Integrating Project Management and Design

January 15, 2009 · by Douglas R. Parker

The skills of project management and design are not natural allies. But design firms should and can cultivate project management and design as integrated components of project delivery.

As architects and designers, we are drawn to our professions with the lure of being part of a creative process and the opportunity to design great projects. We spend significant time and energy developing rigorous design processes to ensure unique and thoughtful projects. The management of these projects, however, is a secondary thought at best, often a necessary evil of securing the design work. As a result, many clients do not believe that working with design professionals is a positive experience, nor are they particularly satisfied with the delivery process, regardless of the outcome.

Project management is perhaps the single most sought-after role in the design industry, even outpacing the search for design talent. The growing number of independent project management firms and the fact that 30 percent of projects today are design-build confirm that clients are demanding higher levels of leadership and accountability than ever before for the success of their projects. Yet design firms are falling short of clients’ expectations in the delivery and management of those projects. While few in the design professions went to school with the intention of being project managers, they often seek that route as a fast track to becoming principal.

Project management should not be an alien subject but rather part of the design process, one that simply meets another dimension of the design. If one believes that design is problem-solving, then project management is merely resolving an additional component and should be approached with the same enthusiasm as the design process itself. Traditionally, project management is a very linear process, and as such, the enjoyment for both clients and staff responsible for management is diminished. Instead of being perceived as a continuing hassle, project management could be re-created as an experience so pleasurable to all stakeholders — clients, consultants, and staff — that they wouldn’t consider working with anyone else.

Project management in the 21st century seems to have little connection to the creative design process. Borrowing from Wikipedia, the 1950s marked the beginning of the modern project management era. Prior to that, projects were managed on an ad hoc basis using mostly Gantt charts, a scheduling technique for representing the phases and activities of a project so they could be understood by a wide audience.

Project management is often referred to as balancing the triple constraints of scope, time/schedule, and budget, which are presented as the sides of a triangle: No constraint can be changed without impacting the others. It appears that there has been little invention, new thinking, or leadership in project management in nearly 60 years. Traditional project management seems to be more about the process of doing things (activities) and less about the outcome, the client, or the design team.

Project Management as Experience

We know that the more we teach the client the better we can serve him. We know that the more the client teaches us, the better able we are to provide exactly what he wants. In their book The Experience Economy, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore discuss a new economy that will follow our high-tech information age and service economy eras. The authors contend that the post-materialistic consumer is buying experiences and that business really delivers value by creating personal, meaningful experiences for its clients. They contend that business is a stage on which the goods and services are merely props. Because most products and services are undifferentiated, consumers shift their focus to the experience obtained while using the product or service. The more relevant and memorable the experience, the higher the value, the higher the worth, and the higher the price that can be charged. In the experience economy, work is theater — dynamic theater in which clients are actively engaged and experiences are constantly refreshed — and businesses are experience stagers that increase client satisfaction, eliminate client sacrifice, and create client surprise. Perhaps the authors’ main point is simply that businesses should think in terms of fulfilling the needs and wants of current and potential clients, not merely providing the marketplace with what those businesses happen to offer.

While the authors’ research has focused on the consumer market, there are valuable lessons for design firms and project managers. We could model BMW, for example, which inextricably integrates design and performance. We can learn from Apple, which focuses on the user first. And there is Starbucks, which considers the customer experience and stages each event to ensure satisfaction. With a little imaginative spirit, we can adopt and translate these concepts into how we deliver our projects.

Research shows that what clients really want and value is help getting from here to there — expecting what comes next as well as the what-ifs of crisis management. They are looking to the design firm and project manager to anticipate problems, resolve them, take advantage of opportunities, and make the project come together successfully. Project managers know how to define the scope, how to stay on schedule, and how to stay within budget. It is a necessary production line of activities. But if, in fact, we are entering a new economy, what we need to be providing are the relevant, personal, and memorable experiences that the client and the team need to understand, enjoy, and connect with the process more fully.

As designers, we often create visual experiences for our clients, providing imaginative drawings and models with which to communicate our vision of the project. Simply by virtue of what we do, we have a leg up on the experience economy. We often address the feelings we hope to generate in the end user. If we’re designing a master planned community, we talk about the environment and what future residents will experience by being there — what opportunities it provides for connecting with nature. We talk about the visual impact — what one might see and be enriched by artistically. We address the sense of community — what it might provide to its inhabitants in terms of gathering and safety and enrichment. When designing a building, we try to place ourselves into the ultimate residents’ shoes and imagine what moving through the structure will feel like. When designing products, we anticipate how they will be used and what users will experience.

What we don’t do is create memorable experiences for clients as they go through the design process. A good test is to lay project management documents up against design documents and see if they are equal in value, content, and clarity of communication. The project management role, because of the accounting mentality of this work, is many steps behind the design solution. The two roles are perceived as opposites — one is creative and the other is linear, factual, and often hard to access. This generates friction for the staff, consultants, and clients.

Integrating Two Minds

How might we re-define the job of project management to relieve the tension and provide a personal and positive experience for stakeholders?

There is a tremendous shortage of good project managers, partly because the work feels like a foreign science to the design mind. What would happen if we were able to integrate a design mind with a project manager mind? The integrated mind could resolve the problem and provide a paradigm shift in the experience. We could start by changing the title “project manager” to “project leader” or “project director,” signifying a leadership role as opposed to a functional one.

Designers are by nature great integrators, and their minds can image the world from multiple perspectives and see all of the salient and sometimes contradictory aspects of a confounding problem. They can and do create novel solutions. The integrated mind would have the ability to see one potential solution as better than the existing solutions and pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that result in entirely different solutions. The integrated mind does not simply work alongside other disciplines; it has significant experiences within many disciplines.

Design firms should not abandon the activity-based focus of scope, time/schedule, and cost; rather, they should enhance the delivery through experiences that engage and involve all the stakeholders. We could create storyboards that allow stakeholders to visualize the outcome of each phase of the project. Instead of assigning projects to staff based on their availability, we could pick team members who are not only learned and experienced in the required fields but passionate about the project and deeply interested in creating the most positive outcome for the client.

We could engage the client by anticipating issues and reducing risks by being proactive in our responsiveness, by establishing protocols for engagement between the team and the client. We could ensure that each team member feels ownership in the process so that his or her attitude reflects positively on the whole experience we provide for the client. We could stage a process wherein we provide answers and options before questions are even asked and involve stakeholders in a creative, positive experience that they’ve never had in the past.

A Distinguishing Factor

If we are to thrive in an experience economy, then getting clients “from here to there” needs to happen in a way that connects with them personally and memorably. Once complete, the project simply exists. But the value of the experience in creating that project lingers in clients’ memories. So where does the “wow” factor come from? What’s the “aha moment”? How do we create memories on an emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual plane as part of the process of designing and producing a product, a community, a home?

Even in down economies, people spend their limited budgets on entertainment and experiences. They will go to Starbucks and pay more for the coffee because of the ambiance: the wafting aromas, the comfortable sofas, the accommodating baristas. Thousands of Internet games provide escapist opportunities by allowing players to jump into the action and experience, learn, fight, conquer, and avoid the mundane aspects of life. Disneyland continues to attract and amaze while other amusement parks struggle to maintain.

In The Experience Economy, the authors talk about differentiation between commodities, goods, services and experiences. They say:

• If you charge for undifferentiated stuff, then you are in the commodity business.

• If you charge for distinctive tangible things, then you are in the goods business.

• If you charge for the activities you perform, then you are in the service business.

• If you charge for the feeling customers have because of engaging you, then you are in the experience business.

• If you charge for the benefit customers receive as a result of spending that time, then you are in the transformation business.

The companies that continue to thrive year after year are the ones that are in the experience business. The ones that fail are those that have allowed themselves to become commodities.

To distinguish our design firms, we too must be in the experience business. Like psychiatrists, we must be able to put our mind in the head of the client, offering and producing before he consciously knows what he needs. Like marketers, we must instruct and engage as we go through the often tedious and repetitive processes of design and project management. Like advertisers, we must capture the client’s heart and mind and make him want what we are selling. Like trial lawyers, we must tell a story that the jury (our client) can relate to and adopt. We must anticipate, teach, relate, resolve, deliver, and entertain.

Where do we start in moving from activities to experiences in the delivery and management of projects?

• Ask all stakeholders (clients, staff, consultants, contractors, suppliers, and others) what they value and expect throughout the delivery of a project.

• Dissect project management activities and think about how we can move them from an activity to an experience.

• Review project management tools and documents and assess their value and clarity in communications as well as their visual alignment with other design documents and presentations.

• Map the roles and activities of designers and project managers to determine synergies and points of integration rather than conflict.

• Imagine how to stage experiences for all stakeholders, in meetings, in presentations, as well as with the tools and processes we use.

The value of the activities of managing a project is revealed in the outcomes, which are more often measured by what did not happen or what went wrong than by what was important, personal, memorable, and right. There is an opportunity before the design profession to integrate the creative spirit of design with the traditional project management activities through a carefully executed set of experiences for all stakeholders. If we fail to take advantage of the opportunity, we run the risk of becoming commodities indistinguishable from all the other firms that do what we do.

If, as authors Pine and Gilmore suggest, “Work is theatre, and every business a stage,” then design firms need to look at inventive ways to create memorable experiences for our clients in ways that are real, authentic, and personal to our own distinct corporate culture. We won’t don masks and perform kabuki theater for our clients in order to amuse them. Clearly not. But we can all relate to the myriad presentations we’ve sat through, catching others’ eyes rolling in boredom as surely as our own eyes are revealing how disconnected we are from what’s going on. We can change how our clients perceive project management by adjusting our own thinking about the process and the opportunities therein. We have an obligation to take what we do best — design — and expand it into what has not be our forte — delivering a positive, meaningful, engaging experience for our clients.

Douglas R. Parker is the chief operating officer of Design Workshop, an award-winning international firm practicing landscape architecture and urban design, which was named 2008 ASLA Firm of the Year. Parker also is a senior consultant with the Greenway Group, sharing his unique understanding of design and business. He is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council, a member of the AIA, an honorary member of IIDA, and an honorary Fellow of ASID.

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