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Why It’s Time for AEC Firms to Get Serious About Agile Project Management Practices

As smoothly as many architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms have adapted to the realities of doing business during a pandemic, and as plentiful as the opportunities for project work are heading into the new year, there’s plenty of reason to believe that 2022 will be even better for AEC firms than 2021 was. The X factor in that outlook, of course, is the intense competition for new business. To capitalize on those opportunities, firms must find a competitive edge.

Gaining that edge, and keeping the pipeline full and moving bottleneck-free in 2022 and beyond, could well come down to how a firm manages its project data, and specifically, its forecasting.

To aggressively pursue new work in the current business environment, AEC firms need to be really good at resource management, project scheduling and forecasting. For many firms, however, that’s not necessarily a strong suit. In Unanet’s recently released AEC Inspire benchmarking report [available free to download here] 57% of firm decision-makers identified forecasting as their most difficult project management challenge.

What this suggests is that AEC firms with strong forecasting, planning and resource-management chops — in short, those that are more agile in their approach to project management — will have an edge in the success of current work and the pursuit of new business. The more real-time insight that firm leaders have into project planning, and scheduling, and the resources required to complete their project backlog, the better equipped they will be to gauge resources, prioritize new business pursuits accordingly, and ultimately land the types of projects that their firm covets.

Agile, data-driven project management practices (the Project Management Institute lately has elevated the athleticism of that metaphor to “gymnastic”) are the key to unlocking not only new business growth but also new efficiencies that go right to the bottom line. That agility comes from better forecasting and analysis in areas like budgeting, resource allocation and scheduling. Based on Unanet’s deep experience supporting AEC firms with the data-forward, insight-generating capabilities to implement agile project management practices, here are several guiding principles to point your firm in the right direction:

  • Treat people as your most valuable resource. The common denominator for highly effective project teams is individual engagement with a common goal. To build project teams full of engaged people that function as an agile whole, firms and their PMs need to know their people and the specific hard and soft skills they bring to the mix, then leverage that knowledge to ensure they have the right resources on the right projects.
  • Get started, then iterate. As an undertaking that spans all areas of an AEC business, achieving resource management maturity takes time. A good starting point for project managers is to adopt initial deliverables, then iterate from there, so they begin adding value to a project, teams and customers. For example, if you are not able to schedule your team out in detail, begin with higher-level month-by-month scheduling. Schedule for the quarter ahead, compare your scheduled to actuals worked, draw conclusions, then apply that learning to the next quarter. Wash, rinse, repeat!
  • Collaborate around feedback. As you begin to leverage a more data-driven approach to project planning and resource scheduling, invite feedback early and regularly. Work with your internal customers first, then, as appropriate, engage your customers to ensure you are meeting their expectations from a service and deliverables perspective.
  • Roll with the changes. Change is the one certainty in the AEC business. Change orders, reprioritizations, unanticipated leave or team-member departures, the weather — all these can impact a plan. A firm’s resource management and scheduling processes and systems should be flexible enough to readily accommodate changes on the fly. What does that mean in practice? Just like it’s easier to steer a moving car, once you are underway with your scheduling practice, you can ebb more easily, and flow as needed. And with a broader, more forward-looking view of your book of work, changes become easier to absorb.

By embracing a data-centric approach to project planning and resource scheduling, firms and their project managers give themselves a distinct edge in forecasting, making better-informed, more agile decisions, greater ease in load-balancing resources with projected needs, and improved project performance overall.

They also put themselves in a strong position to aggressively pursue new business and stay ahead of the hiring curve. While other firms with less forecasting savvy wrestle with unforeseen project overruns and issues with talent retention due to burn out, those with an agile approach to project management stand to capitalize on a surge in new AEC business that could sustain them for years to come.

Thanks for reading the first post in Lucas’s blog series for AEC firms about translating agile project management practices into improved project outcomes, better pipeline management and more new business wins. Check back soon for the second post in the series.

by Lucas Hayden

Nov 15, 2021

A/EAECBudgeting & ForecastingERP Software Best PracticesProject ManagementResource Planning