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Project Management Video: How to Conduct Principal Reviews

In this video Don Archibeque and JJ Brantingham have an interactive discussion with tips and steps you can use can use to conduct successful project reviews with Project Managers and Principals.

By customer request we have added a transcript below.

JJ (00:01): Introduction and Background

Hello, I'm JJ Brantingham. I'm here with Don Archibeque from Planifi. And today we're, going to introduce a new topic for you, how to perform a principle review. We will talk about, a few aspects of, of principle reviews.

Don here has a lot of experience in AE. Don has spent 30 plus years in different project management roles, project director, leading PM teams, and as a principal. Don's experience has exposed him to many aspects of the A/E business model. So he'll share a lot of thoughts he has there. Myself, I spent 20 years in, working in IT finance operations, alongside Don, for a good chunk of that time. So, for the, agenda today we're just going talk about what, you know, as the "principle review", what does it entail? We will break it down and really highlight the benefits. Why is this worth your time.

Why Do Principal Reviews

Why would you consider doing Principle Reviews? And then, if you're sold on that, we'll talk about how to get started. What you actually want to do in that review. Questions to ask, metrics to look at. Etc.

So, what is principal review? Pretty simple. We're talking about, short meetings. Everyone, we talk to says: "we already have too many meetings". We understand that. So, you target like 10 to 30 minutes per PM it depends on how many projects they have to review with you. If it's just a handful, you can probably get away in 10-15 minutes. The idea is to highlight the key things around the project, right? Such as, status issues, challenges, change in scope.

Learning Opportunity

This is something sometimes people miss, is it's a mentorship and praising opportunity. time set aside to discuss in detail key elements in the projects.. That's right coachable moments in real time, with your PMs. This is how you develop better PMs, right?

Don (01:40):

Absolutely! In addition to mentoring junior PMs, I actually remember working as a Senior PM, and working with my Principal In Charge. I actually had to manage up. Suggesting that we have regular, project, reviews. Simply because I felt if I were able to brief my Principle efficiently bringing him up to speed, he would never get blindsided by questions that come up in senior level meetings. Or, if maybe a client called. He would be able to answer any questions or concerns . Weekly project briefings are just a way to quickly brief the junior and senior, people within the firm on what's going on with projects. Sometimes looking at sheer data just isn't enough. There's always a story behind the data.

JJ (02:25):

Yep. Observed Don develop quite a few PMs, by him implementing project review processes and procedures. Teaching Senior PMs, and PMs about accountability and proactive project management. Don assumed a Director role, and continued with the project review meetings. Communication, as you know, teams, talking about what's going on. What's working, what's not. How to pro actively solve problems. is fundamental to consistent success. We'll talk about some of this in our self-directed work teams video. It goes hand in hand with developing project managers, and how to get, you know, and lead design professionals. From boots on the ground team members to PMs, and Senior Managers. This stuff all sort of ties together and creates a mentoring and high performance team environment. So, what are the real benefits of doing this? Well, let's talk about the first one. Which as you know is how to improve project performance. It comes out of the dialogue . You develop a common language and metrics like JTD or ETC or EAC. Ideally, your principles have a lot of experience, there is a lot of value in that. So having a conversation, looking at performance issues. More brains in the room to have a proactive talk about how to solve problems. Identifying risk, mitigating risk proactively. Leveraging Team Leads and Senior Staff's collective experience and intellect. That's one of the first things you can really see is the benefit of this.

Don (03:28):

Yeah. You know, I always used to like to tell my PMs one of the primary skills the PM has, is the ability to communicate. Sometimes, you have the means to do that, and sometimes you have to facilitate the means to do that,. Communicating to the people who are executing the work, but also communicating to people who are in charge of teams executing the work. So, again, it's all about constructive, proactive, communication. Communication and teaching PMs the art of communication. So many times design professionals are really great at creating solutions, creating environments that are amazing, but they really haven't spent a lot of time communicating facts and data pertaining to a project. So this is a, this is, a nuance, a skill set that needs to be developed and, evolved over time.

Share Knowledge

JJ (04:23):

Yeah. And, and again, it's, there's so much value in a principal who's been there. It's the opportunity to, to share that experience. Which leads to the next one, you know, really develop those PMs. A lot of firms are trying to develop PMs by sending 'em out to training, and that's good. I mean, having PMs understand metrics and standard project management practices is good, but there's just so much more to be learned from principles and vice versa. Right?

Don (04:51):

Absolutely. Kinda sneaking into the next one here, where we're talking about forecasting, and I think the notion or the, philosophical approach that I always used to like to teach was that if you're not forecasting your projects and forecasting accurately, then you're really not managing to a goal or an objective. You should be able to call your shots, so to speak, and then execute to that objective. And I think that's the real nuance between sending a PM to a PM bootcamp and actually training effective PMs.

JJ (05:27):

Yep. And so these next few points will illustrate is this idea. You know, we've seen a lot of these principle reviews. Occasionally done by finance, or with teams that only have tools that report on what's been charged the project. You know, dollars or hours spent to date. It's accurate. However that's that rear view management. What happened, lagging indicators. We advise that principles, in principle reviews, talk about what's happened, but really focus on: okay, that's what's where we are, but what are we doing going forward? What's coming down the road? What are they doing? You know, we'll talk about deliverables, and projected performance. And so these two tie together. First, we're going to get PMs to focus more on planning. This is also a key thing we talked about in our other session. If you want, please watch it. How to get started with project planning. The value of planning is demonstrated when the senior leaders, demonstrate to the PM that they actually look at and understand the information. If you don't use your project planning tool, you know, if the principal doesn't open it up and show the PM they're using it. PMs aren't using it. Showing project plans and sitting down with the PM is what emphasizes it, demonstrates the importance of project planning to the PM PMs grasp the importance of planning and updating plans.

And so it's a tool now and it helps emphasize that performance, right?

Don (06:38):

Absolutely! Just like anything, whether you want to be a good bowler or good at the violin, no matter what you want to get good at, the time you put in will probably have a direct correlation on the results and success. You have to invest a little bit of time. Planning really pays dividends. It gives you that roadmap again, the goal is to forecast and manage project performance.

JJ (07:03):

Yeah, you can sort of see, the principal fits in that coaching role. Teaching proactive PM and Continuous Improvement. What gets measured gets managed. And then this stuff rolls up. So overall, the firm now gets to look across projects and get better forecasts in total for finance, for staffing needs, right? PMs are often asking for more people. Well, the best way you can justify getting more people, is demonstrate, via solid data provided by modern PM tools. That show that. Scope, Schedule, Personal and Budget necessary to complete the project. So, if everything sounds so good so far, you how do you get started? There's two main things we sort of highlight, and a third one a little bit, but it's basically, what you intuitively talk about deliverables, deliverable status, do some of the projection, financial review. You also need to look at staffing. You know, do you have the right staffing mix? So to start with, you know, talk about deliverables and schedules, right?

Communication and Coaching

Don (07:54):

Yes. Again, this kind of goes back to my communications mantra that says, one of the primary things is. Did you communicate the deliverables, schedule, personnel responsible . ASAP? You're asking your PM or Senior PM Did you clearly communicate the deliverables that are going to be due at this milestone? Are all your team members firing in the same direction in terms of working toward that goal? Do they understand the proper sequence of events that needs to occur? Key stake holders and contributors such as, the civil engineer, the structural engineer, mechanical engineer, and the architect, making sure that that sequence of events makes sense. So the specs and drawings are flowing through the organization smoothly. So that the PM can confidently tell you, yes, we are going to hit this deliverable and, we're within our budget on, on this scope of work.

Shared Responsibility

JJ (08:47):

Yeah. confirming all stakeholders have been communicated with. And, you know, now we're scrambling to get their work done so that the architect or whoever next is in line can finish up just a quick review of, you know,

Don (08:59):

This is a great opportunity for the PIC to pick up some good information, regarding what kind of challenges or conflicts are we having, as we're going through, putting together the deliverable. So, for example, maybe the one of the team members, has got some changes that came as a result of a client review meeting, and those changes are going to increase the scope. First of all, the PIC I could say, have we documented that? Do we have all the paperwork necessary to execute that change in contract? Second, there is a time constraint that has now been created. Are we consuming more hours on this project and therefore having an impact on peripheral projects or vice versa, is that happening to us? So there are some challenges that could be overcome from that perspective. Are we in the midst of a discussion with an owner who has not really approved a change directive, and so therefore we're sitting on, a project where we really should be progressing on it? So this is a absolutely critical opportunity for the PIC to really interject himself or herself and take proactive measures.

JJ (10:16):

Yeah. Yeah, definitely get something better than a shaky verbal to proceed with that change order. So briefly what we brought up in this screen, this is our view, our master schedule view. So you can filter it down to a single principle or, an office or just the PM is you can look at just the, the work that that PM has scheduled, and then maybe you zoom out to work within that office, and that allows you to look at what's starting and stopping. What, , deliverables are due. So we can see that 90%, CD due, in this screen. and that, as we mentioned, just allows you to look at, are there conflicts? Do we have eight deliverables going out that day? That could be a problem, you know? The second part is, you typically, QA, QC. We have that, you know, at the top there. You know, is it assigned, you with our tool, if you assign QA, QC to a person, they can see it within their outlook. So if you have assigned that to a principal, you know, they're aware of it and it helps just coordinate, those activities.


Don (11:18):

I'd like to jump in there. Yeah. You know, from my experience, the quickest way to get on the wrong side of a PIC is to tell 'em at five o'clock on a Friday afternoon, Hey, I got this, set of documents I need a QA, QC on. That can get you sideways pretty fast. First of all, you'd like to give them more advanced notice. Second of all, if, the principal does pick up on a few things that need to be corrected and you've waited till the last minute, you're going to be working overtime. And these are one of those sneaky little things that consume project hours and consume project budget. Sometimes people look back and go, how did we go over budget on this thing? It's those kind of things that, that, that that'll bite you every time.

JJ (12:02):

Yeah. Cause then you have to go ask someone to work on Saturday to fix it. So they're working overtime. Staff morale impacted, they're not happy, or your schedule's late, right? And that's another key issue. We know that, you know, based on last year's, survey, 37% of firms had, challenges and issues with schedules. You know, being on time, there's two main things on time, on budget. If you want to win, you gotta do both, at least in our opinion. So consider, you don't need to use our tools. We're just talking about how you want to coordinate things you want to look at. We try to make it easier for you. But, you know, these are the things that you need to, identify, right? Next part of the review, unless anything else?

Nope. the financial review, quick review of, projects. So we're looking at some key high level items. We'll talk to this a little bit. I brought up our screen again to give an idea. It doesn't need to be our tool, but you know, the key elements. Job to date, estimate to complete, estimate at completion. Ideally in ours, you can just use Excel type filter, filter it down to the PM, you know, Randy Sinclair or whoever it is, you got their list of projects, you can bang through that list pretty quickly. Don, you've done a ton of these though. Let's talk about some of the points. What are you, what are you looking at? What are you talking through with your pm

The Details: How to

Don (13:21):

You know, one of the first things that I think a lot of folks want to do is compare their fee and their estimate at complete. And sometimes you'll just take a peak at those two numbers and think, oh, things are going swimmingly. You're going to make some money, but peel back one or two layers of the onion. Hmmm. Looks like we have, a significant positive variance. Did we plan all the people that are going to be working in this particular phase? So that's where you begin to really look at estimate to complete. Does it make sense along with the estimate at completion and the fee? So you kind of just do a quick sniff test to make sure that the disciplines that you know, are going to participate in a particular deliverable. You're looking at it and going, oh yes, you have the structural, you got your architect. Oh, do you have, construction administration? Oh, looks like you missed that. You know? So these are some of the things that as you QAQC, the plan that has been put in front of you, you can pick up on stuff very, very quickly.

JJ (14:23):

Yeah. This one, actually, I didn't realize that good of an example. This is, so in this example, the EAC is at 1.9 million on a 2.1 million fee. Not so bad. questions you might want to quickly ask. so design development has zero ETC, it looks like it's $30,000 under budget. You want to confirm, you know, is it actually done a hundred percent no more time, you know, so that's question number one., next thing, CDs likely underway, they, they look like they're, projecting slightly over. Okay? On our overall picture, not so bad. But here's the real, you know, alarm bell, CA is projecting EAC at 267,000 on a half million dollar fee. I don't know about you guys, but not too many firms I ever speak to come under budget on CA. So, you know, going down to this level would potentially uncover, something you wouldn't catch 'em at the end of the project.

Don (15:23):

Right! And as I always would coach, it's that proactive, management of the PMs, as the PIC where you're looking to the horizon and seeing some potential pitfalls that if you take countermeasures early enough, you jump through that window of opportunity to correct things before they're uncorrectable. And I guess my analogy on that, just to be quick. I always talk about a marathon. If you want to run a three and a half hour marathon, you realize that your split times or times per mile have to be about seven minutes, 30 seconds per mile. Well, in the very beginning of that marathon, if you find you're off pace, you can pick it up by, say, 30 seconds per mile. If you wait till mile marker 16 and you have to pick up a full minute per mile, that's a, that's an extraordinary task. And if you wait even longer, it just becomes absolutely impossible.

JJ (16:18):

You know, in this example. That's a good analogy because what the PM basically did plan his team for a four minute mile. Exactly, That's what the PM did. You know, so other quick things you want to look at, you know, are the fees off or fees missing? Is EAC zero? I mean, could something's not be planned, is it under planed? We also recommend, you know, look at job date plan versus actual, that gives that comparison. Are you planning, are you spending more or less than what you've planned to this date and time? It gives you an, you know, how accurate is the, you know, temperature, so to speak.

Don (16:55):

Yeah, I think you'll actually have picked up on a little bit of that when you talk about conflicts and challenges, you'll, you'll see it reflected on estimate versus actual.

JJ (17:04):

Yeah. And again, bringing up, if you're going to do resource planning and project manage project planning, this is, again, we're bringing this with the pm, showing him, the him or her, the data and talking about it with them, it just emphasizes it's important and that you're using it, and it's valuable to you. so, those are our main things that we recommend reviewing there. One thing we actually, we didn't talk about was, resource conflicts can also come into play. So if you want to, you know use, if you're using the resource management piece, you can look at your key discipline needs or key members in that role. Double check if anyone's got vacation schedule coming up. Anything. Anyone could be get double booked on their projects somehow. you can do a quick review of, the staff too, if that's a common problem for your firm.

Don (17:59):

No doubt about it. And anyone that's put together a plan understands that if I have five PMs all using similar resources at some point in time, we're both going to have requests for the same resource.

JJ (18:10):

Yeah. So, yeah, thanks for the time. Hopefully you all find this valuable. Hopefully they'll start doing some more PM reviews. looking to the future. Don and I, have our contact information here if you want to reach out to us.

About Planifi

At Planifi, our goal is to make, project planning and forecasting drop dead simple for architects, engineers, and design professionals. If you want to find out more about that, you can visit or again, contact us directly. Thanks for time and have a great day.


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