Author: Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP

About Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, coach and practitioner in the area of infrastructure program management, strategy alignment/development and team/organizational leadership. With over two decades as a civil engineer field grade officer in the U.S. Air Force, Knutson has developed the soft skills necessary for an engineer to be successful on project/program execution and leading people. He has helped engineers grow personally and to develop as leaders through leadership positions in the Air Force and also through his writing at The Engineer Leader blog over the past few years. Knutson now blogs regularly on The Engineering Career Coach site and serves as a periodic co-host on both The Engineering Career Coach (TECC) Podcast and The Civil Engineering Podcast (CEP).

6 Things You Can Do to Keep Challenging Personalities in Check

It doesn’t matter what field you operate in, as soon as you bring in creative experts the potential for both personality and technical conflict increases. The why is understandable: truly creative designers and engineers who have established themselves as experts will tend to have a very strong mental model of what should happen on a project. Sometimes this vision of the future conflicts with the reality of the project scope, schedule and cost.

When this happens, it’s not a human resources issue. It’s a leadership and a project team issue that you need to resolve.

So, let’s start with why some creative-types generate so much drama in the project team. Coming from the perspective of a “creative-type”, I can understand why some skilled engineers and designers can be difficult to work with:

  • Feelings of not being heard has led them to become the loudest voice in the charrette.
  • They have a sense of entitlement built on a track record of success in their designs. This has now gone to their head and they let their ego run rampant.
  • The individual is truly a savant who happens to have a low emotional intelligence (EI) functionality.
  • They are a product of their past, with previous project managers allowing them to behave outside team norms because their technical or aesthetic designs are astounding.

Challenging Creative People Make for Better Project Deliverables

I developed my project management and leadership bona fides in an organization where you didn’t have the chance to simply drop people from the project team. It was my job to create excellence from the people presented, no matter their technical or interpersonal skills. While you may operate in an environment where you can vote challenging people off the team at the first sign of resistance, don’t.

Leadership isn’t about eliminating dissent in a team, it’s about forging a team that accepts and thrives on supportive dissent. What’s that? It is dissent intended to challenge or eliminate group-think and to ultimately lead the project team towards delivering the best quality design that meets scope, schedule, cost and quality. This isn’t going to happen in a homogeneous team where no one questions the design approach or unique risk mitigation strategies.

It’s important to have a status-quo-challenging creative person on the team. It is equally important to ensure that you set parameters, expectations and keep the creative team member on vector.

How to Lead a Creative Team Member for Team Success

In my mind, project leadership entails maximizing the effectiveness of each person on the project team. Most situations will not give you the luxury of selecting each member of the team, so you will be faced with forging an effective team with the people you’re assigned.

Even in situations where you recruit and hire specific team members or bring in outside consultants, you can miss the challenging personality trait and be faced with a challenging personnel problem.

Short of kicking the challenge off the team, let’s consider some actual leadership actions you can take to set up the creative person and entire project team for success:

Establish Expectations Early. Have a one-on-one meeting with the person to explain the norms of behavior, language, etiquette, and meeting protocols. If necessary, set up some type of sign that you give the other person when they are starting to agitate or stir the pot too much – e.g. tugging your left ear lobe or saying a phrase like “that’s interesting” while you stare directly at them.

Main point: ensure they know you will not tolerate disrespect of your project team members.

Prepare the Project Team for Personalities. If you know that a particular incoming project team member will be a personality challenge, don’t surprise the project team. For instance, let’s say you have a design or engineering consultant attending an upcoming charrette who you know to be a challenging personality.

It’s incumbent on you as the project manager to make the project team aware and to let them know why this person is being brought in. Talk about how you’ll react, as a team, to awkward situations (e.g. hot tempers or open challenges to opinions or technical ideas) so everyone is prepared.

As the project manager, visualize how you will react to these situations and at what point you’ll intervene to call a coffee break. Main point: prep the team for the personality and keep your eye on delivering a successful project.

Set a Strict Agenda in Meetings and Charrettes. If you have a full-time project team member who is a personality challenge, ensure meetings are run with a very strict agenda. This means both topical (what is discussed) and time (how long).

Don’t allow a meeting to run any longer than scheduled and if the challenging personality starts to pontificate or derail the meeting, give them the “sign” the two of you established in your one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, simply tell the person that the issue at hand will go “off-line”, meaning it will be discussed outside the current meeting. If you have a temporary team member participating in a charette, such as a consultant or individual on loan from a different division, consider having an outside facilitator run the event.

This person needs to be one with the skills for working with creative designers or engineers, and thus understands how to manage technical personalities and still deliver highly effective results.

When All Else Fails, Document. Not every situation with challenging people works out and you need to be prepared for this. That preparation starts with documenting the individual’s outbursts, inability to work collaboratively, or other instances of friction.

Be certain to highlight what the specific, negative impact is to the project in each instance. You can’t simply indicate that on “Tuesday at 3 p.m., Ted was a jerk”. Be specific and concise, while also being unemotional.

The reason you’re documenting is so that you have a record of performance you can use in private consultation with the challenging individual. If the person is part of your company, make certain that the individuals supervisor (and yours) are informed of the general situation as it develops.

Bad news isn’t like a fine wine, it doesn’t get better as it ages.

Limit Contact. Depending on your project, you may be able to limit the number of people who have to work directly with the challenging person. For instance, let’s say your project has multiple sub-components.

An outside consultant with a challenging personality is only involved in one of these sub-components and that only involves three members of your ten-person project team. Don’t expose everyone to challenging person! Limit the friction and keep the team moving forward.

When All Else Fails, Fire the Person. If, despite your best leadership efforts you can see that the project may fail because of the friction the challenging person is generating, sack them. Terminate their project team membership and ship them back to their division or terminate their contract.

If the individual is part of your company, and you have been documenting performance and sharing your concern with their supervisor, arrange a meeting with HR and their supervisor to close-out the situation. If the individual is an outside contractor, terminate the agreement with specific details on why and the negative impact on the overall project.

In the end, successful, challenging projects require subject matter experts who themselves can be challenging. Effective project managers expect that some people will bring challenging personalities into the project team and visualize how they will handle these situations. Treat this preparation just as you would treat developing risk mitigation strategies. By doing this, you will be prepared for channeling the creative energy people bring to the project while at the same time minimizing the potential for collateral damage that might derail your project.

Looking for more project management and career advice?

5 Reasons Engineers Need to Develop Project Management Skills

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:

Career Advancement

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.