The success of large, complex projects relies on relationships between the client and the contractor. When communication between both parties is strong, it pays off from the start and throughout the project to delivery.
But even if these relationships are fragile, there are ways to scaffold them to make them more robust. Having a framework for constructive and frequent feedback is an essential part of project success.
Identify and attack issues fast
Having a structure in place for continuous feedback ensures quick action when something needs attention. Maybe there’s an unexpected financial loss that needs explaining before it blows out…or before someone gets the blame when they shouldn’t.
When an Australian mining company with a large number of contractors saw the budget was in danger of blowing out, the Project Manager in charge of the project was well-equipped for the harsh conversation by having:
- an earned value management (EVM) system, which is a project management methodology integrating scheduling, costs and scope to measure project performance
- a dashboard to communicate the issue to senior management in a clear format.
They had been diligent in tracking how much things were costing and found the costs against the direct work packages were true compared to the budget. This left the question: why were overhead and logistics costs blowing out?
With the dashboard, it was easy to see the work the contractors were performing was efficient and meeting expectations. But there were extra costs in mobilisation and demobilisation. There were lots of delays and disruption because of the impact of COVID-19 on supply chains. Teams couldn’t travel quickly and easily to the remote location.
Have the right conversations
Laurie Bowman is an engineer with a passion for improving the professionalism of project controls and risk management on complex projects.
He says examples like this show how good project management can move the conversation toward a more positive trajectory.
‘When you have a good feedback system, you can identify where the costs are going and find the root cause of the issue,’ Bowman says.
‘It makes it easy to demonstrate that you, as the contractor, are actually working really well. It changes the conversation to be more meaningful with the owner.
‘It matures the conversation to be more focussed on supporting the contractor and reduces the costs of going back and forth.’
Specify expectations in your system
Engineers are often asked to take on large, complex projects without specific project management education or experience.
You might adopt the organisation’s systems, or you could improvise. One thing to always get right from the outset is expectations, particularly on when and how you will communicate performance with your stakeholders. And this should happen early in the procurement stage.
Being specific is crucial. For example, the contract conditions in a recent project asked a contractor using an EVM system to ‘report monthly’ on their progress yet the contract did not link payment to progress and did not specify the timing of the reports each month. So, when the project was executed and the contractor sent an invoice for payment with no report, the client was surprised.
‘In this case, the client hadn’t made the conditions of the report timings clear, meaning no expectations were set,’ says Bowman.
The report for that month arrived two months later. With a lack of specified timing, the contractor did the reports in arrears.
‘As the only feedback mechanism, the report is essentially the central nervous system for the project,’ says Bowman.
‘It picks up issues in a timely nature so they can be dealt with quickly. Getting it two months late is not useful.
‘When you’re writing a contract, it’s important to be clear. Timing is everything—know from the outset how often communication will happen.’
Implement project management systems from the start
Bowman has 20 years’ experience in managing large, complex projects. He has spent time assessing project management frameworks from around the world to find out what works best. He says the most useful ones ‘recognise the importance of identifying stakeholders in a project and understanding their perceptions of risk and value’.
‘On any complex project, it’s important to develop a plan in a collaborative way so stakeholder needs are met and developed,’ says Bowman.
‘You must recognise the social, community and environmental impacts as well as the economic.
‘Setting up a feedback system helps you measure and control, so teams get feedback when things aren’t going well.
‘Make it safe for people to report issues when something goes wrong, because sometimes people are reluctant to share bad news.’
Join the course
Learn how to set up a strong feedback system to support positive relationships on your projects with Bowman’s course: Introduction to Integrated Project Planning and Control. He offers the tools to plan, schedule and maintain control of large projects, so you can manage any challenges to deliver your work on time and on budget.