But project owner is a job, too. And it’s a vital one.
A PMP certification is a project manager qualification, but there's no equivalent for being a project owner. All you need is a desire to something done and the money to pay for it. This inevitably means that project owners find themselves in a quandary. The overarching question they face is: “How much of this can I, and should I, do myself?” In other words, they are fuzzy about how to manage the project manager.
The danger of micromanagement looms large if they feel competent enough to do much of the project themselves ⎯ if only they had the time.
But when the project falls outside of their area of expertise, they are like Blanche DuBois, the Tennessee Williams character who famously said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Project owners are all too often at the mercy of project managers and other technical experts. Their temptation is either to delegate everything, or to insert themselves randomly into the project, that is, to wedge whatever expertise they have into it.
I’ve managed projects for nearly 40 years and written nine books on project management. I’ve been in every role: manager, consultant, subject matter expert, technical specialist, worker, and even gopher. Well, every role except one. I’d never been the project owner, not until last summer.
Over a period of six months, I oversaw a $150,000 renovation and decorating project to fix decades of deferred maintenance on my house. You see, I don’t have any of the necessary skills to do it myself, or even the knowledge and understanding to oversee it. I am the textbook example of a clueless customer.
A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, and so it often is with project owners. The project management job for this project was significant. My risk analysis (interviews with other people who’d done major renovations) had led me to the conclusion that the key trigger of difficulties was poor management of the ordering process. If the necessary supplies and materials aren’t ready when the contractor is, delay results, and sooner or later, your project overlaps with the contractor’s next one. As soon as you move from first place to second priority, look out.
Our decorator (and my sister-in-law) Elisa Dobson took over the job, and that made it possible for our contractor Jack Hymiller to do his. If I’d tried to do it myself, we would have been in a world of hurt almost immediately.
But that didn't mean I didn't have a role on the project.
Six Responsibilities of Project Owners
Even though I didn’t do the project management job, that didn’t mean I didn’t have duties on the project. Like all project owners, I had six fundamental responsibilities:
- Balancing the interplay of time/cost/performance: How much do we need; how much can we afford; and how much time do we have?
- Managing stakeholder relations: Agreement among stakeholders, aligning disparate interests toward a common goal.
- Managing people and organizations that don’t report to you: The bank, the neighborhood architectural committee, neighbors.
- Managing technology and processes you don’t understand: When the contractor tells us the back of the house (a do-it-yourself initiative of the previous owner) is falling off, how do we evaluate the proposed solution and associated cost?
- Managing project managers and the project management process: I’m color-blind and thumb-fingered. How do I get my project manager and general contractor to do the right thing when I can’t always say what it is?
- Managing the project envelope: Financial management, real estate analysis, the logistics of being temporarily homeless.
If you are a project owner, you need to understand the realities of the project-management world. Your job is to figure out how to hire a good project manager, give that person what he or she needs, and make sure the project manager gives you what you need. You need to provide direction without over-steering.
Projects are team efforts. Project leadership is seldom concentrated in any single role — not the project manager, not the contractor, and not the owner. It’s vital for you to figure out what role you play and focus on that, and to help other people play their roles as well.
PS - The house looks beautiful.