Five levels of project management hell

Jan. 1, 2012
Spend enough time in middle management in the mechanical contracting industry and you'll eventually find yourself in project management hell, something similar to the underworld described by Dante in his "Divine Comedy."

Spend enough time in middle management in the mechanical contracting industry and you'll eventually find yourself in project management hell, something similar to the underworld described by Dante in his "Divine Comedy."

In the boiler rooms of estimators and the shared janitors’ closets of pre-construction gurus and post-award paperwork geeks, this project managers’ shared hell is no allegory, not a horrific vision at all but a reality which is a curriculum of tests and challenges to stretch the boundaries of limits that one’s heart can take, to take the heat of Tartarus without blackening one’s soul along with it.

First circle of project management hell: The estimating either/or paradigm employment threat. This is where you’re given the ultimate single job push of “You either get this job with this much margin or chances are you’ll be fired if you don’t.” You can escape this by ignoring the overt or covert employment termination threats and simply continue to do your job as best you can. You will probably be fine if you do this. But, if they’re leaning towards firing you for whatever reasons then their minds have already been pretty well made up and it’s out of your hands. If they just want to put a little fire under you, then acknowledge what they’ve said in a professional manner, smile and then get back to work. Let your dogged determination and professionalism be your salvations.

Second circle of project management hell: When the entire future of the company is put on your shoulders. This is when you’re usually called into the CEO’s office where the entire executive team is waiting for you, and then you’re given a spiel along these lines, “Times are very tough right now so we need you to rambo us some work. We need you to estimate around $50 million worth of work by yourself of which we have a target range of actually signing $10 million dollars worth of it at an average net margin before taxes of 6%. If you don’t do this the company will close in 60 days, so you have 30 days to do this. If you don’t agree to do this you’re fired right now. If you don’t get the work at the above numbers you’re fired. Oh, and no, you may not order in pizza or subs or whatever for supper each of the 30 non-stop, no-break 16-to-18 hour days you’ll be working, you’ll have to bring your food in from home. Any questions?”

How can you escape this? Myself having been through this back in the 90’s and somehow surviving and escaping it, the only thing you can do is stay calm, don’t react like a five-year-old when hit with this kind of nonsense. Simply plan on living in your estimating office bunker until it’s safe to go back to the surface.

You can’t control your competitors’ bids, you can’t control the prices your suppliers give you for those jobs, you can’t really control anything except how you react to this scorched earth-hell either/or demand. React like the consummate, never-panic hired gun that you’ve trained your whole life to be, execute with precision and diligence and you’ll be fine.

Third circle of project management hell: Desperation, stupidity, greed and avarice all rolled up into one. This is when your bosses tell you that all the estimates you’ve busted butt to generate will now be bid a flat 20% under your final number and when/if the company gets the contracts, you’ll be expected to make up said 20% plus profit in change orders as you project management those same-said jobs once they’re on the books and then are assigned to you to complete.

How to escape: Just hope like Hades you get almost all the jobs your bosses will underbid in that very short bidding window, so you can bundle all the equipment and material purchases into one huge buyout and then write massive POs to your vendors assertively pointing out to them that if they don’t play ball they may face losing what would amount to months of booked sales to them.

You can also bundle a lot of your pre-construction and mobilization costs by doing in-house teams. In so far as labor, once schedules are fixed for these multiple jobs with heavy overlap you can create overlays to make sure each job is adequately, but not overly manned and play 3D chess by projecting what crew will be needed where and when and so use the minimal amount of warm bodies to keep all jobs chugging along.

The fourth circle of project management hell: Always remember that Caesar was assassinated by those closest to him. Remember that information and closeted skeletons being power, those who know most about you can hurt you the most. Those that are not actually part of your network team can always attempt to do damage to you, but it’s those closest to you on a daily basis, your superintendents and field foremen, your assigned office staff and such who actually know where you’ve buried the bodies and where you keep the Kool-Aid.

What to do to escape this? While fear of poverty driven by The Great Recession is a powerful change agent that can drive even the most noble amongst us to create chaos that we wouldn’t do otherwise, if you’ve honestly tried to follow The Golden Rule and create a true team ethos where everyone respects and works well with each other, you might get nipped at around the edges. But the possibility of someone close to you hand-grenade-sandwiching you to further their own end really shouldn’t be a problem. If someone within your aegis does attempt a palace coup to throw you out as one of senior management’s pro consuls, be proactive by never ever trying to hide anything related to the charges at hand, the truth not always being pretty, but always being the truth.

The fifth circle of project management hell: Treading to keep your head above the filth in a stormy sea of mass desperation. For example, your bosses cut your base salary, your benefits, get rid of your contractual bonuses, your company vehicle, your expense accounts, etc.

You are wondering how to escape this? In this hellacious economy it’s truly a buyer’s, not a seller’s market regarding employment. This begs the question: Is a job, almost any job, worth it to maintain a reasonably steady employment track record and put at least some bill money in the kitty until times get better? Face it: we probably won’t see full employment in our industry like it was pre-bubble-burst for the next 20 years. This means that any job, even one that’s the project management equivalent of working in hell, is probably better than not having one at all. If you can somehow take the pain of working under less than ideal circumstances for a company with less than clear ethics then sometimes in the end, when we all come out “the other side,” and a more equitable labor marketplace for those of us with our truly unique project management skill sets comes back into play, your continued employment record in the trade (no matter how shaky it might be) will put you clearly above your competition and you’ll be the safer and richer for it.

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: [email protected].

About the Author

H. Kent Craig

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing.

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