Best of Both Worlds: What Agile Project Management Can Do for Your AEC Firm

Lucas Hayden
Posted on: 08/26/22
Written by: Lucas Hayden

Disruption is a fact of life for companies in the architecture, engineering, and construction business. If it’s not a project delay due to supply chain issues, then maybe it’s an untimely resource shortage on your project teams or severe weather threatening to halt project work.

As inevitable as issues like these seemingly are for AEC firms, experience suggests that the firms that are best at minimizing project disruptions and rolling with the punches consistently outperform their peers in the areas that matter most: the project outcomes they provide to their customers, the profitability of their projects, and their ability to generate new business.

Facing stiffer competition for projects and escalating pressure on the financial bottom line, now could be the time for AEC firms to consider augmenting their still viable old-school project-management practices with new-school agile project-management approaches that are proving successful in a range of other industries. All it takes is a modest shift in mindset and approach, supported by the right tools. Before we get to the “How” and the “When,” let’s first look at the “what” and the “why” behind such a shift.

THE WHAT: Agile project management principles, applied to AEC projects. Agile project management is designed to improve the overall outcome of a project by mitigating risks related to schedule, quality of deliverables, etc., and delivering value more efficiently and rapidly using a flexible, iterative, less linear approach. In the context of AEC projects specifically, it involves:

Working solutions over comprehensive plans, with an iterative planning approach that segments projects into shorter “sprints,” so teams have more latitude to quickly adjust to project changes and other shifting factors (such as supply chain constraints) with minimal impact on project cost and schedule. PMs have the space they need to be flexible and move quickly, so they can adopt initial deliverables, then iterate from there, or start with higher-level month-by-month scheduling for the next quarter, then compare scheduled to actuals worked and apply that insight to the next quarter of scheduling.
Anticipating change, emphasizing flexibility. With agile project management, you’re proactively building flexibility into processes to readily accommodate changes on the fly, part of a broader, forward-looking perspective that enables you to stay alert and ahead of change.
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Agile project management is people-focused and driven by execution teams that often are cross-functional, multidisciplinary and responsible for planning and executing their own work. The secret sauce is individual engagement with common team goals.
Constant collaboration instead of perpetual negotiation. An agile approach means inviting feedback early and regularly from stakeholders, and engaging customers in decision-making and discussions throughout project execution. Decisions about scope, schedule and resourcing adjustments are made based on close collaboration and communication with the customer. This limits scoop creep and helps to keep stakeholders on the same page in terms of expectations.
Delivery of work product/value throughout various execution stages of a project, with quality verification and testing occurring as deliverables are produced.

THE WHY: Some of the compelling reasons AEC firms are turning to agile PM practices.

1. Project teams where people are unified and moving in the same direction, thanks to heightened communication, collaboration, flexibility and engagement. Everyone’s working off the same data and working toward the same goals, which not only makes for better project outcomes, it also creates a culture where people want to stick around and do their best work.
2. Project management processes and tools are largely automated, agile and working for you, not against you. Project insight flows freely, planning and forecasting are made easier and more accurate, resources are better balanced, and projects run more efficiently and proactively.
3. Improved project outcomes consistently delight clients, turning them into ready promoters and valuable sources for referrals and repeat business.

Best of both worlds Blog-1

THE HOW: What it takes to become more agile with your project management practices. What we’re talking about here is firms taking small but meaningful steps over time to update their project-management practices without disrupting their business, an evolutionary process that becomes eminently manageable with these five capabilities:

1. Real-time, mobile-enabled reporting and tracking tools. Real-time information about project status, burn rate, scheduling, etc., is the lifeblood of an agile project management approach. Many firms and their project managers lack that level of in-the-moment insight, however, according to Unanet’s inaugural AEC Inspire Report, in which close to one-third (31%) of AEC execs identified “limited visibility into project status” among their largest challenges. As important as predictability is in yielding profitable projects, a firm will struggle at forecasting where specific projects and the overall business are heading if they can’t measure or see what’s happening inside their projects.

2. Full project visibility. The best support for agile practices is an ERP solution capable of maintaining all your data, processes and teams in a collaborative flow. Instead of silos and cumbersome manual processes putting projects at-risk, a steady stream of data-driven insight into to-do lists, KPIs and other key information enables more agile trend-spotting and decision-making, feeding a winning pipeline and profitable projects.

3. Resource management and scheduling tools. A firm’s resource management and scheduling processes and systems should be flexible enough to readily accommodate changes on the fly. They should also give firms and their PMs a strong understanding of the specific hard and soft skills each of their team members brings to the mix, then leverage that knowledge to ensure they use the right resources for the right projects.

4. Communication and collaboration tools. Having open channels for communication around every aspect of a project is key to maximizing engagement and productivity within teams, as those channels encourage the regular interactions that generate trust and a strong sense of value among team members, and with the customer and other stakeholders. In a project context, those channels can be used with customers to discuss adjustments to scope, scheduling, timelines, etc., and to ensure you are meeting their expectations from a service and deliverables perspective. Internally, they can enable project managers to share insights about past project experience with business development and marketing teams to help win more projects, for example.

5. Task-management tools. Task-management capabilities like real-time activity tracking and personalized notifications about the status of, and changes to, items on a punch list, give PMs a clear line of site into project activities, without cumbersome paper-shuffling or time-consuming information searches across systems. When PMs have a single digital environment to monitor and manage all project activities — with collaborative, Kanban-style to-do’s — they can better anticipate potential resourcing and production bottlenecks.

Now, with an understanding of the what, why and how of applying agile project management practices to AEC projects, let’s turn to THE WHEN. With so much business out there for firms to win, and so much disruption to overcome in pursuit of profitable projects, there is no better time than the present to start embracing more agile, efficient ways of executing a project.

PSMJ-Webinar-LIVE_Icon-1Join Unanet’s Lucas Hayden as he discusses how architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms can use agile project-management practices to their advantage, and a blueprint for how firms can mesh some of the old with some of the new to run their projects and their businesses more profitably. Register now.

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