The rituals of project management

Aug. 1, 2005
A LITTLE MORE than a year ago, I wrote a column, "Rules for creating a successful PM career" (July 2004, pg. 44). One of the rules I mentioned was, "Ritualize your job life," and I added, "Don't fight the rituals of project management; embrace, learn and live them." I've received a couple polite e-mails asking me to expand upon the rituals. Survey the land ahead Every company has a set of formalized

A LITTLE MORE than a year ago, I wrote a column, "Rules for creating a successful PM career" (July 2004, pg. 44). One of the rules I mentioned was, "Ritualize your job life," and I added, "Don't fight the rituals of project management; embrace, learn and live them." I've received a couple polite e-mails asking me to expand upon the rituals.

Survey the land ahead
Every company has a set of formalized procedures for ascertaining future market opportunities, whether that company has these procedures written down or transmitted orally, and even whether that company knows it or not.

If your company is successful, the only way it became successful is by selling. The only way to sell is to market, and the only way to accomplish that is to keep a constant stream of potential contract prospects flowing through its sales pipeline.

Whatever has worked for your company in the past and is working now is a ritual. It may be a ritual of visiting the plan room regularly to look over new plans hitting the street, or visiting select architects and engineers' offices to ask what might be coming down the pike. It may be soliciting clients to shake out information about future work or attending trade association meetings. Whatever has worked for your company's marketing efforts contains a set mantra of ritualized efforts where everybody is on the same page.

To survey the market continually and then try to get work by varied and randomly chosen means is a recipe for disaster. That's why all marketing is done in a ritualistic fashion because what has worked in the past will probably work in the immediate future.

Reading bid-day tea leaves
I've worked for several mechanical firms over my career, small to large, and every single one created their estimates with different estimating rituals, yet all were successful.

Truth is, the marketplace determines your bid prices. You don't determine the marketplace's pricing points, the bid prices you want as opposed to what you have to bid to stand a chance of getting the work. You can spend days or weeks on a single bid, taking in account every last fitting, and in the end it simply doesn't matter on bid day if some other firm wants that work more than you do.

Attempting to wrestle the illusion of control from chaos is what ritual is all about. When external forces can't be controlled, ritual is created to assuage the human need to assign responsibility to forces outside our ego and control. Estimating and bidding are prime examples of this.

Marshalling the troops
How did you become a project manager? I mean, other than marrying into the business, how did you work your way up to being a PM?

If you started out in the field or in the office, you proved yourself in larger and larger increments until you built enough of a track record to where your bosses gave you a promotion because you were contributing to the company's ultimate survival.

As project manager, your job is to lead. Lead by example, lead by working your tail off, lead by paying attention to details, but always lead.

When a contract is landed, there is always a ritualized hand-off from the pre-construction side to the leader of the next battle for the company, the battle for continued profitability. This ritual may be public or private, but it is always present. It's important to acknowledge and respect why it's done this way, to convey the power transfer from your bosses to you so that others in the company will respect the allocation of authority.

The rules of combat
I had a job some years back working for bosses I truly respected and for a company I truly loved and for whom I would have happily worked for rest of my career. I was fired the same day my boss was replaced with a new boss/ division manager who had a completely different set of ethics from my old boss (the new one basically had no ethics).

These are very close to the words he used when he fired me:

"I know you're a man of your word and that's the problem. This division is not going to continue to do business the old way of the old boss, which kept profitability lower than it should have been. We're going to do whatever it takes to achieve maximum profitability, and I do mean whatever it takes, and I know you know what that means. I know you can't do business this way. If you gave me your word you could, I'd keep you, but I know you well enough to know you can't screw over whomever I feel is necessary in order to make a buck, not just to keep your job, so, Kent, you're fired."

Every company has its own unique set of rules of combat. Some fight with the honor and ethics of samurai. Some fight with the cowardice of back stabbers. Most companies operate somewhere in between. But all companies have formal or informal rituals of project management conduct while on the job. By virtue of you taking your paycheck from them, you're saying that you agree with those rules of combat, or you simply won't work for them.

Rituals make understanding what is expected of all parties clearer. Just because a ritual is in place doesn't make it easier to accept, not when it negatively affects you. That said, without rituals in place, the negative consequences would be worse than if the rituals weren't there.

Deification of the dead
When someone is fired from a company, justified or not, if that person wasn't well-liked, then every single problem on every single job he even drove past will be assigned to him, since he isn't there to defend himself.

This isn't right or wrong, it's simply human nature. It's a ritual that goes on in all workplaces in all cultures all over the world.

Similarly, when someone leaves who was popular with his fellow troops and co-workers, there's always a ritual of deification of his past crowning glories and achievements. Even on jobs where he didn't do his best and didn't reach profit goals, blame is assigned to others and other mitigating circumstances, never to his human weaknesses and failings.

This too is part of the human need to see the best in those we admire because we believe that it represents the best aspects of ourselves. That's also what ritual is for: to provide a concrete way for us to become the best we can be, if not a bit more than we actually are.

Divvying up the spoils
Within 72 hours of your being hired, regardless of what your written employment contract may say, you will find out from other employees precisely how the booty from profitable jobs is actually divided.

The ritual of splitting up collectively gained profits in a collective manner is often formalized by mathematical formulas. Sometimes it's done on the merest of whims, greed or momentary generosity of the owner/executives. Most times it's the best and worst of both methods.

Just as in a company's internal rules of job combat, if you don't like the company's ritual of dividing up a profit haul, you can either accept things the way they are or you can leave.

That's another point of rituals: to simultaneously take some of the responsibility for our actions off our shoulders while assigning consequences of removal of that responsibility back squarely to us in a different form.

As project manager, part of your duties is to try to understand the human mind, the set of emotions that drive us all, and use this understanding to make yourself and those under your supervision better as employees and people.

Rituals are created by the human need for certainty in an uncertain world. By being able to identify what these rituals are, you can use them to your personal advantage and the advantage of your company, all within your framework of personal ethics.

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 can be reached by calling 919/851-9550, or via e-mail at [email protected].

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Contractor, create an account today!