Bad decisions, poor choices & misdirection lead to a high risk of project failure
by Mark Anderson
March 11, 2019

The essence of project management is reducing risk, optimizing project outcomes and meeting client expectations. As such, clients turn to professional project management and cost consultancy to help them achieve exactly that.

Whether cost consultants, external project managers or scheduling specialists, delivery consultants are in unique positions of influence—poised to be the client’s most trusted resource. With this privilege come the challenges of building and maintaining strong relationships, as well as working tirelessly to deliver results.

Even the most successful projects have had their share of obstacles. Consultants often facilitate critical decision making on their client’s behalf, stepping in when a he or she makes a decision that may lead to a calamitous outcome.

The Outliers

The role and level of authority that project management and cost consultancy professionals are granted falls across a wide spectrum. However, limits to authority are rarely explicit and are often merely implied or expected. 

Some clients prefer that all major decision making, authority and direction emanate solely from their organization. For these clients, the consultant’s role is to give advice and consultation, or act as a superintendent of the client’s parlance.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are clients who prefer the consultants act in their place. These clients empower consultants to act on their behalf like a surrogate or even an agent, to deliver projects successfully. These projects typically start behind schedule and fly under the radar until a critical issue arises.

Some of the tougher clients might require project managers to be dispatched on international missions to take control of international projects and deliver them on a fixed price, do-or-die basis—sometimes with only 5 hours’ notice.

The Gray Area

Most projects fall in a middle zone between these two extremes. With these projects, consultants generally shift back and forth between two roles: the role of the advisor who steps in when asked or when necessary and the role of the principal leader, responsible for overseeing every detail.

Some tasks are shared with the client; some are delegated to outsourced project delivery; and some tasks are sacred—performed by internal staff only. For the managers and cost consultants on these projects, success is measured by the ability to mitigate risk, deliver quality, and adhere to schedules and budgets.

As with the other two extremes, challenges also appear in the gray middle zone. These project scenarios often begin with:

  1. “This architect did my house in Malibu, so of course he/she can do my multistory high-rise in a major metropolitan area. He’ll/She’ll figure it out.”
  2. “Yes, I understand the objective scoring of your firm, the architect, engineer and stakeholders. And no, this contractor has never done a project like this one, but I’m confident he/she will rise to the occasion because I really like him/her, and he/she really wants this project.”
  3. “Yes, I understand the disruptive nature of this change; and yes, it is the eleventh hour. But we must have it, and you will have to figure out how to complete it within the budget and without any delay.”

While some may shy away from taking on difficult project scenarios like these, it’s often the case that consultants’ ears tend to perk up. Project consultants thrive on the adrenaline of achieving client satisfaction while doing the seemingly impossible.

But, as one client put it simply, “Boring is good; heroics are bad.” Projects that complete on time with risks anticipated and budgets met are the boring greats.

Flying specially sourced stone from Italy to a domestic project, driving electrical gear straight from the plant, hovering a helicopter over a jobsite to dry soil, working overtime too many times to count—these are all exciting and demonstrate a desire to achieve the client’s objectives. But, if the project is managed well, these stressful tasks won’t be necessary.

What Must be Done

Consultants (and project managers) must walk the tightrope of complying with the client’s direction and confronting the client about mistakes when needed. Compliance is obvious. Confrontation is risky and challenging.

Remaining silent in the face of bad decisions, poor choices and misdirection is easier, but it leads to a high risk of project failure, which is why clarity is critical in successful client engagement. Challenging a client is never fun or popular in a meeting, and it often incurs financial and organizational risks. Confrontation of a problem is best achieved through honest conversation.

“Here are the facts as we understand them. The choice is always yours, Ms. or Mr. Client, but let’s discuss the possibilities. Is that really what you want to do, given all we know? Are you certain about this path?” Whenever possible, take this route, as it offers the best chance to present the client with options. Then, defer to their choice and do everything possible to make it a reality.

When there is ambiguity, everyone makes up their own story, and these stories frequently diverge from everyone’s best intentions and create conflict. All parties should be aware of limits to authority and should clearly understand the chain of command and the decision-making process. Level-specific expectations should be set, and any consequences for not meeting those expectations should be understood and addressed as needed.

The best project managers avoid conflict by doing everything possible to prevent it from happening. Sometimes, this means having difficult conversations with clients, which can help you to better meet their expectations in the end.