The flood in my apartment — 9 lessons on how to manage any project

Projects come in many different shapes and sizes.

However, the fundamental factors that will ensure your project runs well, are the same whether you are designing and implementing an IT system or re-organizing your global medical information function.

Inspired by a flood and a hole in my wall during a recent remodeling project I decided to use this example as a case study to highlight how you can achieve great project outcomes.

Today’s newsletter is: 9 Lessons for Stellar Project Management

In the past 4 weeks I’ve been managing a remodeling project in my home. Before that I spent 4 months planning it selecting the individuals I wanted to work with and the materials I wanted used. 

Lesson 1: Planning is superior to doing. Before you start a project, make sure you have a solid understanding of where you and your teams are, what the business needs and what is realistic. Take time to make sure you know what outcome you want and why. Be ready to communicate and, if necessary, sell your vision at all levels of your organization. 

Beyond planning the whole thing, I also ended up managing it. I didn’t set out to manage the project, but after the first individual I gave the task to, raised concerns that he wasn’t up to it, his words “I am worried that i cannot deliver to your standards” and the second, accepted, but didn’t deliver a project plan, I reluctantly decided to manage it myself.

While I’ve never managed a building project I have managed very large projects and programs involving 80 affiliates and diverse stakeholders in commercial, IT, Medical, etc. While this is the smallest project I have ever managed it is also one where I had no prior experience.

This gave me pause for reflection. However, knowing, that  there was nobody who could be more dedicated to a perfect outcome than the project owner, I decided to go ahead. 

Lesson 2: Pick a project manager with enthusiasm, experience in managing projects and the confidence to do so and ideally a passion for the topic and give them access to bright and talented business experts. Project management skills are transferable. 

Projects have many stakeholders. Often upwards of 100 people working in different work-streams are involved directly, and many more indirectly. In my small building project I engaged 6 different companies with approximately 15 workers  Naturally each company was focused on delivering their part to their plan. In order to ensure that the project came together, I got the dates and the times of each  individual plan from each company and then put together the plan myself.

As I was in the privileged position of both buyer and project manager I was able to get immediate responses to all my questions.

However, for a project manager in a company this is not always the case as she needs to motivate stakeholders in a matrix. This is very often a challenge that is underestimated. 

Lesson 3: A project manager needs leverage. In my example as the project owner and manager, that was a given. In companies, a project manager needs to be backed up by a politically savvy senior project sponsor, or ideally a group of high-powered and well connected project sponsors. Backed up means that the sponsor is engaged in reality and can be called upon to act where necessary. 

Each day i reviewed what had happened during the day, discussed the workers’ work with them. I learned a lot about building work from them. I was excited that they would ask my opinion on how best to manage a task from an esthetic and sometimes even a practical point of view. Of course, I also provided the odd cup of coffee as well as sandwiches. I’d joke with the builders. I learned a lot, was able to mediate between the different teams and overall enjoyed it immensely. I like to believe that my engagement and presence motivated them to do good work for me.

Lesson 4: Well run projects depend on relationship building with the key stakeholders at all levels. Finding out how to motivate stakeholders is important for a good outcome. In a project like building this is not extremely complicated. However, in a global transformation program it is critical. Unfortunately, most project teams are under enormous pressure to deliver fast, and consequently short-cuts are taken and stakeholder mapping and management is often neglected. 

Thanks to these conversations I had great oversight into what was going well, where there were gaps, and also how each individual approached his work. This enabled me to send a report each night to all three overseers, with information on status of project and next steps for the following day. This ensured that the teams didn’t end up trying to work on the same part of the flat at the same time and that the overseers retained accountability for process challenges.

Lesson 5: Frequent and consistent communication is critical. Your stakeholders are generally interested in making sure that their part of a project will run well. It is you project managers job to understand and monitor the interdependencies of each aspect and to be willing to follow up with each stakeholder so as to understand the processes involved in delivering their part of the project.

The project was planned to run for 4 weeks. One day the workers broke through a wall they were not meant to break through. I was on site. And instead of having them fix it I asked them to put a glass pane in the wall between the hall and the shower. there is now natural light in the shower, when before there was none. The hole led to an improvement in the overall remodeling design.

Lesson 6: Things can and will go in unexpected ways. However, sometimes what seems like a disaster is actually a great opportunity to improve on a situation and to come up with ideas you would otherwise not have entertained.

At the end of the project, after 4 weeks, one of the builders said to me “Do you realize, that 80% of building projects run over time. This is really unusual, you’ve managed this really well” I smugly replied “Well I’ve run bigger projects, so that helps, I guess”. Proudly I sent photographs to my friends and family praising the excellence of Swiss quality workmanship.

The next day my apartment flooded.

Lesson 7: However well your project manager plans and manages your project, she cannot control every aspect of every detail. Things that are taken for granted and she did not therefore think to check, are things that others did not take for granted. Despite great planning things can and most likely will go wrong. So again, always, factor in additional float time.

In my case the plumber forgot to remove the old siphon. He just added a new one in to the system so I had two siphons connected in a series. After passing the first siphon the water pressure in the pipe was reduced so much that it was not sufficiently high to pass the second siphon.  To rectify the situation the floor will have to be taken up again. And the work will be delayed for a week.

I initially wondered if there was anything I could have done to avert this development. My conclusion: my expectation that an expert plumber would remove the old siphon and check for functional plumbing before signing off on his work was reasonable.

The bricklayer came to the same conclusion. But he has decided he will now check the plumbers work, next time he is on a similar building site. If I ever do a project like this again, so will I…

Lesson 8: You learn on the job. Each project will teach you things you can use in your next one. This is what makes project management exciting and new. Be flexible and be willing to embrace each challenge. Again, factor in extra time.

The remodeling is now almost finished. It is beautiful. I am very happy. My joy derives from how it has come out, but equally from the involvement I had in planning the entire project and seeing each step as it was completed.

Lesson 9: Projects do not have to be stressful. Even big ones. The journey and the destination can and should be enjoyable. Ensure you spend enough time at the beginning of the project, doing research, understanding your baseline, understanding the desired outcome, understanding the constraints and your stakeholders, adapt your timelines and expectations accordingly.

I’d love to hear back from you if you have any funny remodeling stories.

Questions for you:

  1. What was the longest delay in a project you were involved in? Would it have been avoidable?
  2. What is your funniest builder/home DIY story?

If you are managing a large or small project, not home remodeling, and you are wondering whether you have taken everything into account, please feel free to contact me for an informal chat on how I might be able to help.