Here’s a lesson I’m thankful I learned early in my career: successful engineering projects rely more on non-technical skills than technical skills. It’s not that the technical skills aren’t important – they are. One can’t design a building without knowledgeable, skilled structural, MEP, and fire engineers. An airplane isn’t safe unless there are skilled aeronautical engineers involved. You can’t rely on the quality of electricity unless there are smart electrical engineers involved.
The project a skilled engineer might be working on, however, won’t be successful unless there is an equally skilled project manager involved leading and managing the engineering project.
Think I’m wrong? Project Management Institute’s (PMI) 2016 report The High Cost of Low Performance: How will you improve business results? cited that $122 million was wasted for every $1 billion invested due to poor project performance. Other studies from Gallup and Harvard Business Review report equally grim statistics for project timeliness, cost overruns and scope creep. For those familiar with project management basics, you’ll quickly recognize these as the infamous project management triangle.
While there are smart, talented engineers involved in engineering projects that go sideways, why do these projects still fail?
Because engineering projects aren’t just about technical issues and rational factors, they are often more heavily influenced by non-technical and emotional factors.
Why Engineers Need to Care About Project Management Skills
I know that my undergraduate work in civil engineering didn’t include any courses on project management, let alone communications or leadership. While I did have an engineering economics course, I recall that it was more about net present value calculations and internal rate of review, than it was about cost estimating, earned value management and how to develop effective cost controls for a construction project.
My project management skills were learned through on-the job training, or OJT. Most engineers who move into project management roles get there via the OJT path. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, if it isn’t bolstered with legitimate study of project management fundamentals, then it can become a bad thing in the right situation.
I gave little thought to the study of project management until fifteen years into my professional engineering career. In an attempt to give my career skills a boost, I began studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) course. Only then did I begin realizing that my OJT project management skills were inadequate in terms of the processes, procedures and general vernacular necessary to deliver successful projects. While I wasn’t a slouch in managing a project with regards to scope, schedule and cost, I was lacking in my ability to visualize how leadership, communications, strategic guidance, and even personal emotion, factor into the management of said project.
Engineers who think they don’t need to care about developing their project management skills will one day run into a situation where technical and rational means of solving a problem won’t work.
The technical/rational skills of engineers are useful for solving technical or rational problems on engineering projects, such as cost estimation and adjustments, forecasting, quality assurance or scheduling. These skills aren’t useful, however, when dealing with problems linked to project team members or stakeholders. The reason should be obvious: project team members and stakeholders are humans or groups of humans. Humans aren’t always rational, they tend to be emotional. So, the technical/rational approach to many issues faced in project management won’t always work. In some situations, they will never work.
Benefits of Developing Project Management Skills
Spending time on project management skills development may be the last thing you want to add to your already busy schedule. With the normal churn and demands of life and work, you’re likely not jumping up and down to throw another requirement on to the calendar.
However, I’ll give you two specific reasons engineers may want to reconsider priorities and extend the effort to develop project management skills on top of the on-the-job training or organizational project management training:
I don’t simply mean climbing the engineering firm latter to partner or VP. Even if you aren’t interested in a leadership position in an engineering firm, you must continue to advance your career via advancing your skills. Engineers already know that maintaining one’s engineering mojo requires consistent study, reading of trade journals, and attending training courses. Each of us does this to advance our career by advancing, or growing our skills.
William S. Boroughs had something to say about consistent growth: “When you stop growing you start dying.” If you stop advancing your skills you won’t literally die, however, you run a good chance of killing your career.
Studying project management will provide you with the processes, procedures and lingo to enhance your planning, delivery, controlling and hand-over of projects. It will also begin to posture you for the other type of career advancement – movement into leadership positions.
Some of us are interested in progressing forward into positions of increased responsibility and yes, salary. There are various salary surveys accessible on the web, so go take a look at the median salary variance between engineering and project management positions. As a civil engineer, I’m looking at a median salary of $82,000 in the U.S., contrasted with a median salary of $91,000 for a project manager.
Even if you are truly altruistic and position, title, and compensation don’t matter to you, then the second benefit from studying project management should suffice as a reason to crack the books.
Increased Benefit for Your Organization and Clients
A situation I’m experiencing currently is a lack of qualified engineering project managers in the building and infrastructure sector. Why the lack of such experts? My speculation is twofold: (1) engineers not interested in moving into project management roles and developing the skills needed to make that move; (2) retirement of engineers who have developed strong project management skills and no qualified engineer project managers available to fill the void.
This lack of skilled engineer-project managers means that engineering firms are not able to deliver, let alone realize, benefits internal to the company or more importantly, to their clients. What do I mean by benefits? To keep it simple, I’ll highlight the big three we’re all familiar with: scope, schedule and cost. According to the PMI’s report I cited earlier, 32% of assessed projects experienced scope creep, 47% were over budget, and 51% were late.
What this translates to is a loss of money to a client, and most clients see cost avoidance or savings as a benefit.
Project management study develops skills that you can put to use in ensuring that a project is maintained within scope, kept on schedule, and controlled within the budget. Yes, you can pick up skills from on-the-job training, however, you’re certain to miss some critical pieces of knowledge that you can only gain from a concentrated effort to build your skills. I know this from personal experience.
Both clients and your organization want projects to be properly scoped and kept within that scope; controlled to a realistic schedule; and constrained to the planned budget. Developing the skill set needed to make this happen will take experience, but it will also require study.
Here are five more benefits that engineers, their firms, and clients can realize from development of project management skills:
1. Improved Efficiency. One benefit I’ve experienced from developing my project management skills is increased efficiency in moving from initiating the project to closing it out. Specifically, this means that I have a mental model for each of the five phases of a project, standard operating procedures, flowcharts and templates developed, and a general understanding of how the project will unfold. Taking the guesswork out of the simple items frees me up to put my cranial energy onto the not-so-simple issues – the reason projects have project managers.
2. Enhanced Effectiveness. The project manager is responsible for control of a project so it remains within scope, on schedule and in budget. It is also to lead and communicate with project team members and a universe of stakeholders. A project manager’s effectiveness is pegged to the individual’s ability to understand that 80% of what they will be doing day-in/day-out is non-technical work – communicating with someone; managing expectations of a stakeholder; handling a personnel issue on the project management team; etc. Ones effectiveness in handling any of the myriad of issues that will arise will be determined by their skills and experience.
3. Can Help You Replicate Success. I love standard operating procedures, checklists and templates. One reason is they help to increase efficiency and enhance effectiveness by eliminating the time needed to create them. Another reason is that when an SOP contributes to a successful project, you increase the likelihood of replicating that success by using the same SOP on the next project. Experience will help you develop SOPs that become enduring, as well as understanding which ones must be modified for a specific project. However, if you can standardize even 60% of activities from one project to the next, you open up a lot of time that can be spent on monitoring and controlling a project’s key performance indicators, managing risk and fulfilling a client’s expectations.
4. Helps You Learn Leadership and Communications. Project management, as you’ve read repeatedly in this article, is less about technical issues and more about non-technical issues. Developing project management skills provides you with the foundation for developing the other skills required to be effective: leadership, communications, and strategic assessment. We don’t learn these skills in engineering school and many engineers will move through their entire career never learning them. OJT isn’t entirely effective for building the repertoire of skills one needs to be an effective engineering project manager.
While I came into project management with a strong dose of leadership and communication skills from fifteen years as an Air Force civil engineering officer, it’s not likely you will be so fortunate. Study project management and develop your skills in these areas – and more.
5. Common Operating Language and Picture. The study of project management, especially if it follows the structure outlined by PMI or the U.K.’s Association for Project Management, will provide you with a common operating language and picture for how project management is supposed to be conducted. Once you have this foundation, you can make educated adjustments to fit your industry, organization, or unique situation. You will also be able to look back at past projects and identify where the application of the body of knowledge of project management may have yielded a different, better result. Why does this matter? Because introspection and development of skills and knowledge is what professionals do.