The New Daily Reality of Project Management

How the economic downturn is going to change your day-to-day modus operandi as a project manager.

One day this spring, we woke up to a new reality. We joined the rest of the world in paying a very high-price for gasoline, food and other personal commodities. An ailing housing market killed residential growth, while making many new homes more worthless than their respective mortgages. This new reality also threatens to spread over to the commercial markets as well. Ever since World War II, the rest of the world has been paying about triple for gas than what we're used to paying and double to triple for food. Without warning, the security blanket of our world-leading productivity and massive internal resources were being sold wholesale to the Chinese. Whatever you think might be the cause, we'll be paying for this for the next decade or longer, so you're going to have to get used to it.

A couple of major things are certain about how this new reality is going to change your day-to-day modus operandi as a project manager.

First, you're going to be under even more intense pressure than in the past to squeeze literally every nickel from every job. Your company's very survival might depend on those nickels.

While that's no surprise, you might want to re-think how to handle these new pressures. Clearly, the old scripts won't work under this new reality, so you need to throw them out and write some new ones. Instead of being solely accountable for the actions and results of your crews, you need to make it clear to your field guys that this is a new boat. They need to know that they will be held equally responsible for a given job's profit results. It will be up to you as their leader to put mission before men and do what's necessary to keep the morale and productivity as high as possible by whatever ethical means.

You'll also be asked to be accountable for all materials and equipment assigned to your job. Sometimes you'll be asked to show a paper trail or physical inventory of literally every single inch of pipe or single fitting, otherwise, you'll face disciplinary action. Do you think I'm kidding? I'm not.

Second, you'll be asked to share more and more of the SGA overhead than you have in the past. Do you have access to a company vehicle for your own use and perhaps even a company gas card? Project managers often are seen as unneeded overhead, unlike service techs or mechanics who actually get out in the field and generate real-time revenue. So you can pretty much kiss this old “perk” good-bye. Are you paid for mileage? You're kidding me, right? With gas continuing its almost penny-a-day climb, don't look for your company to increase your own compensation, even if the IRS repeatedly adjusts its own mileage expense allowance.

The attitudes of even the most enlightened and benevolent of companies in this topsy-turvy world will be, to quote that immortal line from the movie “Blazing Saddles,” “Sorry, son, you're on your own!”

Within this new paradigm, the only things you truly own are your reputation, education and certifications. These will become even more valuable as an increasingly large pool of equally or superiorly qualified project managers becomes available in the open workforce. As such, you need to be more flexible and willing to relocate to the better job. You may also need to take what would previously have been a less-prestigious position or swallow a total compensation package.

The main things are to stay calm, be relaxed, maintain focus and increase your awareness of what's actually taking place out in the world. What happens in New Zealand or Timbuktu can directly influence whether or not your company gets its next job. Take several deep breaths and then go get a good night's sleep because that's about the only thing that's the same.

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating, and plumbing. You may contact him via email at [email protected].