What it takes to get the job done

June 18, 2012

“He gave a 110%.” The phrase is one of my biggest pet peeves. For one, it’s factually impossible. While it may glorify nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, it can be counter productive to direct too much effort in one direction. From a manager’s perspective, 110% ought to mean their staff is working overtime – another discussion often had on this blog. But the thesis of this blog is that over-committing resources on a project can have negative consequences for the budget and the final work product.

Ideally, you would always go the extra mile for your clients. Unfortunately, most consultants work to a budget and share staff with other projects. Employees must be properly utilized and clients expectations must be managed in order for a project to stay profitable. In my first roles as a project manager, I tried to be uber responsive. While this tact did help me build strong relationships with the entire design team, it strained my staff and depleted our budget. Despite the extra work, it never felt like we were getting ahead. Then, even as major deadlines approached, we even had dial down the effort in order to stay in budget and allow staff to meet responsibilities on other projects.

As a younger engineer, I got so frustrated by mad scrambles right before deadlines. Late changes also drove me crazy. These situations remain uncomfortable, but I’m becoming more accepting of these facts of design life. It’s too easy to direct all the blame to the architects. They are managing a very complex system, coordinating input from the owner, the other consultants, and the permitting bodies. Helping the architect navigate the coordination process is the most effective thing that consultants can do to minimize deadline scrambles.

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to avoid a late rush of design changes. For that reason, many seasoned project managers take a relaxed approach to the early project phases. Construction documents need not be 100% complete until the building is under construction. On renovation projects we can even expect many changes during construction, as the actual conditions can vary a great deal from the early assumptions. Even the permitting process can be initiated with incomplete documents. Sometimes it’s best not to go overboard, because the peer reviewer may veto a particular design approach. I always explain the permitting process as an unpredictable journey during witch any manner of comments can be raised, but all can be resolved through give and take.

I give my clients 100%, but the percentage necessarily varies over time. Early on I can provide structural insight and guide them though the permitting process. As milestone deadlines approach I expect to put in extra time and ramp up staffing, but I can only do that if we’ve taken a measured approach in the interim. In the end, the design work always gets done, and construction is completed. The most important thing is to be present and able to act when major issues come up. So don’t worry about working 110% on my team, just do what it takes to get the job done.

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