project management as the project director.
  • Engage fully, and meet, with the team together and individually to learn of the project’s challenges. This process will provide the platform for clear communication moving forward.
  • Once project leadership understands the issues, they should formulate a plan to deal with them.
  • Engage with the client and consultants to assure the complete design team of the proposed process, communication and coordination that is planned.
  • Thru meetings and communication present honest assessments of the situations and the plan approach for handling them. Honesty breeds trust.
  • Distribute project responsibilities to different team members to engage them.
  • Let the team know what is going well and what is not. This level of trust and communication will continue to develop a strong team bond.
  • Create a platform that allows the team to participate fully and to feel involved.
  • Leadership needs to listen, communicate, and teach but not control.
  • This approach should allow team members to flourish under this improved project structure.

As we can see from looking into this hypothetical “vulnerable” project there could be many issues that put a project in jeopardy of being defined this way. We also presented many ways to approach and understand the project and its issues to improve and reduce its “vulnerability”. Not all the issues represented here as indicators of a such a project need be present. However, making a clear assessment of the potential risk through paying close attention to staff, as well as a projects’ performance, will expose the need for jumping in to turn such a project around.


For a successful navigation and completion of these special projects, as well as non-”vulnerable” projects we have discussed or shown that the following processes, techniques, approaches, or attitudes are critical.

  • Honesty
  • Thoroughness
  • Pragmatism
  • Calmness
  • Respectfulness
  • Empathy
  • Transparency
  • Active listening
  • Sharing with Your Team
  • Sharing with External Teammates and Stakeholders

It is amazing how you can effectively manage or even salvage a “vulnerable” project and in the process greatly improve not only your own leadership skills but those of your teammates. You can gain great respect and trust by going through these efforts. These discussed skills are not generally taught to us as we learn to be architects and designers while in school, or even firsthand on the job. Frankly, many times we forget to teach others what we learned the hard way. Understanding and being willing to use these “soft” skills is a learned approach but you will be both a better architect and better leader through expanding your skill sets in this way. Good luck!

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