Canadian Consulting Engineer

Young Professionals and Managing “Up”

June 1, 2012
By Andrew Steeves, P.Eng.

One of the rites of passage for a junior consulting engineer is her first assignment as a project manager. Often it is the first exposure that a young professional (YP) has to being a manager in the “real world,” and like taking her...

One of the rites of passage for a junior consulting engineer is her first assignment as a project manager. Often it is the first exposure that a young professional (YP) has to being a manager in the “real world,” and like taking her first bicycle ride without training wheels, it is a memorable occasion full of nervousness and pride.

Like many young cyclists, novice project managers often focus their gaze downward. They worry about managing subordinates: how to keep the group on track, how to communicate with the team members, where to find needed resources, how to restore balance in the event of disagreements or misadventures.

Managing “down” is understandable when the project manager is new. It is logical for the YP to focus on project elements over which she has the most control — her team, her schedule and her budget. By honing her skills managing these three resources, a young project manager can steadily improve her performance and that of her team. Recognition and reward should soon follow this performance growth.

Indeed, well into their careers many experienced project managers continue to define their job as developing and managing a team capable of delivering a quality project on time and on budget. After all, they reason, is this not the primary objective of the project? Well, yes it is. But as project managers their focus should not be on coaching the team.

Stop Looking “down”

Perhaps the above statement surprises you, but really it should not. Let us step back, ask a few questions and look at project management from a different perspective.

First of all, we need to establish:

1. For whom are we doing the project?

2. What is the project?

3. When is the project deadline?

4. Where is the project work to be done, and where do we deliver the results?

5. Why is this team/company doing the project?

These five questions are strategic in nature: defining overall project objectives from the viewpoint of the client and the consulting firm.

The details or tactics of project delivery have not yet been determined. They are set by answering these two questions:

6. How is the project done and delivered?

7. How much money, time and effort is to be spent on the project?

As a set, all seven questions should be addressed before the team commences. The better and more complete the answers, the more likely that the project will be a success.

Strategic vs. tactical

The distinction between the strategic and the tactical questions is important. Answering the former requires an in-depth discussion with the client; the latter can be largely determined in-house. In most firms the client interview is done by a senior manager or a marketing champion. If the project is to be managed by a YP, the senior manager communicates the information to the project manager and will act as a mentor. In other words, 5/7ths of the key information defining a project comes to the project manager “from above” — from her mentor or the client.

This is a key point. By focusing on the tactical matters of the project team and delivery, the junior project manager has limited her focus to 2/7ths of the project description (questions 6 and 7). For questions 1 to 5 (5/7ths of the description) she is either accepting direction from a superior (either her manager or the client) or, dangerously, assuming she knows the answers.

Thus good project management requires management on the strategy (up) as well as the tactics (down) of project delivery.

Unfortunately, the traditional view of project management and most project management training has focused on the tactical questions. This focus on tactics over strategy is a big problem in engineering.

Clients have been

telling us this for years

It is not as if we do not know better. Our clients have been trying to tell us this for years. Senior leaders in our industry have repeatedly stated that we need to strive to become trusted advisors (strategic thinkers), rather than deliverers of services (tactical resources).

Here is an example from my own experience. For many years we conducted customer feedback interviews in my former company. On average we interviewed 120 to 140 customers a year, calling them in person after a project was completed.

Our feedback process used a standard questionnaire comprising six “scoring” questions and seven open-ended questions. We used the same questionnaire for over a decade and thus were able to compile data for comparisons (between client types, project managers, etc.) and to determine trends (improvement or deterioration of our service).

From over 1,650 interviews several findings stand out.

Almost every customer willingly participated in the process. Many were keen to provide their input, wanting to help us improve our service. In 13 years we had three customers refuse to respond.

Most clients gave high marks on the tactical attributes of meeting scope, schedule, budget and accessibility.

For exceptional projects that scored very high or low, the key determinant was not the internal performance of the team (tactics), but rather the relationship of team members — specifically the project manager — with the client (strategy). On the open-ended questions, comments about “good (poor) understanding of the project”; “open (weak) communications”; “going the extra mile (inflexibility),” were commonly associated with exceptional projects.

In summary, we learned that clients expected us to manage our teams and that we gained little recognition for doing the tactical tasks well. For us to make a memorable impression we needed to excel on the strategic tasks associated with managing our client relationship.

Lessons for the YP

So, what is the lesson for our YP (and her grizzled mentor)? It is that tactics are important but strategy is critical for project success. She and her more experienced project managers must learn to manage “up” as well as “down,” remembering that every project manager has two “clients”: the one who pays the bills and the one who writes the pay cheque. Until she learns that lesson she will become stuck in her career and her firm will enjoy little client loyalty.cce

Andrew Steeves, P.Eng. is a consulting engineer at exp. in Fredericton, New Brunswick and a past Chair of ACEC and ACEC-NB. E-mail


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