By Howard Birnberg

Project management is not a static activity. Developing and improving your project management program requires a plan, regularly updated and directed. This strategic plan guides your decision-making regarding hiring, training, software acquisition, project management tools development, organizational changes, compensation, and dozens of other topics.  As is true with all strategic planning efforts, the strategic project management plan requires a step-by-step approach to develop and maintain successfully.  These steps typically include an assessment process, benchmarking of best industry practices, determination of goals and objectives, writing of a plan, implementation, and updating/revising. Unfortunately, in most design and construction organizations, the project management program evolves without any planning. Often, growth and high workloads force change to some form of project management.  Typically, project management in these organizations lack coherence, the necessary tools, and capable managers.


The typical evolution of organizations in the construction industry includes several steps. Embryonic or early stage firms are typically pyramidal in nature with the owner/founder at the top of the pyramid. This individual is both firm manager and project manager. For many, their normal day is one of crisis management with little opportunity for planning, reflection, or change. Some escape this treadmill and develop growing organizations. If there are several individuals at a senior level (i.e., multiple owners and principals), then often a departmental organization evolves where each senior individual has his/her own segment of the firm to run. An example would be in a single-discipline engineering firm where one partner is in charge of the design department, a second is in charge of the technical department, and a third handles marketing. While the departmental organization can work in multidiscipline firms, it typically fails to build a coherent project management system in single-discipline firms.


Some firms overlay a weak project management system on top of a departmental structure, creating a situation where middle managers have most of the project responsibility while senior managers retain the authority. This is often the case in governmental bodies and corporate organizations where the internal project management/facilities management group has little involvement in determining needs, budgets, schedules, and so on. Typically, these individuals have responsibility for meeting the needs of their internal client, but have little or no control over resources.  


The next step in the evolution of design and construction organizations is to develop the matrix or strong project management system. When properly functioning, project managers in this system have relatively equal levels of authority and responsibility. They also have all of the necessary tools to do the job and are provided with opportunities for training and advancement. Mentoring programs exist to identify and educate future project managers and organization leaders. Reward programs are developed to provide incentives for excellent performance.


Many organizations claim they have a strong PM system, but an objective examination of their system would find many failures and problems. It is astonishing that many in the construction industry who are professional planners by trade do so little for their own organizations. The typical project management system develops without a plan and lacks any guidelines for the future.


Elements of a Strategic Project Management Plan


What are some of the elements of a strategic project management plan? The following highlights some of the most important items to include.


1.  What is the current status of your project management system? How is it performing? Are you providing the best service to your internal and external clients? Do you have excessive turnover in the ranks of project managers? Do you have all necessary project management tools? Do your project managers get information in a timely fashion? Dozens of similar questions must be answered objectively.


2.  What are the industry benchmarks for best practices? Do you know how project management is handled elsewhere in the industry? In each area of your project management operation, what are the best practices used by others that could benefit you and your internal or external clients?


3.  What are your goals and objectives for your system?  For example, is your system a training ground for future owners of the firm? Is your goal for project management to maximize profits, provide top-notch service, or both? Is the use of cutting edge technology vital to your organization?  Do you want a culture of continuous improvement built into the system (which can be chaotic)? Do you want to structure career paths for project managers (and possibly all staff)?


Prepare a written plan. Document all items mentioned in points 1-3. Prepare an action plan. What should you do first? Second?  Provide a budget and resources and include them in the plan. Set a schedule and follow it. Share the plan with all staff, not just project managers. Most of all, keep it simple and achievable while making it challenging enough to require real effort on the part of your organization.


Implement your plan. This is the hard part. Planning is tough enough. Implementation is challenging. It requires action. You need to spend time, money, and effort. Most organizations achieving success at implementation establish a planning committee to oversee the process. This group meets regularly and makes ongoing decisions under the guidance of the strategic project management plan.


Update and revise your plan. Changes to the plan are made when a need is determined. It is not a stagnant document and may require occasional revision. The planning committee should periodically examine and update your plan with input from those affected by it.   Figure 1 below summarizes the plan elements.


Figure 1


Strategic Project Management Plan--Items to Consider


1.     Project manager compensation

2.     Project manager incentives

3.     Reporting tools        

4.     Computer systems: CADD, web-based project management software, job cost reporting systems, basic software (e.g., spreadsheet, word processing), technical software, scheduling tools, budgeting tools, database tools, BIM, etc.

5.    Support staff: accounting, administrative, etc.   

6.    Office facilities

7.    Communication tools: cell phones, laptops, portable devices, email policies, etc.

8.    General project management organization

9.    Non-computer tools: project notebooks, change order management (design and/or         construction), budgeting systems

10.  Roles and responsibilities of project managers

11.  Training program

12.  Mentoring program

13.  Defining your ideal project manager

14.  Communication channels (existing and desired)

15.  Organizational growth prospects

16.  Sources of project management talent

17.  Assessment of current project managers

18.  Firm orientation (profits? service? both?)

19.  Project management manual

20.  Managing risk

21.  Other




Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers.   He may be reached at, 312-664-2300/

Howard Birnberg