Conducting the orchestra

A project manager is arguably the most important person in the project process. But what does it take to execute the role properly to ensure project success every time? Amy Wallington finds out.

Over the years, as technology continues to advance, home technology and AV integration has become more challenging. With so many different options available to homeowners, integrators need to know what will fit into a particular project to meet the needs of the client. Installations have grown more complex over time and require even more coordination. This ongoing rapid development of technology creates even more challenges for project managers.

It doesn’t matter what size the company is, or how big or small the project is, every job should have a designated manager to take charge. Taking the full weight of responsibility for successfully completing the job on time and to a high standard, the project manager is the most important role.

“Project management is much more than an additional role assigned to your company’s best lead technician; it is a philosophy that needs to permeate the organisation,” says Brad Malone, managing partner at Navigate Management Consulting. “Mature project management is the answer to the question: ‘How do we sell, manage and implement projects for our clients in a professional and predictable manner?’

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“Many companies treat the subject of project management as a person, not as a thought process,” he continues. “They usually assign their best troubleshooter (or lead technician) to the role of project manager because they believe that person will be able to pull the project out of the fire once a problem or crisis occurs. This strategy relies on that individual’s ability as a reactive problem-solver but doesn’t foster proactive planning and up-front communication. The professional project manager’s most important role is to keep the project’s interrelated elements in balance, maintaining its integrity as project changes and variances begin to occur.”

The role of a project manager is very similar to the role of an orchestra conductor; they both have to manage and take control of numerous parts in order for everything to work together harmoniously. If the conductor loses control or goes wrong, it ruins the music and spoils the performance. It is much the same with project management.

“The role of the project manager is to deliver the project, full stop,” adds Davy Currie, operations director at Genesis Technologies. “In tandem with the design, project management is the most important role if a project is to be successfully delivered on quality, time and budget.”

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Roles

Managing a residential project is no easy task. As the complexity of technology and the specific project itself develops, so does the project manager’s job.

“The project manager is the glue that holds it all together,” states Simon Buddle, industry consultant, Future Ready Homes. “Communication is key, within the project team as well as to the stakeholders that have an interest in the project. There may well be contributions from others but ultimately it is down to the project manager to deliver the project.

“A dedicated project manager will use their time specifically to manage everything, from resources, transport, logistics, reporting, risk management, etc. Certainly, someone within the team can adopt the role but the key here is that they allocate time to fulfil the duties of the project manager.”

It’s recommended to have a dedicated project manager in order to deliver a well-completed project that meets the client’s expectations. Sharing the responsibility within a smaller integration firm is doable, but not advised. Roles often overlap, particularly in small integration businesses, but having someone specifically for the management role is always advised.

“Investment in a good project manager will quickly pay back.”

As Malone says: “Someone is always playing the role of project manager, whether they are trained and/or full time. Often in small companies it is a shared responsibility between sales and the lead technician. As an organisation grows, it is unsuitable to clone multi-roled people. They must move into career paths with structured competencies. It’s part of the maturity process of standardisation and growth.”

“I think it depends on the size and complexity of the project in hand,” suggests Currie. “There is a point where you can’t not have a full time project manager on the job. On smaller jobs (and for smaller companies) you may get away with someone in the team taking on this role but on large projects there is nowhere to hide and the less qualified or uninitiated will quickly be swallowed up.”

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Sometimes, it is just not feasible to have a dedicated project manager in a small company. However, there will always be someone who will take lead on a job, even if they don’t realise that’s what they’re doing.

“Typically, you’ll see the owner and or client contact taking on an informal role as the project manager,” adds Buddle. “They may not call the job that, but they will be arranging access to site, purchasing the stock and planning the engineering requirements. And yes, certainly you would see a lead engineer taking the reins onsite while the kit is being installed. So, I think there is a part to play for everyone in the team.”

Not only does it make the job run smoother, but it looks much more professional to the end client when there is a project manager. The client will also have a single point of contact to keep communication simple.

And it’s not just the people in the installation team that the project manager has to oversee. “All stakeholders are considered in the project management process,” says Currie. “The client, client’s team, professional team, other trades/suppliers, etc. Communication with and between all parties is of paramount importance. Without this level of communication, and consideration, something will be missed. And if something gets missed, a domino effect will occur. That means someone will be out of pocket, there will be a dispute, or the end date will slip. Investment in a good project manager will quickly pay back.”

It’s also important that the project manager has good knowledge of the technology and products being installed so they can understand exactly what is going into the project. “It might be possible in other sectors, but in this industry, there is no way a project manager can get away with not understanding the technical end of the project as they would not be able to hold their own,” Currie adds. “It’s technology and it can be very complicated, and it doesn’t always behave or do what it’s supposed to do. That leaves very little latitude for management mistakes. A non-technical person managing a technology-based project is a recipe for failure.”

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Stages

In every project, there are different stages that all integration companies need to go through, whether there is a dedicated project manager or not. Without referring to the specific role, project management process must see through every stage in order for the project to be a success.

There are five key stages to a project: the initiation phase where the sale takes place, followed by the planning, executing and monitoring/controlling phases, ending with the completion. Of course, there are many sub-stages in between but a project manager is required to ensure each stage is fully completed on time and to a high standard before signing it off.

“Sales is the first ‘project manager’ because they create the project,” says Malone. “In many ‘immature’ companies, sales do not take responsibility for the project, instead leaving the project manager to deal with it with limited resources – and then blaming the project manager for the poor, yet predictable outcome.”

What Malone means by this is that often, the sales team will not factor in any variables that could affect or prevent the installation team doing their job properly, ultimately losing money and looking unprofessional. This is much more common on a commercial job but can also happen in residential too. The sales department might not look into work restrictions such as only being able to work in the evenings, or how to get kit into the property if it doesn’t fit in a lift, for example.

This is why the project manager should be involved from the very first concept of a project, to try to mitigate any early issues. “Project managers should start as early in the process as possible, I’d say as early as RIBA Plan of Work 2020, Stage 2 (depending on the job and arrangement),” says Currie. “With the RIBA plan in mind, the project manager would be active through all stages up to Stage 6 (Handover). But in my opinion, they should remain in place during Stage 7 (Use) up to the end of any defects warranty. The project manager shouldn’t disappear at project completion, the project, and management thereof, is not complete until the warranty on the service sold expires.”

However, Buddle believes this should be down to a different team. “A project is a temporary endeavour,” he explains. “It should end with a post project review to help the business improve the next project. For me, the signal that the work of the project manager is done will be when the job is handed over to the service and maintenance team.”

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Ignoring advice

Not having a project manager, whether dedicated or someone from the team taking the reins, will almost certainly lead to disaster. Without a project manager, something is bound to be missed along the way. Whatever might go wrong will circle back on the company which will often lead to losing money, not only for the company but the other trades involved and even the client too. Quality will also suffer without a proper project manager to look over the work, and the job will often run over.

“Project management is much more than an additional role assigned to your company’s best lead technician; it is a philosophy that needs to permeate the organisation.” 

“None of these eventualities is a good look and so will damage your image/reputation and jeopardises future work from the clients or other professional teams on the job, as well as any recommendations,” discloses Currie. “If you want consistency, repeat business and to grow, then you need to properly manage your live projects from day one to final completion.”

If it’s a small company with one or two team members, they can sometimes get away with it, as Buddle mentions: “When you have a small team then communication and coordination is relatively straightforward. As the number of projects grow then I would say those are the two areas that suffer most. If engineers arrive onsite without the necessary tools or equipment, then you’re faced with wasted time, which equates to a drop in project profit.”

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Training

To become a residential AV project manager, the CEDIA Academy is a great place to start for training. Currently, the organisation is offering four courses under the project management umbrella.

‘Fundamentals of Project Management’ is the first of the four courses, which provides participants with the general concepts and vocabulary related to project management as well as a more detailed discussion of the concepts of successful project planning.

The second course is titled ‘Systems Integration Lifecycle: Initiation’. Covering the typical systems integration lifecycle that most projects follow, this course provides participants with an understanding of the critical cross-functional hand-offs that must occur to make a project successful. It will also cover the project initiation deliverables beginning with sales and the internal project kick-off meeting – all of which are essential first steps in the process.

Continuing from the second course, ‘Systems Integration Lifecycle: Execution & Closure’ is next on the list. This course will cover the typical phased approach within the systems integration lifecycle, with iterative planning and execution of the pre-work wiring phase, the rough and trim phase, and the rack build and finish phase, culminating in the project closure and transition phase.

Finally, course 4 is ‘Interpersonal Skills’, which covers the impact of company culture on vision, mission, values, standards and team development, and performance management.

All four courses are available now through the CEDIA Academy.

Main image: Alenavlad / Shutterstock.com

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