Managing projects virtually, not physically

BY H. KENT CRAIG MECHANICAL CONTRACTOR IN THE NEW WORLD economic climate, a world where projects have been broken down into their constituent parts and reassembled into orderly processes more than actual projects, the scale of increased productivity expectations will astonish you, the project/process manager, if not overwhelm you at first. Your total job performance metrics will go up from six to

BY H. KENT CRAIG
MECHANICAL CONTRACTOR

IN THE NEW WORLD economic climate, a world where projects have been broken down into their constituent parts and reassembled into orderly processes more than actual projects, the scale of increased productivity expectations will astonish you, the project/process manager, if not overwhelm you at first.

Your total job performance metrics will go up from six to 12 medium to large projects, if you work for a commercial contractor, or from 10 to 20 smaller ones if you work for a residential/light commercial firm. Your workload will creep upward slowly at first, then increase in a dam-bursting rush to 30, 40, maybe even 50 projects within a typical workweek. Sheer survival of mind and body will force real-world changes in the way you manage your projects/processes.

Some or many of these projects won't require face-to-face job meetings; some or all will be short enough duration to where they are billed out within one to three billing cycles. All will still require your personal attention, most of them at least every other day if not every day. Time itself will become your most precious commodity, even more so than it is now.

The only way you'll be able to keep from making major screw-ups or having a nervous breakdown is to install a new order of time efficiency and a new mindset of prioritizing what is truly important. You'll have to learn how to separate what truly involves life, death or a whole lot of money from that which is merely convenient for you, convenient for your client, or serves little or no business purpose.

The first thing that will have to be reprioritized is the ubiquitous phone, both your cellphone and desktop office phone.

Nothing is more disrupting to a wellplanned and executed time-management-strategy than the world at-large having open permission to call you when it wants. Don't let others break your current workflow concentration so you can focus exclusively on whatever they think your priority of the moment should be. It doesn't matter if their 60-second phone call causes you a 15-minute disruption in planned workflow or kills half your morning. When it's all said and done, for no reason other than habit, we all have been trained that when the phone rings, even with caller ID, we answer it and give the caller our full attention.

In this new world of increased productivity expectations, open access from the outside world will have to be redirected. Unless it's someone dying or your foreman has stolen a truckload of materials from the job, what are now routine phone calls will have to go into voice mail or, better yet, be typed up instead and sent as e-mail. For all its faults, e-mail allows you a greater degree of control over determining and acting on what is truly priority and what is not. You can respond far more succinctly and productively using e-mail as opposed to phone calls.

A phone call demands immediate attention if answered; an e-mail can be shuffled up and down a priority ladder. It can be answered in a timely fashion, but e-mail allows you to prioritize the critical from the not so urgent.

These kinds of requests you'll handle more and more by "IM" or instant messaging technology. IM lets you talk through real-time text messaging to another party, but it gives you the flexibility to have multiple windows open, multiple conversations and still be able to do other things at your desk, since you don't have to immediately answer everything that is typed back to you. The understood business etiquette is that it's OK to leave the other party in IM'ing silent for three, four, five or more minutes, maybe even longer.

With such popular free commercial vehicles as MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger and others already in use, IM'ing has become an acceptable compromise between demands for attention and acknowledging them. With your workload eventually doubling or tripling, face-to-face job progress meetings will become a relic of another age. You simply won't have time to waste killing half a day or more going to each job meeting.

Virtual job meetings in cyberspace will be de rigueur since all the other project/process managers on your job team will be in the same boat you're in. You will be forced to use Internet meeting software to do real-time visual and voice Web-based job progress conferences. It either will be that or punt and have no real-time meetings at all, not even virtual ones, letting everything revert to e-mail and IM'ing.

Eventually, Web-based " avatar rooms," which will combine the best and the worst aspects of phone, IM, e-mail and Net meeting video conferencing will allow for a more orderly

and seamless workday flow, but these temporary, created-for-a-specific-job "offices" won't be here for another two to five years. At least, not at a cost that most companies will be willing to pay for them.

What is important is the here-andnow, since your future is tomorrow, not next year or five years from now. Watch, listen, learn and act on these trends of exponential change, which are fundamentally transforming our industry. Better to ride the wave of tomorrow than to be drowned by it. In the meantime, here are some online resources: Microsoft Windows Net Meeting, http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting; Macromedia Breeze, http://macromedia.com/software/breeze; Intranets, http://www.intranets.com; and GoToMeeting, http:// www.gotometting.com. A Google search (http://www.google.com) will turn up many more.

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. He may be reached by calling 919/ 851- 9550, or via e-mail at [email protected]. His Website is www.hkentcraig.com.