Communication for Project Managers

Project Management Knowledge Areas
Image via Wikipedia

OK you have your first project as PM. There is nowhere to hide, nobody to blame, it is down to you, as we say in Australia “sh*t or bust.

I remember the day I was given my first project, and I mean real project ie tower cranes and unions. I had a mentor at the time and he said once I had delivered the project I should treat myself, and I did. I bought a Tag Heuer watch which I still wear every day. At the time it cost as much as a small car but every time I look at the watch it reminds me of my mentor and how I got my first “real” project under my belt.

I could bleat on about project management, the watch was 16 years ago, but what my current issue is communication and systems. There is  information we store for future use if needed and there is communication which  (I hate to use  IT geek speak) involves workflows.

So what is a workflow and what do we store for the future, workflow is communication that requires response, action, follow-ups and can cost you dollars, storage is what we keep if we have to prove the workflow.

Currently Sharepoint is well used as the storage facility or document repository.

The following quote whose source I have omitted for his personal reasons is seminal:

“In a panel discussion on SharePoint as a social platform, the consensus was that SharePoint contains many of the ingredients of a social application, but by itself doesn’t get you all the way there–not without extensive customization or the addition of a third-party product such as NewsGator Social Sites.”

Unfortunately some misguided IT professional believe Sharepoint can manage workflow as well, and in tandem with being a document repository. They are wrong and out of touch. Project Managers need information in real time and there are many proprietary software packages that will give them the information they need.

I am looking forward to the day when we bury Sharepoint as a workflow engine and linked spreadsheets developed in house to satisfy needs which can be met by software which is already available.

The New Black Gold

Dragline at the Curragh Coal Mine
Go Curragh

Construction in Australia was affected by the GFA but not as badly as the rest of the world. However, contractor’s order books did reduce and is unlikely to return to the levels of pre GFA for some years. In the meantime the resources sector is booming. Nowhere more so than in coal mining.  So yours truley has moved from construcyion into mining. Farewell Brisbane and hello Mackay.

Our biggest issue in providing construction, maintenance and engineering services to the coal mining companies is people. We cannot get enough of them. Engineers, planners, project managers, contract administrators/project controllers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and site operational workers. The rewards are exceptional and the future workload is guaranteed.

So if you want to move from tower cranes to draglines get in touch with me.

We know we are making money ….. aren’t we?

Robert Bernard Reich, American politician, aca...
Robert Reich come back all is forgiven

Some people confuse increased company activity with increased profits. When in fact they are just going broke quicker.  Now before we start I am not rambling about Keynesian economics, the Galbraith hypothesis or even Robert Reich‘s analysis of the Global Financial Crisis (the most recent not the one that will hit before Christmas). This missive is about the nuts and bolts of how we manage our dollars in straightforward construction and engineering contracting.

If you are not in construction/resources/engineering in Australia you assume that those of us who are get paid in gold bars and all the companies for whom we work are making gazillions. As I find it hard to be objective from within all I will say is we work hard and booms don’t last forever. But what is a given is that we do not maximize our profits because our thinking is out dated. So what has Robert Reich got to do with construction/engineering in Queensland Australia in 2011? The answer is simple: his analysis of complex US/global economic problems is rational and succinct; and we don’t analyse our projects well enough. He understands: the complexities and his precis is in lay mans’ language; we don’t appreciate the complexities and summarize without fact or maybe with linked spreadsheets or proprietary software which is not fully understood by not only the people using it, but less so by the people relying on it.

Most organisations know where they stand financially as an overall business but have difficulty in being up to speed at a project level. They rely too much on the verbal reassurances from Project Managers, and glossy monthly reports full of nice pictures, colourful graphs and the ubiquitous spreadsheets. All of which the site cadet has spent a week preparing and the project manager’s cursory glance.

The simple fact is the senior management want to know two things: what are the risks; and what are the opportunities. And they need t have confidence in the person giving them that information. That is why the financial status of the project MUST come from the finance department, and the project team provide the forecast of what will it cost to get the job to the finishing post and how much above/below the contract sum will we be paid. That does not sound difficult because it isn’t.

Next time when the blog is on this subject I will look at making sure it is not difficult whilst ensuring accuracy and confidence.

Are you one of the future 100,000,000?

I am not a social media butterfly but I am always interested in ways in which we can make our lives easier within the construction industry.

The latest offering from our American west coast friends is the Google Plus Project. I won’t ramble on about how it works or the pro’s and con’s viz a viz  Facebook/Twitter et al.  Suffice to say it is going to be big, very big.

My question is can we use G+ (as the hipsters call it) in the construction industry? Some immediate uses are the ability to video conference up to ten people simultaneously. So Mr Construction Manager, from head office you can have a weekly hook up with up to ten sites and talk and see to your site managers. Mr Commercial manager can do the same with his Contract Administrators (aka project control managers outside Australia). The company Safety Manager can do presentations on incidents, method statements etc. So that is a big tick for G+

The next use is the way in which people you connect with are placed in “circles” etermined by the user. So you can have a circle of site managers, or one of consultants, or the PCG. The information you distribute only goes to those in the circle you specify. maybe the next step is video minutes of subby meetings, but they might be R rated and cannot be circulated as they would bre each google’s content policy. But seriously there is a lot of potential in the desemination of information.

Currently G+ is not available as an enterprose tool but they are trailing that with some larger companies such as Ford. But that should not stop us using it within a business environment to simply communicate. I am double checking this with the Google guys.

With the introduction of Office365 “in the cloud” and the future demise of purchasing off the shelf software to upload on our PCs, the way in which G+ integrates with other Google products such as Sites, maps, Documents etc makes it an application we should not ignore. I know several construction companys that manage their tender process, document control, RFI/Variations etc through Google Products without the need for an in house IT guru. just a cadet with an iPhone and he is happy because his parents follow him on Twitter and Facebook, but on G+ he controls his “Stream”, Circles”, Hangouts” and “Huddles“. Oh dear I think I am turning hipster – Pirillo please send help!

Time to Clean Up

In large construction projects such as skyscra...
Image via Wikipedia

The construction sector in South East Queensland is pretty flat at the moment for one simple reason: the industry lacks confidence in the immediate future.

Ok I could rant on about Gillard and Bligh (our PM and our state premier) but they will be gone in time hoisted on their own petard as we used to say. Construction companies are not hiring, ex-colleagues of mine are uncertain where the next project is coming from, so there is a shadow over the construction industry.

Everyday in the public notices section of the local rag there are subcontractors and suppliers in liquidation. Should we be depressed about the situation – definitely not. It is exactly what was required to fix an overheated industry, get rid of the rubbish and the wannabes.

I was discussing the current situation with an employment novelist (sorry consultant) today. He rang me asking did I know of anyone who may be interested in a position he was advertising. He went on to tell me about this “family orientated builder”, the “potential career potential”, then those bloody buzz words: team, synergy, blue-chip clients, ASX listed, openness, friendly environment. I had to stop him from gushing on about this company by telling him that I knew lots of people who may be sucked in to this Utopian employer. He detected my slight sarcasm and asked me what I would look for in a company. My response is summarized as follows:

  1. The company needs to be run by a hard-nosed, seen it all before, no-nonsense builder.
  2. The biggest site the financial controller has seen is not his girlfriend’s backside.
  3. Site foreman need to be able to use a level and have top-level skills such as being able to read, write and even set up holding down bolt cages accurately.
  4. Each project is up to date ie variations, RFIs, cost reports, subcontractor payments, registers, subcontracts et al
  5. The contact administrators can write their own scopes of works which get to the site before the subcontractor
  6. Working hours 06:30 until 18:00, but early finish of 13:00 on Saturdays.
  7. Subcontractors/suppliers paid on time
  8. Estimators who can actually estimate
  9. Safety policy that is in force not paid lip service to
  10. What gets discussed at the job interview is the truth no matter how unpalatable.
My friendly employment novelist was very quiet and finally asked me could I send him my response so he could use it as his own checklist.

Google+ hip, hype or banned by Luddites


Yes I have been one of the chosen few to be given an invite to try out Google+ or Google Plus. Please note you it is still in trial stages so you may not be able to it yet, but you can take the tour.

I won’t bore you with techno babble, the future of Facebook, the demise of Twitter or any other such nerdy nonsense.

But what I did find is an application that is ideal for those of us in construction.

Two of the core areas of Google plus are “circles” and “hangout”. Yes I know they sound very hipster and twee but what they allow you to do is to have a circle of colleagues, site managers, subcontractors, consultants, the PCG, which you determine and set up. Also, you can have up to 11 people on video link at the same time, high quality and completely free. The software determines who is talking and the main view then goes to that person.

Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. ...

The really interesting question will be for the Luddites who manage head offices and are scared the cadets maybe spending too much time twittering etc. You know the type of people who will waste their own time checking up on people who get paid less than a quarter of the manager’s pay.

Google+ will in time,  be on everyone’s desktop and the social network and business network will become seamless. Just as our mobiles and emails keep coming outside office hours, weekends and holidays, the working day is not stretched it is all-consuming.

I bet most architects and designers will be up and running Google+ by the end of this month, but some builders might get their by 2020.

The Taxman Cometh

I hear the Australian Tax Office are targeting plasterers this year.  I presume they mean plaster board fixers and setters (or ceilings and partitions) as they make up the majority of people in this trade category with the balance being renderers.

Now, I have a theory, wait please stay with me, that there are critical points in a project that never appear on the construction programme. These points are relevant to the “feel” of the project rather than actual site activities. The commencement of the plasterers is one of these points. When a project kicks off it usually follows the sequence of earthworks, foundations, structure, etc. The people involved in those trades see the building come out of the ground and take shape. They get to know each other, the bedding in process with the site manager has taken place. Now we all know this stage, we have danced around the dog turds, settled down our union friends, sorted out most of the gaps in the documentation, worked out what the estimator left out.  In other words after the initial hoop la we settle in to a daily cycle of activity. We may even have put on a BBQ for “the boys”. Then the plasterers arrive.  Often a motley crew of semi skilled, half trained, ne’er do wells.  Morale on site plummets, disruption to the programme is inevitable and all semblance of a team approach vanishes.

Why is this?  OK I could spruik on about “ownership of the project” or “stakeholders” based on the assumption that the early trades now feel usurped by these new arrivals. Let’s leave that to the trick-cyclists sorry psychiatrists. The real reason that the pace and feel of the project changes is that the fixing of plasterboard to studs and subsequent setting is carried out by semi skilled people who get paid a disproportionate rate. I had a job a few years ago where these characters were getting $45 per hour on a 50 hour guaranteed week, plus site allowance, travel etc. A larger job nearby was desparate for ceiling fixers so all the ones from my site left for $55 per hour, two weeks later they were enticed to another project at $62 hour. So they ended up on $185K per annum. What did they do with all this dosh, they bought V8 utes, Maloo’s of course, holidays in Bali, jet skis, ie all the necessities of life.

So now they have nothing to show for it, except maybe a big fat juicy bill from the Tax Department – my heart bleeds for them.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Trajan's Column - Roman Soldiers Building a Fo...

All the successful project managers I have known have had a common thread. They have certain traits that distinguish them from other PMs or other members of the project team.

I decided to hit the keyboard on the subject as I have been talking with perspective employers about the next project. Invariably the question they all ask is what are your strengths? (easy peasy) but you know what is next – what are your weaknesses?

Now I have hire many staff over the years from Project Directors on $2billion projects to site clerks, and I have asked the same questions. The hard part is divorcing the kind of person you want as the employer and deciding on the right person for the project. I have hired people who could be the most difficult, recalcitrant and plain bloody minded but they were right for the job. I have also hired people that I thought at interview were marvelous people, and they were, but you would not put them in charge of a free bar.

Now when I am asked about my strengths I admit that I trot out the normal stuff. I will use one word for each: team, relationships, example, foresight, leadership, tenacious, focussed, driven, professional, experience etc etc. I usually add a few others that satisfied clients have used about some completed projects: the shark, hit-the-ground-running, and my favorite which I was described as by a very influential Arab developer – Mr Wolf

So how to respond to the “Weakness” question. You need to be honest. I have had people become more humble than Uriah Heap and advise them to try social work not project management. I have had some who have no weaknesses (next candidate please). The secret is be prepared for the question as it always gets asked.

But returning to the common thread and PM’s traits there is one weakness that does surface in many of us. That is we take over a team member’s critical tasks sometimes if that person is struggling. Yes as good leaders we know that people make mistakes and we council, train, “mother hen” them. We don’t let them go under. But the response during the interview is usually on the lines:

“some people may see it as a weakness but when a team member is struggling with a critical task I go out of my way to help them achieve the goal they are striving for”

My response is as Mr Wolf “I solve problems”

On the Road to Damascus

Street sign near the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus,...
An actual street sign!!!

No I have not “seen the light”, done a Saint Paul, or had some other recent mystical experience.

This post is about my business trip from Latakia in northern Syria by road along the M5 to Damascus and then on to the M1 to Beirut.

The plan was simple fly from my office in Doha Qatar to Latakia Syria (on the Mediterranean just south of the border with Turkey. Doha to Latakia is about 2,000 klms ie Brisbane to Ayres Rock or say London to Sicily. But of course in the Arab world things are never that simple. There are visas, questions about what country’s passport you hold, the reason for the visit etc. The Middle East is not the same as traveling through the EEC even for me with dual nationality of Australia and UK so two passports.

It was decided the day before the trip that we would pop over to Sannaa (Yemen) and Kartoum (Sudan) as we had construction projects in these locations too. Now I have been to damascus before and Beirut but not on the same trip , Yemen and Sudan were my first visits. I was not concerned as we were usually bumped up from business to first class on the plane, drivers waiting at the airport to take us to the best hotel in town. Anyway that afternoon my very efficient PA and Sami brought in my travel documents and local currency for each country. I should point out that Sami does not have a job title, he is a local and he only can be described as “a fixer”. You need a visa, driving licence, tickets for anythink, the Sami will speak to one of his “cousins” who all seem to work at a minisitry of something in the government, and things just happen.

The big surprise for me was amongst the documents there was a form I had to sign – my kidnap insurance, and the port were my body was to be sent to. The reason for this was we were off to Sudan and Yemen. But Sami assured me there should not be a problem as were ere not Americans, my colleague was British. So with lots of enshallas and mafi mushkalas the paperwork was completed and we were off the following morning.

At Doha airport the flight plan had changed it was now Doha to Damascus and then a four hour drive from Damascus up to Latakia, an overnight stay then a four hour drive back to Damascus the f0llowing morning. So we arrived at Damascus and our driver failed to show. So we just hired a car and set off on the M5 which sounds impressive but is not. It is a single lane highway but wide enough for three lanes in either direction. In other words it is a motorway with no line markings, no white lines, no signs, no lights, but does have lunatic Turkish truck drivers, donkeys with carts, and all the pleasures of driving with our arab friends bless em.

Although I had been to Syria a few times previously I had allways arrived at an airport, rushed by car to a nearby hotel etc, this time I had a four hour drive which meant interaction with the locals. This occured very quickly in fact less than a kilometre from the Airport. The traffic lights went red, I pulled up and two local gentelment stepped out from the shade of a tree and tapped on my window – with an AK47. One word from them “papers”, one US$100 note from me and we were on our way. This happened four times so it would have been cheaper to hire a local taxi and armed militia don’t issue receipts.

After spending the night in Latakia and having a four hour meeting we headed back on the road to Damascus. Thje plan being to drive to Damascuss, another meeting then 100klms to Beiruit. We arrived at our hotel in down town Damascus only US$300 lighter and discovered the only way to Beiruit was to fly to Jeddah and then to Ammaan, then Beiruit.

One day in Beiruit. Then down to Yemen where we were met at the airport and at the developers office we were greeted with a sign behind reception which stated that all firearms must be left at reception. From the meeting to the Moevenpick hotel the entrance of which is accessed by zig zagging through anti tank obstacles and army posts not only with machine guns but with anti aircraft batteries. The next day off to Kartoum trying to get a hotel out of the ground but in dispute with the only concrete pump operator in the country. And yes his uncle was the president. No overnight stop here, we got the next flight to Doha.

Four days 12,000 klms, US$1,500 in “fees”, kidnap insurance not used, body not returned by body bag, half the people we arranged to meet did not turn up, and those who did could not make a decision.

Doing business is a bit easier (and safer) in Australia!

Networking Nonesense

The You Suck Proportionality
Image by LexnGer via Flickr

I have a theory, well I have many but this one states:

“the amount of active contacts in your network is inversely proportional to the amount of years experience you have in the industry”

Which means those who are relatively new to the construction industry have many contacts that they are in touch with in order to promote themselves. Whereas those who have been in the industry for many years have a lot of contacts they want Not to be networked with and do not see the need for mass networking.

I recently decided to use gmail as my primary email, contacts, diary etc synced to my iphone, ipad et al. This meant merging various outlook, hotmail, Opera, Excel dbases, to come up with a full list which was up to date and with no duplicates. The merged contact database was 7,246 contacts. After culling duplicates, the dead, the retired, the bankrupt and those residing in the home for project managers who have overdosed on cost reports and spreadsheet senility, I ended up with 3,156. Take out all my personal friends and that slashed the total to 3,152 (no comments on misanthropic, narcissistic project managers please). I then took out all architects, engineers, consultants and other near do wells, sales reps and real estate novelists, I got down to 658. Still too many.

So I have embarked on an experiment. I have deleted all contacts in the iPhone and will only add them when they call me. This meant adjusting the sync settings in iTunes but that is a whole new post in itself.

On completing this exercise the iPhone rang, my first unadulterated contact. It was a gentleman from Mumbai asking if I was interested in real estate in Dubai.

The contact list is still empty