Managing the most valuable resource



Brown & Root, Inc.

Ed note: The Northern California Chapter of PMI has been conducting an ambitious lecture series designed to provide a forum for evaluating project management approaches and methods. These state-of-the-art lectures present existing techniques as developed within major engineering and construction firms. As this lecture series presents a unique opportunity to learn the latest project management methods, they will be published in Project Management Quarterly for the benefit of all the membership. The following is the third in the series.

Project Management is an art, a science, and a profession, but good project managers probably have more in common with good artists than with scientists. After many years of engineering and project management, I’m beginning to know the traits I’m looking for to develop young men into what is probably the most exciting and the most demanding profession in today’s society.

Determination is one factor basic to the successful project manager. A determination to succeed at whatever task lies at hand and no matter what the odds are. Another factor is appreciation for the people on his project team. A project manager who isn’t people oriented is likely to be less than successful. The third factor in the success of managing projects is vision. Without vision, no engineering and construction company can continue to grow and prosper in a changing world, and only a man with vision can, over the long haul, be successful at project management.

Project management is a matter of vision, determination, and the ability to appreciate the men and women who can turn that vision and determination into physical realities. People are a little like automobiles. A small percent of people don’t have either a battery or a generator, and there’s just no way to make them go. Some have a battery but no generator, and they go pretty well after you get them charged up. But they gradually run down, and they have to be charged up again. Then there are those who have both a generator and a starter, and all you have to do is point them in the right direction and let ’em go.

It should go without saying that today’s E&C firm must have the latest and most up to date engineering and construction technology. But the advent of sophisticated technology has made the human qualities more important, not less. If we don’t have competent, motivated people who are close to the job, who understand the logic of the job with its priorities and objectives, we’re dead. We are all familiar with jobs where all the systems were satisfactory, but where we failed to meet our commitments. Why? Because systems can’t make decisions. People make decisions. Systems can’t take corrective action, they can only expose a problem. And finally, systems can’t exercise good judgment. It’s people that make the system work, not systems that make the people work.

The mechanics of running a project, the systems of planning, monitoring and reporting, are tactical questions. Tactical questions have to be answered and answered well, or the project will come apart at the seams. But prior to tactics are the strategic questions of how to build an ad hoc organization and make it a functioning unit in a short period of time. That is really the manager’s job and nobody can do it for him. It’s his responsibility to get the job done with the resources that are given him.

Getting the job done means an adequate facility, on time and at a reasonable cost. It sounds simple, but all three of these goals — technical adequacy, timeliness, and cost — are in direct conflict with each other throughout the life of the project. The manager has to balance those three factors and make the appropriate tradeoffs as well as manage the people who are to accomplish the work. To do all that the manager must perform five basic operations or tasks.

(1)   First of all, he sets objectives, and he sets goals in each objective area. Goals, to be effective, must be clearly defined, measurable, and they must be short-term enough so that each unit and employee can measure his own progress. Some suggest milestone objectives with monthly, weekly and perhaps even daily goals.

But setting goals doesn’t automatically accomplish them. The manager must be absolutely certain that each person and each unit clearly understands the goals, believe that they are reasonable and are committed to achieving them. If anyone on the project team doesn’t understand his goals, it’s the project manager’s fault. He must be sure that everyone clearly understands his functions.

(2)   This means that he must effectively organize the project. He must analyze the activities and relations needed to do the particular and unique job that a particular project represents. After analyzing the project he must classify the work into manageable activities and jobs and he must select the people to manage the jobs to be done. Poorly organized projects will always result in confusion about goals and responsibilities. However, organizing is not going to accomplish anything unless the people assigned to the various tasks understand their function and their relation to the other functions, accept their roles and are committed to their tasks.

To organize effectively means to delegate authority. After the work and the people are organized and goals are set, the project manager must give his key people the authority to accomplish their tasks. Responsibility without authority can produce only furstration and mediocrity. Delegation means allowing people to do their work in their own way, even to making mistakes. Delegation does not, however, mean abdication of managerial control and responsibilities. Mistakes must be converted into learning experiences, and mistakes beyond a certain magnitude must not be allowed to happen. Delgating while retaining control is the razor’s edge which every good manager must learn to define and maintain.

(3)   The project manager motivates and communicates. At all times he must be sure the right information is getting to the right people at the right time and in the right manner.

(4)   He measures. Having set achievable goals, he still has to check the yardsticks to be sure the units are measuring the right things in a meaningful way. He must be able to distinguish between activity and results, and he must do it soon enough to initiate corrective action in the right places and before it’s too late. This is the control that separates delegation from abdication.

(5)   Finally, a manager develops people, including himself. Any man who comes off a project not having more capabilities than he brought to the project has failed — and if there are very many such failures, the project manager has failed. Managing people always means developing them, and this may be the most important, and least understood job the manager has.

In the engineering/construction industry all we have to sell is people — they are really our only asset: That means that managing people is our greatest opportunity for success and also our greatest problem. As indicated earlier, a person with an inquiring mind, a driving will to succeed and an ability to see the whole picture and not just bits and pieces, can make a successful project manager. (Of course he must also be willing to spend something like 16 hours a day either on the job or thinking about it.) And he must be able to manage his people. Managing is increasingly difficult. The size and complexity of our projects today makes it more so, because more and more workers are becoming knowledge workers. That is, we now require from almost every level of work, the ability to think, to analyze, to make decisions. Especially in the engineering phase of our projects, there just isn’t any routine work any more.

Knowledge workers, whose work requires exercising judgment, cannot be driven. They must be led. The manager who uses fear to motivate his employees is defeating his own purpose. Fear can produce anxiety and effort. It will not produce results. Incentives do produce results. A reward can draw people to a desired goal, fear only drives a person away from the spot he’s on. And we don’t want just movement, we want movement in a particular direction. An insecure employee in our business is hardly ever a productive one. And yet a too-relaxed, permissive attitude also is likely to create unproductive workers. So the manager must demand achievement, but he must do it in such a way that the subordinate finds his own rewards in the process.

Among key personnel — the management team — we aren’t working many people who are worried about where their next meal is coming from or whether they can pay the rent. We are dealing primarily with people who are pretty secure. However, the highest order of human needs, the need for self-realization is not dependent on others. This is the reward we give ourselves for achievement, for learning, for doing anything well. Not everyone reaches that level of human need, but those are the “comers,” the ones we need to nurture, to challenge, to develop.

When we can stimulate a man to know the benefits of self-fulfillment, we have created a self-starter; not only a self-starter but somebody who will be a starter for other people. We’ve created a resource for the company that money can’t buy, and we’ve done it with the only resource that doesn’t cost us or the company or the client a dime.

How do we as managers, accomplish our important task of motivating the people we depend on for our success? There have been numerous books written and a whole vocabulary of jargon has grown up around the subject. But it really boils down to appealing to self-interest, and self-interest depends on attitude. It isn’t what we have or what we do that makes us happy or contented, it’s how we feel about what we have or do. As managers, it’s our duty to our people, to our companies and to our clients, to motivate our employees, to make them want to do their best.

We do that by appealing to their highest human needs — the need for self-fulfillment and self-realization. We do it by giving recognition, responsibility and by instilling confidence, enthusiasm and a feeling of being an important member of a winning team.

The first motivational tool is recognition. Recognition means praise for good performance, but it also means giving the employee an opportunity to recognize and correct poor performance. It’s counterproductive to approach someone with, “Well, you dumbbell, you screwed up again!" On the other hand it’s productive to lead him to see his mistake, to induce him to think about his job and to decide for himself that he is capable of better performance.

Another motivator is responsibility. Douglas MacGregor has theorized that people seek responsibility, and that they will be self-motivated and productive if they’re given an opportunity to exercise responsibility. We are wasting our company resources and are negligent toward our employees if we don’t let those who want responsibility have all of it they can handle. This means that people are going to make mistakes — and some of them are going to be costly ones. But mistakes can be learning opportunities. Further, it’s more costly in the long run to let good talent sit on the bench. For one thing it’s a wasted resource and for another you’ll lose the real good ones. Ballplayers aren’t the only ones who say “Play me or trade me.”

Participation also motivates people. By participation in decision making, we do not mean turning a project over to the democratic process. A project is not a democracy. However, participation accomplishes two important things — better decisions and commitment to action. Decisions are matters of judgment, choices between alternative courses of action. As such, the participation of the people who must carry out the decision, the ones closest to the work, helps in understanding the problem and stimulating alternatives. It also promotes commitment to action. We’re all a lot more likely to be really committed to decisions we had a voice in making. Decision-making is a process which rightly done, mobilizes the vision and energizes the resources of the project. But participation means letting people disagree with you. In fact, if there’s no disagreement, there may not have been participation.

Perhaps the greatest motivational tool the manager has is his own enthusiasm and confidence. A team takes its attitude from the leader. If he’s negative, so will they be. The reverse is also true. Enthusiasm and confidence in the manager himself are powerful stimulants to productive workers. They don’t cost money, only effort. Attitudes are infectious. The confident and enthusiastic manager will inspire the same attitude in his people. Enthusiastic people are more productive, as are confident ones. Andrew Carnegie had an axiom, “Act enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic.” Try it. It’s true, and it does rub off. This is the surest way to take the deadening effect out of changes, by being positive toward them rather than negative.

Probably the most important aid to productivity is team spirit. Everybody knows the exhilaration and energy that comes from being on a winning team. Probably everyone has also known the kind of “What the use?” feeling of being on a losing team. One of the definitions of good management is that it enables common men to do uncommon things. A winning team is more than the sum of its parts. A losing team is less than the sum of its parts. How do we make people feel like they’re winners? First of all the manager himself has to feel like a winner. Then he has to show his people that he feels like a winner. Then he has to tell his people that they are winners. And then he has to see that they are winners on a winning team. Team is the key word — every person and every unit has to have a stake in the success of every other person and every other unit. Everyone on the project must be aware that his own success depends on everyone else succeeding. We’re all in the same boat, and we can’t have anybody saying, “Hey, your half of the boat is sinking.”

Teamwork and confidence insure an energy output greater than the sum of the efforts put in. Harmony increases human energy: discord decreases energy. Therefore, team spirit is literally the creation of energy. This is not a spirit of brotherhood where everyone loves each other; that can occur in unsuccessful organizations as well as successful ones. This is a spirit of performance — a spirit of working together to win, and this can be done with people who aren’t particularly fond of each other. It means the determination to succeed against all odds.

Again, building a team is not getting people to like each other, it is raising men’s vision to see that in accomplishing a team objective, each member will participate in the pride of achievement. It is inspiring people to be more than they were, to go beyond their limitations — and it gets the job done.

Beyond instilling or inspiring a spirit of performance, team-building is an exercise in communications. It entails providing a clarity of objectives. Everyone must understand exactly what is expected of him and of his unit, and how their tasks fit into the project objectives, how their efforts support and impact the efforts of others.

A way of summing up the manager’s responsibility toward his people and toward the project is to say that he is making sure that for every member of the project, individual goals are aligned with the project and corporate goals. Everyone must be aware that individuals succeed and advance as the company succeeds and grows. The manager who wants to succeed stresses opportunity for his people. But he must also expect and demand that opportunities are converted into results. Playing it safe should never be rewarded. We need to remember that mistakes are not failures, but opportunities to learn and grow.

The absolute requirement for a good project manager is integrity. First of all, integrity toward his company. He must also have integrity toward the client. This means that he will insure technical adequacy and safety for his client’s projects — while at the same time making the optimum trade-offs between cost, scheduling, and technical requirements. The cheapest job is not always in the client’s interest. On the other hand, technical perfectionism is not always in the best interest of the client either.

And last but not least, the good manager must have integrity toward his employees. Integrity toward his employees means sincerely having their interest at heart. All the motivational techniques are gimmicks if they aren’t sincere. A manager who doesn’t care for his people will never be a success because a man’s real feelings are always perceived by those who work with him, and a self-serving boss will have self-serving employees. Neither one will get the job done. Finally, the only standard of measurement for a project manager is getting the job done: done right, on time, and at a reasonable cost.



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