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5 ways effective program management supports project owners

September 09, 2020

By Jose de Jesus Martinez

It’s critical that the owner’s representative on megaprojects be a good listener and ready to build consensus

I’m a big Los Angeles Angels fan. Under normal circumstances, I love going to games. Of course, tickets to major sporting events aren’t cheap. So, an important question is: where do you sit—behind home plate or in the bleachers? The answer helps determine if I’m getting my money’s worth. Am I getting what I’m paying for? (You don’t pay premium prices for bleacher seats.)

I feel the same way when I’m at work. I’ve spent the past 25 years working in program management—either as an employee of the project owner or, as I do now, a consultant hired to assist the owner. When you’re talking about megaprojects—usually $500 million to $1 billion or more—getting what you’re paying for is a multimillion-dollar issue.

And, usually, these are public projects. Those millions and billions of dollars ultimately belong to the taxpayers. Serving as the owner’s representative overseeing design and construction is a big responsibility. I like to call myself a “pseudo-consultant” since I’m an ex-owner. My mentality is to always have the owner’s best interests in mind.

Having the owner’s best interests in mind may sound simple, but there is a lot that goes into it. Understanding the fiscal responsibility of the project, having the right mix of professionals on our team, and building consensus are all critical.

These huge projects are always moving and evolving. I liken it to building a plane while it’s taking off. To successfully support the owner and make sure the project not only gets off the ground but arrives successfully at its destination, I’ve discovered it’s important to focus on the five key elements outlined below.

Program management is an important part of megaprojects—ones that usually cost $500 million to $1 billion or more. “Serving as the owner’s representative overseeing design and construction is a big responsibility,” writes author Jose de Jesus Martinez.

1.  Adapting to change

Most of these megaprojects are also mega-long projects—five years or more. When you’re working on a single project for that timeframe, you must expect change.

When we were working on the ongoing California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) project’s construction packages 2 and 3 through the Central Valley, we had to overcome challenges from one of the local counties. The original designs were protested locally. Clearly, a change was needed, and our team listened and collaborated to find a solution.

How did we adapt? Our team developed many design concepts seeking the solutions that would impact the schedule the least. Those concepts are the basis for a settlement where we implemented the redesign of three grade separations and one 6,500-foot high-speed railway viaduct.

Why was it successful? Because we weren’t married to one concept or design. These projects are going to impact the community, so it’s our responsibility to listen and come to a compromise with those community members.

2.  Maintaining 100% dedication

For these large and lengthy projects, consistency is critical. I liken it to baseball. For a professional baseball player, a routine ground ball is just that—routine. A pro makes that play day after day, but if their head isn’t in the game that ground ball could go right through their legs.

For a program management team, if our head isn’t in the game, we might drop the ball. And the costs are significant. Owners need a team that is mentally committed to the everyday grind of their project. Generally, they want us in their office. They want the “team,” which includes members of the client’s team and ours, to be one team. Our part of that team needs to stay consistent and 100% invested in the project. I’ll be honest, program management work isn’t for everyone.

I had one recent project where the client’s project manager and associated staff changed four times over the course of five years. Facing that much turnover requires our team to be uber-diligent, adapting to the changing project dynamics. Back to baseball: does that ground ball take a last-second bounce? It’s critical to keep your eye on the ball and never give up on the play.

A program management team must have the owner’s best interests in mind. Understanding the fiscal responsibility of the project, having the right mix of professionals on the team, and building consensus are all critical.

3.  Knowing one another’s strengths

The old saying “time is money” is especially true on megaprojects where program management is implemented. It’s critical that we resolve issues quickly. That begins with knowing our team’s strengths.

One example could be if we’re presented with gaps in preliminary engineering—it’s the program management team’s responsibility to help resolve the issues. To do that successfully and speedily, it’s critical that the team have the right mix. (You don’t need two shortstops and no left fielders.)

Generally, the team has several core oversight disciplines—design, construction, project controls, risk management, and environmental. They are part of the day-to-day team, but there are times when we need a subject matter expert (SME). Going back to my baseball analogy, you need a pinch hitter. You bring a SME to resolve that special challenge before you can move on. Once the challenge is overcome, the SME goes back to his or her regular work until the expertise is needed again.

But even the regular team has varying strengths and weaknesses. For instance, perhaps we have our #1 civil engineer assigned to this team. But utilities aren’t their strength. So, we add bench depth with someone who specializes in utilities.

Always remember we’re representing the owner. It’s critical that we not only have technical experts but also team members who know and understand the contractual requirements. That contract drives the project, and we must know it front to back.

For a program management team, if our head isn’t in the game, we might drop the ball. And the costs are significant.

4.  Employing efficient processes

Program management on huge projects is often about the little things. The “little things” include knowing where all the project documents are at all times. It may seem simple, but it requires efficiency.

For instance, on the CHSRA project our team concurrently managed 150 major design packages and more than 500 utility packages. Keeping that volume of deliverables well-organized and moving—including reviews and comments by multiple independent/outside stakeholders throughout the design progression—required a unique focus on traceability. Knowing who had the documents, who had reviewed them, and what was needed next helped keep the project efficiently moving toward construction.

5.  Anticipating the unexpected

Program management of megaprojects means being ready for anything. It’s more than just being ready—it’s anticipating what’s unexpected.

It’s somewhat like driving your car through your neighborhood. You glance in the rearview mirror from time to time, but your eyes are looking ahead through the windshield. And you’re always ready for someone parked alongside the roadway to open their door at the last minute. Or a bicycle to pop out of a driveway. You’re anticipating what very likely could happen.

With proper experience, it’s easier to have foresight.

A good example was when our team’s coordination for PG&E transmission relocations on the CHSRA project helped eliminate potential overlap or rework at three future traction power switching stations. By anticipating and overcoming potential challenges, as well as running “what if” scenarios through constructability checks, we saved more than $5 million by mitigating potential scope increases from future systems contract work.

Key discipline leads gathered for a project issue-resolution meeting.

Coming to a consensus

Previously, I mentioned the need to keep in mind the owner’s best interests. That’s the bottom line in program management. And understanding the owner is representing their community means that finding consensus among a variety of stakeholders is critical.

It’s also critical that our program management team functions with the larger team as “one team.” Yes, the owner, program manager, designer, contractor, and community will all have different wants and needs. But a collaborative approach is critical. And program management can really help drive that approach.

Not everyone is going to agree, but how can we get to a positive compromise solution? Program management is a continuous negotiation between the owner, contractor, and community. And community members don’t want to be preached at, they want to have a reasonable say in the process.

When a program management team focuses on the five elements outlined above— and truly understands the community’s perspective—the project is in the best position to succeed. And that’s when I feel like I’ve hit a home run.

  • Jose de Jesus Martinez

    Jose knows how to drive a project to completion while appreciating the value of input from the community.

    Contact Jose
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