Projects without project managers

Imagine a world in which when you go to see your primary care physician there's a receptionist present to greet and sign you in, and then you're escorted to a room where there's nothing but a series of cameras and high-tech gadgets. The entire exam consists of responding to anonymous voices and doing anonymous things in front of anonymous medical gadgets, and you never know who you're communicating with. You don't know if it's an actual doctor, nurse or perhaps some distant bored-to-tears plumber playing a joke on you under a physician's watchful eye (if you are lucky).

Better yet, imagine getting on airplane where there's no enclosed flight deck and what used to pass for the cockpit is an open area for all to see without even a hint of where the actual flight controls are. An anonymous voice welcomes you to your flight, and the entire trip, from taxing out from the tarmac to the take off to the landing, is accomplished by remote control. You don't know if the flight was done by computers or by an actual pilot.

Don't these scenarios creep you out if not downright frighten you? Guess what, welcome to the potential new world of project management, or at least a burgeoning slice of the pie.

Think I'm kidding? In this continuing recession companies are still continuing to slash what they consider to be non-essential personnel to the bone. Of course a qualified project manager can usually pay for themselves by being aggressive in the buyout part of the contract and then by pushing hard for value-added change orders and cutting deals with the other subs to more effectively work the schedule. But the truth is that most companies consider project managers to be fixed dead overhead especially when there aren't any projects large enough to assign them full-time to, so their salary and benefits can be absorbed by the job's SG&A.

When work does come in the door and it's been bid as close to actual costs with little if any room for any "luxuries," such as an actual middle-management team member line-itemed in the original bid, they don't assign a project manager to it.

Then how do the required contract provisions, such as providing representation at required job meetings, and having a point of contact and authority to create and work a schedule of values, get done? Simple — the working job foreman assigned to the project sits in at job meetings even though it's made clear to him that he doesn't have the authority to sign off on anything and a token person in the back office is proffered as the point-of-contact for the job. (His main function is to shuffle questions and contractual fiduciary duties to other anonymous survivors who feel lucky just to have a job.)

Is this a convoluted and backwards way to run a project? Of course it is, but when the name of the game is keeping the doors open and living another day to fight in a better economic cycle yet to come, what's done is what's required, even though it means you, as a career project manager, will be shut out if and until the company lands a large enough job to be able to overhead you into it or they otherwise need you to "consult" on a bid for a problematic job.

Can this nonsense of having not a qualified superintendent, but a working foreman at job meetings and on the job, and splitting up and spreading out functions normally assigned to one person among the remaining personnel back at the main office actually be possible? Why yes, it is not only possible, but it is a case of going back into the past.

In the old days, except for the largest or most complex of jobs, there weren't any project managers (as we think of the job description today). Foremen functioned as tool-using, onsite managers of people, money and resources for the company and the folks back in the air conditioned office knew their respective roles, making sure contract language was honored, and that their field point guy had all the backup support he needed to do his job.

Yes, those were the days before inches thick AIA boilerplate contractual language and specifications. This was a time when everyone wasn't so lawsuit happy, and many job conflicts were settled after 5 p.m., at the bar, outside of the job trailer.

Back to the present: Because work is being bid so tightly, old illusions are conveniently ignored because if all the intangibles were included in a typical bid, your company wouldn't have a chance to get the work.

What can you as an individual project manager do to change this? Well, I hate to say it, but not much. Just try to have faith that as bad as times are today, things are bound to get better. This is all part of a grander business cycle in play, and you just have to do what you have to do to stay as close to the actual playing field as possible. When your number is called once more, and it will be, you’ll have your head in the game enough to know what the score actually is.

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 e-mail at: hkcraig@gmail.com.