Firm and Flexible

Carlos Brenes Mena, PMP, Partner and Project Management Regional Director, GCI Ingeriería, San José, Costa Rica

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ILLUSTRATION BY JOEL KIMMEL

Carlos Brenes Mena, PMP, partner and project management regional director, GCI Ingeniería, San José, Costa Rica

Even if they share a language, stakeholders from different countries tend to bring distinct habits to the same project. Standardizing delivery practices—while customizing communications—can help to bridge such differences.

Carlos Brenes Mena has established those practices at GCI Ingeniería, which provides engineering and project management services for construction projects, primarily in Central America and the Caribbean. He oversees 10 project managers and a portfolio of projects with budgets totaling about US$150 million at the company, which he co-founded 12 years ago. He has a master's degree in project management from the University for International Cooperation in San José, Costa Rica, where he has taught project management for over a decade.

I play two roles, actually: I oversee our project managers, and I monitor the portfolio. Across all our business units—for example, civil engineering, structural engineering and 3-D modeling—I track our portfolio's projects and monitor the workload. Our online system lets me see how our resource hours are being distributed across projects and whether they're within our acceptable thresholds.

You're also part of the executive team. How does your project oversight inform C-suite decisions?

The executive team meets every two weeks to discuss our project data. We have indicators to demonstrate whether our projects are complying with scope, budget, schedule and our clients’ requirements. If I see we'll have idle resources, I let my partners know so we can focus more aggressively on getting more projects. Or if I foresee workload peaks, we adjust the schedules, subcontract work or acquire more in-house resources. So we're leveraging data to make decisions and adapt.

The challenge for me is to have a standardized framework based on good project management practices, while at the same time being flexible enough to adapt.

What project management processes have you established, and how have they evolved since you co-founded the organization?

A few years after launching the company, we implemented a quality management system, which is based on the International Organization for Standardization's 9001 standard. We have written procedures and instructions and, most importantly, document everything we do. Built into the quality management system are PMI good practices related to each part of the project life cycle, as well as industry-specific best practices, like certain approaches to cost estimating and scheduling.

We're now in the process of ramping up our building information modeling (BIM) practices, which we've found improves our project management capabilities. We're implementing 4-D and 5-D BIM to link designs with project schedules and costs, respectively.

When a project involves stakeholders from different countries, how does that complicate execution?

Here's an example. Last year, a developer from Ecuador hired us to design a US$20 million, 15-story condominium building here in Costa Rica. The first thing we did was create matrices identifying the developer's most important stakeholders and listing them by their level of power and level of interest in the project. Because their expectations for the project were based on experiences in Ecuador, we had to carefully manage those expectations. The costs, construction methods, design standards and even construction drawings are all different in Costa Rica.

How did cultural differences affect the stakeholder management?

We often had to address cultural and language differences to make sure we understood each other. Yes, Costa Rica and Ecuador are both in Latin America, but we each have our own cultures and ways of doing things. You'd think engineers who speak Spanish would understand each other, but sometimes we didn't. The technical names for many things differ. For example, the word we use for “plaster” in Costa Rica is completely different from the word they use in Ecuador.

These kinds of differences informed our communications plan. After every conversation we had with the client, even video calls, we documented it and then emailed the document to the client. This ensured our understanding—for instance, of orders or requests—aligned with theirs.

What are the primary challenges you encounter?

In our industry, the environment is very volatile. An election year might affect the economy, so organizations like ours might have to compete for fewer projects. As the market gets more competitive, we have to respond quickly to our clients and manage their changes without changing our fees. So the challenge for me is to have a standardized framework based on good project management practices, while at the same time being flexible enough to adapt.

How do you strike that balance?

Very carefully. There's no recipe—it's done on a case-by-case basis. The most important thing is being aware of this challenge and recognizing its critical importance for the business. And you have to have the interpersonal skills to manage both external client expectations and internal resources. PM

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Small Talk

What one skill should every project manager have?

Interpersonal skills. Projects are done by people, so you must be able to communicate, lead and manage conflict.

What's the best professional advice you've received?

The president of the first company I worked for once told me, “Be confident and be concise.”

What's your favorite leisure activity?

Martial arts. I'm a black belt in karate. It's good exercise, and it's good for stress. You learn to defend yourself, but you also learn to be a better person—to become more disciplined and to trust your abilities.

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