F04.01 Dealing with Independent Project Managers

Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA

Project management (PM) is the world’s fastest-growing profession, and arguably the youngest. Contrary to the opinion of some architects I know, its providers are not similar to those of the world’s oldest profession. Perhaps because it is a young and evolving profession, the level of professionalism one encounters varies greatly.

At the top end of the scale, practitioners bring great benefits to projects: they understand thoroughly and respect the perspectives and needs of the consultant team as well as other project stakeholders, they bring superb management skills, and they add value at every step of the process.

At the other end of the scale are the practitioners who appear to have emerged from under rocks, who win work by promising to carve their fees from the consultants’ fees, who have little understanding of that which they purport to manage, who do not add value, and who appear to see themselves as mule-train drivers, whose main tool is a coiled whip. We’ve all encountered these pseudo-PMs.

Most independent project managers in the design and construction industry are somewhere in between these extremes. Certainly the Project Management Institute (PMI) is working globally to increase the professionalism of project managers.

Most architects and designers I know have had experiences with PMs who are less than great, and prefer projects where there isn’t an independent PM on the team. At the same time, they realize that as the world of design and construction evolved, a need was created that their professions did not recognize or fill – and that a new profession emerged to fill it.

Our reality is that independent the project manager is here to stay, and on the increase worldwide. There are four basic strategies for ensuring the best quality of that relationship:

1.   When the PM is at the low end of the professional scale

Unless the project is one you absolutely must have, walk away. The project will run into problems, and you’ll be blamed for them. Let your competitors take the lashings and stumble in the mire.

2.   When the PM is at the high end of the professional scale

Watch closely and learn everything you can. These are skills and knowledge you really need.

3.   When the PM is somewhere in the middle of the scale

First, reduce your need to be managed. The more, and better, project management you do, the more you will be left alone to do it. Forget about the fact that somebody else is being paid for it; you are working toward the fourth – and best – strategy. Second, follow Jackson’s advice when and as needed. Make the project manager look good. It will bring you more work.

4.  When you can, pre-empt the role

As soon as you have the skills and knowledge, move up the food chain, and offer professional project management as a core service, competing directly with the independents. Start small, with loyal clients, and go as quickly as realistically possible to the high end of the professional PM scale.

This article is adapted from the author’s book Managing Quality in Architecture (Elsevier, 2006), and also appeared in PSMJ’s Project Management newsletter, May 2012.