Scope creep. What’s that? It’s that all-too-familiar tendency for some projects to expand almost of their own accord. Sometimes, just by adding an element here and there, before anyone realizes it the work is headed into over-budget, late-completion status. Scope creep can be as unpleasant as soil creep down a too-steep bridge embankment.
Helping prevent projects from growing out of control is one of the benefits of having a business manager.
This person oversees how projects are managed from a business perspective, looking out for the interests of both the client and the engineering firm.
It is a role distinct from that of a project manager, whose task is largely to make sure that the work gets done right from a technical perspective. Although the profitability of a project is, in the end, the project manager’s responsibility, when a project is in full swing their mind tends to focus on getting the work done. Sometimes the business issues—like keeping the project on budget and on time—tend to take a back seat. The business manager takes some of the pressure off the project manager, allowing that person to concentrate on the project’s technical issues.
Experience has found that many requests for proposal (RFPs) do not give a complete picture of the client’s desired outcome. If an engineering firm is asked to study a freeway interchange and make recommendations on changes, it helps to get a clear understanding of what problems are posed by the existing design and the projections on future traffic flow.
The vast majority of problems in managing the business aspects of a project come from jumping into work without a clearly defined scope. Without clarification and a written agreement, the engineering firm may not fully understand what the client wants, and what level of effort they expect.
Having a business manager involved right from the start of a project helps the project manager to refine, update and better detail the scope of work—what the project will involve, the schedule, the milestones, the meeting requirements, payment schedule and other factors. If there is agreement on these elements at the project’s beginning, there is less chance that the relationship will sour over conflicting expectations. Sometimes, the business manager’s work involves third parties. In one recent case, for example, UMA Engineering Ltd., Mississauga, Canada, was rehabilitating a municipal bridge over a railroad and there were business issues to be resolved, such as which aspects of the work would be the railroad’s responsibility.
Keeping a lid on the project
A business manager can help control costs by working with the project manager to track the project’s “earned value.” This is the amount of money that the engineering firm has earned at any given time based on the amount of work actually completed. By comparing this against the amount spent it can quickly be seen which aspects of the project are over budget and what corrective actions are required.
We also want to avoid doing unnecessary work. For example, sometimes engineers have a tendency to do more detailed work than is needed at a particular stage of the project. Even if there are several alternative routes for a highway to take, they may want to start doing detailed work on geometric design before the exact route has been decided. If the route chosen is different from the one for which they did the detailed work, much of the engineer’s time may be wasted, absorbing hours from the design budget without actually moving the project forward.
A business manager also may be in position to help the project manager look ahead to see what tasks need to be started now to allow the project to continue smoothly. Consider a road that crosses a stream. There may be a need for environmental permits before construction. Involvement of the permitting agencies early in the process will minimize delays later in the project and reduce rework as they have already “bought into” the overall design.
Through keeping an eye on the bigger picture, the business manager can watch for problems such as invoices that are sent prematurely (i.e., before the completion of project milestones), making sure that invoices are in the format the client expects and that they are sent to the right person.
As the project progresses, there are often opportunities for the dreaded scope creep to sprout like weeds along a median. In many cases, this happens when the client decides that additional work is necessary, such as another study. The client approaches the engineer overseeing the work, who is happy to oblige, often without thinking through what this will do to the budget or schedule. Then the engineering firm must either swallow the cost—or try to pass a fee increase on to the client after the work has been completed. Clients find this very frustrating, as they then need to decide to either contest the increase or absorb it themselves.
Situations such as this can be prevented if the business manager is able to help the project manager communicate with the client what the additional work will cost in terms of money and time. Then both parties can possibly look for something else to trim from the project plan, agree on the changes to timeline and fee or decide not to pursue the additional work. The benefit is in maintaining a good relationship between the engineering firm and client.
To summarize, a business manager can be a valuable part of any engineering project—protecting the interests of all involved and helping ensure a positive outcome. The two most important aspects of a successful project are a happy client and making a profit. A business manager can help achieve these goals.