The Big Time

What Project Managers Need to Know about Working on Large Construction Projects


By Rami Kaibni, PMP


Theoretically, managing large construction projects should be similar to managing small ones. But I’ve been part of projects worth more than US$500 million and involving more than 50 subcontractors and 10,000 workers. I’ve discovered that big projects usually involve unique challenges and obstacles that require different solutions than smaller projects. Here are three ways project managers need to adapt to large projects.

Many project managers assume the more team members and budget they allocate to a task, the quicker it will be completed. However, this is not always the case—especially on big projects.

I once worked on a large oil and gas project that was 45 days behind schedule because the client was late completing the design of precast concrete elements. After the drawings came in, the client asked the project team to create a mitigation plan to reduce the delay. Our solution was to cut the least-productive 20 percent of the workforce, saving US$5,600 a day. We then set aside 70 percent of that money as a daily incentive. If the daily work target was achieved, the money was distributed equally among the workers. This incentive worked amazingly well, and the project ended up finishing 20 days ahead of schedule. But it was only possible because of the size of the project—on smaller projects, there may be no room to cut even one worker.

While project managers on smaller projects might merely use their best judgment in addressing risks, megaprojects require formal risk assessment.

Communicate More Effectively

Big projects involve more stakeholders and thus a greater number of communication channels. Project managers must have a solid communication plan that identifies all stakeholders along with their influence and impact. It’s vital to set priorities for reporting and stakeholder communications and to be as specific as possible in those communications.

Communication can also be more complex because major capital projects tend to involve multicultural project teams. On our oil and gas project, for instance, more than 15 nationalities were represented on the team. This means project managers have to ensure that people with different first languages and culture understand each other’s ways of working and communicating. Everyone needs to adapt to the project’s working environment—which, in a way, is an additional culture. For these situations, techniques like engaging translators, conducting team-building exercises and hosting after-work gatherings can help.

Rethink Safety

Safety comes first on all construction projects, regardless of size. But on big projects, a huge number of activities occur in parallel on the construction site—many requiring specialized equipment and machinery. All this creates an increased risk of accidents. While project managers on smaller projects might merely use their best judgment in addressing risks, megaprojects require formal risk assessment and detailed mitigation plans. Highly trained safety experts also need to be part of the team. PM

img Rami Kaibni, PMP, is projects and development manager at Field & Marten Associates Inc., a real estate development company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.