When “It’s Not My Problem” Becomes Your Problem

September 30, 2009 at 2:53 pm 2 comments


Babette Burdick
Sales Aerobics for Engineers
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Siloed approaches to participation on a civil engineering project team usually aren’t the best technique for demonstrating value to your organization. In fact, successful participation on a project team should be a matter of asking yourself “what YOU would do” if you were doing another team member’s job – as well as your own.  If you can fulfill your functional role, yet anticipate the mindset of all of your team members as they fulfill their respective functional roles, the outcome is robust. Everybody wins.

denial

Unfortunately, in the real world, project team members are working for civil engineering companies which are now extremely lean and mean.  Perhaps even desperate for business. With less staff doing more work and wearing multiple hats, project management sometimes resembles a game of “hot potato.” Which can create quality problems as well.  Perhaps the production and engineering department is part of a fiefdom. Regardless of the size of your company, and its organization, the result is the same. The individuals fulfilling functional obligations perceive their job as “piece work” for handoff to the other members of the project team for implementation.  These individuals perceive that once they’ve fulfilled their engineering (or other) function on the team, they are off duty.  They’ve completed their work. It’s no longer their problem. They can go back to their cubicle and work on the next project.

Guess again.

All of us have projects where we put the final dot on an “I” and cross the final “t” and can’t wait to get that project off our desk. However, we’ve taught ourselves we don’t operate in silos.  But we certainly know folks within our organization who do. And like the kids on the playground who don’t get selected first, or even second, for that pickup game of dodge ball at recess, they don’t get it.  Project management is a team sport.

In this challenging economy, there is even less of a place within an organization for individuals who don’t understand the dynamics of the sales process and how difficult it is to win the business in the first place. They may not understand the business cycle or have a complete grasp of the multiple disciplines and roles required to move a project towards a successful outcome.  These individuals may not grasp the difficulty involved in customer retention. When these types of project team members finish their work, in their mind, they have done their job and that portion of the project ceases to become their responsibility. It’s not their problem anymore. And I’m not just talking about junior staffers, either.

Project outcomes are always everyone’s responsibility. So everyone owns the problems.  And the rewards.  I’m sure there are quite a few of you out there who have participated in at least one highly successful project team that had a marvelous project outcome. These types of project outcomes and the teams that achieve them are truly unforgettable – and rare- as though the stars were aligned from the beginning. Highly successful project outcomes and teams don’t happen by accident or serendipity. Many highly successful project outcomes are a result of ordinary folks – not your corporation’s rock stars – assuming responsibility and stretching themselves beyond what was required of them, resulting in a robust and innovative outcome. Successful project outcomes happen because all of the project team members are truly engaged in understanding each other’s functional roles . They incorporate that mutual respect into what they bring to their own individual area of responsibility.  No silos. Just synergy.

For those of you who interact with project teams that are not necessarily characterized by “synergy” or “mutual respect,” the tendency is to complete your portion of the project and hand it off. Or be less than communicative over the duration of that project, over multiple project team meetings.  Your siloed approach shortchanges everyone, including you. If someone falls down in their functional role it’s far costlier to compensate for the error in rework than have anticipated the probability of the error in the first place. The nature of the error may be lack of time, interest or less than brilliant execution.  A travel schedule that creates gaps in project meeting attendance. Team meeting notes that are not circulated in a timely manner or are not as detailed as they should be. Lack of communication or follow through in between project team meetings. Telephone conversations with the client and changes to the project that need to be immediately communicated to the project team. It’s those little things, the details that you feel aren’t your problem, that ultimately become your problem down the road.

Hybridizing the engineering approach you bring to the project team is going to be critical to not only your career, but the longevity of your company in the consulting civil engineering marketplace. There’s a lot of talk going on these days about innovation, which I’ll be addressing in a future guest blog on this site. However, the assumption by most folks is that innovation is best left up to, well, the innovators:  the braniacs.  Actually, innovation is a matter of self-discipline and the ability of incorporating the perspectives of everyone seated around your table into what you bring to the table.  Just do a little something differently than you’ve done before. That’s innovation.

So the next time you are assigned to a project team, take a different approach. An innovative approach. Find out what everyone does on your team. No matter how well you think you know them.  No matter how many times you’ve worked with them in the past.  Even if you are part of their sand volleyball team on Wednesdays. Take a few minutes out of your workweek to talk to them about the project – outside of team meetings. And then start your functional project work as though you are the entire team.  It’s hard to take a siloed approach with this hybridized perspective, isn’t it?

All of us have projects where we put the final dot on an “I” and cross the final “t” and can’t wait to get that project off our desk. However, we’ve taught ourselves we don’t operate in silos.  But we certainly know folks within our organization who do. And like the kids on the playground who don’t get selected first, or even second, for that pickup game of dodge ball at recess, they don’t get it.  Project management is a team sport.
In this challenging economy, there is even less of a place within an organization for individuals who don’t understand the dynamics of the sales process and how difficult it is to win the business in the first place. They may not understand the business cycle or have a complete grasp of the multiple disciplines and roles required to move a project towards a successful outcome.  These individuals may not grasp the difficulty involved in customer retention. When these types of project team members finish their work, in their mind, they have done their job and that portion of the project ceases to become their responsibility. It’s not their problem anymore. And I’m not just talking about junior staffers, either

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Entry filed under: Civil Engineering Issues, Human Resources, Marketing, Project Management, The Workplace, Uncategorized. Tags: , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Queen B (Project Systems)  |  October 20, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    My company actually delivers this sort of strategy and ties it closely with the systems to back up the collaboration rather than the separation of people. I delivered a paper saying very similar things tp the Southern Engineering Conference on the 17th October and I think the more of us that start to walk the talk and show through action that these philosophies are possible to be adopted, the more comfortable and the more profitable companies, organisation and projects can become.

    Reply
  • 2. Andrew J. Blair  |  October 12, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Hello Ms. Burdick,

    Thank you for your blog on this topic. I believe most civil engineering offices (at least those I have worked around) take a top down approach to just about everything. Project Management methodologies, like PMBOK, become more important with the recent shift in our economy and people’s gaining awareness about a greater need for increased efficiency and productivity. Research shows that network-type organizations are more efficient and and adaptable. Hierarchical organizations are less efficient in terms of the flow of information. Also, hierarchical organizations are not as adaptable within an environment that is changing rapidly because the structure and the behavior it reinforces is more rigid (functional groups are exclusive from one another and generally do not interact with those outside their immediate area of expertise). When we speak in terms of project management FOR innovation, then we speak in terms of interdisciplinary teams composed of knowledge workers who operate within a flatter organization, NOT a rigid hierarchical organization. So, I think you are starting a very important conversation.

    Reply

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