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Can you do your client's job?

June 12, 2017

By Dale Grove

How the Minnesota Department of Transportation is taking the "Us vs. Them" mindset out of the client-engineering consultant relationship

Most people will agree that a good project manager (PM) understands the issues and needs of their project and how to work within their organization to complete it successfully. But to be a great project manager, the one your partners hope they get teamed with on every project, your knowledge must go deeper. Understanding what your colleagues must do within their organizations to be successful can be the thing that separates you from the run-of-the-mill PMs.

It started over lunch

Several years ago, I was having lunch with two longtime friends from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). They were bemoaning the fact that so many projects involving consultants were having issues. “Look at us, when we work together it’s great,” one of them said, “but our staffs seem to have so much trouble getting along!”

After we finished our burgers, an idea hit us. Maybe the problem wasn’t project related—maybe it was tied to not understanding their project partners and not helping them be successful in their own offices. My lunchmates and I had all worked for both the DOT and consulting firms, but most of our PMs had only worked for one or the other. Our staffs knew what we needed to do in our own backyard to get a project done, but for the three of us, our experience allowed us to see on “both sides of the fence” and make decisions that helped everyone working on a project be successful.

Building the framework

Building on this idea, I was soon working with a small committee of senior staff from the MnDOT and the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) to develop a one-day workshop based on one simple idea: help project managers understand what their partners face every day as a project moves from initiation through completion. There is no getting around the tasks required to successfully complete a project. However, how we do them, when we do them, and understanding why we do them can make all the difference to the ultimate success of our work.

Consider a consultant PM who really understands how invoices, schedule updates, reports, and project deliverables impact the day-to-day life of the DOT PM they are working with on a project. Adjusting the timing, format, or content of our products to match what a DOT PM needs to satisfy internal requirements can go a long way to making their life easier. Likewise, knowledge of overhead, proposal costs, workloads, and corporate requirements may help a PM from the DOT comprehend the difficult (and sometimes conflicting) position a consultant PM can be in as they strive to keep their external clients and internal managers happy.

From left, Joe McKinnon, MnDOT District 2 project manager, and Kevin Saunders, MTO Northwest Region (Canada) project manager, talking over the border at the Baudette International Bridge

Talking it out

Ultimately, we presented a one-day session with interactive activities and facilitated discussion focused on improving relationships. Our plan was that by understanding each other’s practices, processes, and requirements, participants would learn why the “Us vs. Them” culture is not conducive to project success. MnDOT and engineering consultant perspectives were presented and discussed on topics including:

  • Identifying projects
  • RFP and proposal development
  • Selection criteria and committee process
  • Contracting and negotiation
  • Project delivery and project closeout

After seven workshops and more than 200 workshop participants, we feel like we made a dent in the mentality of many project PMs. Although I have been using the process on several successful projects, including the recent Baudette International Bridge replacement project, it was new to many practicing PMs. Comments like “I will have a better understanding of the consultants I work with” were common from MnDOT staff; consultants told us they learned things like “MnDOT’s internal pressures and hoops.”

There is a lot of hard work, experience, and knowledge that go into being a great PM. Realizing that we must satisfy two sets of requirements, schedules, and processes for a project to be successful on both sides of the fence can change the way we approach and complete our work.

  • Dale Grove

    Dale is considered a leader for bike paths projects, traffic studies, and 4-lane highway construction on new alignment.

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