Project Management: Expect the Unexpected

I just listened to a webinar sponsored by the Stanford Center for Professional Development. The speaker was Sam L. Savage and the topic was “Managing Project Uncertainty”. Dr. Savage uses humor and his catch-phrase “the flaw of averages” to explain that even though the odds of any one thing going wrong on a project may be minimal, the chances that something will go wrong on a complex project are much higher. He provides real world examples as well as statistical models to illustrate his points. (I recommend that you use a search engine to find out more about Dr. Savage’s work on “the flaw of averages”.) So, how do professionals and their clients manage these risks?

Here are examples of unexpected obstacles on recent projects we encountered in our office: the departure of a key Planning Department official, a material supplier having shipping delays due to severe weather, and a building foundation that was completely non-standard for the area which caused a sudden engineering problem. These were all a bit awkward for the project team, but were handled, and the projects were completed successfully. If you are prepared to face the likelihood that something unexpected will occur, you will be in the best position to deal with it when it does.

In the construction business, one way to manage risk is to look at the track record of the architect, the engineer, and the builder. Evaluate the individual members of your proposed project team (not just the firms that they work for). Have they done similar projects? Have they worked with each other before? Have they got good references from companies or individuals that you respect? Have they got a good reputation (or at least no black eyes) in the jurisdiction where the project will be built? Are they in good standing with organizations like the Better Business Bureau and the state licensing agency appropriate to their profession?

As a client, you should assemble a project team that you feel comfortable talking to and that you can trust to do a good job for you. That doesn’t mean that you will not encounter any problems with your project. But it does mean that your team has the ability to address a problem and come up with a well-reasoned solution if and when it occurs. I call this the three A’s: AVOID, ANTICIPATE, and ALLEVIATE. By this I’m saying that as architects we try to help our clients avoid construction or permitting problems through good design and communication with the permitting agencies. If something unexpected occurs, then at least we can anticipate what mitigation steps may be required, and alleviate the difficulty by coming up with a work-around solution.

Another issue is quality control. All of your professional project team members should manage the quality of their own output. But who will be in charge of keeping track of the overall project? This entails reviewing the scope of work, coordinating the engineering and the design, tracking the percentage of work completed, amount billed and yet to be paid, deadlines, and budget management. Are regular team meetings going to take place? Where and at what intervals? If no one is put in charge of quality control of the project as a whole, then you as the client will be carrying that burden, especially while you are under construction, and you or your company needs to be prepared for that.
If your company is large, you probably have a project manager in charge who will be watching the construction process like a hawk (of your new company headquarters, for example). If you are a small business owner doing a tenant improvement with a limited budget, you might not have the bandwidth to handle this responsibility. Make sure your architect can provide you with this service and that it is in his/her budget to coordinate with the rest of the team members and to provide you with regular updates.

Lastly, expect the unexpected. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Build a reasonable contingency allowance into your budget and timeline. Understand that there may be unforeseen and unavoidable factors which are just part of the process, and be prepared for them.

 


Lorianna Kastrop
Vice President,
The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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