Executive Project Controls: Clueless Emperors are the Oxymorons of Oversight

Executive Project Controls, or uber-controllers are that in name only

Executive project controls – project estimation and project scheduling, are perpetually misinterpreted disciplines. Laypeople simply don’t make the connection between ‘estimating and scheduling,’ with ‘executive project controls,’ while self-anointed organizations go around hawking fancy certifications to people with no practical industry experience. While it may be surprising to them, neither do many executive level managers of megaprojects and teraprojects.

How to rethink an incorrigibly broken system?

According to Oxford University Professor Bent Flyvbjerg

The Olympic Games have the highest average cost overrun of any type of megaproject, at 156 percent in real terms. In comparison, Flyvbjerg et al (2002) found average cost overruns in major transportation projects of 20 percent for roads, 34 percent for large bridges and tunnels, and 45 percent for rail.*

In other words, some of the largest projects in the world are led by executives who wouldn’t know a critical path from a critical mass. Accordingly, they always want ‘big-picture’ and ‘bottom-line’ scenarios not so much because they don’t have time to devote, but they simply lack the experience and training to delve any deeper into ‘details.’ In my eleven years’ experience as an expert witness, my observation is that such ‘industry leaders’ might be less qualified as a construction expert than a day laborer or assistant project manager.

When we say construction executive project controls ‘industry professionals,’ we thereby exclude the better part of politically appointed flunkies. As regards many of them, oversight typically denotes ‘oversight.’

This vacuum of practical knowledge for executive project controls is surprising to some of us because we take it for granted that project leaders not only understand project controls, but mastered them long ago: uber-controllers. For that reason, they are seldom held to account for budget shortfalls and extended schedules, while their ‘lessors’ absorb the criticism and estimated USD$123B annually in disruption and delay costs.

Project executive project controls should be developed by masters of the executive project controls universe, not enthralled to it.

“Captain, My Captain!

From an industry perspective, this is not news; in fact, it’s a recurrent theme bandied about from laborers to general managers. Yet, the vacuum does not begin and end with project executives, it trickles down into the project control clueless design industry; the ‘agents’ of stakeholders, doing their bidding. A far more reasonable argument is made for a construction manager to be the owner’s agent.

In my experience, there can also be a significant drop off in bandwidth when a construction manager is inept at his executive project controls oversight. In this context, the leg-work is left to the contractors, with the construction manager sitting in the oversight chair. Again, if the construction manager is inexperienced at project control, so will he be in his capacity as project control oversight captain. As project control information is submitted, it is always refined, manicured, and massaged so as to reflect desired outcomes, instead of realistic ones, because the information is often considered politically unpalatable.

From a practical perspective, there seems to be an inverse relationship between ability and perceived responsibility, i.e., the higher up the food-chain you go, the more incompetence will you find, and the less accountability you will expect, while humble schedulers and estimators seem to take all the heat.

In reality, many schedulers’ and estimators’ reports are seldom perused by ADD muckety-mucks, as if to say these execs are so adept at what they do that they only need, and only have time, to make macro or executive project controls decisions based on one or two bottom lines.  Reports that schedulers may have spent hundreds of hours on routinely are never read or used for their intended purpose. This MBA attitude is counterintuitive to the project controls process, which is a bit more complex.

If project leaders don’t have time to attend to budget and schedule, what else could possibly take precedence?

Playing politics

Schedulers and estimators ‘know too much,’ or rather, they are plain-spoken and tend to be objective about their work product. Such plain talk is considered a liability to those middle-managers who seek to massage an otherwise potentially volatile message; i.e., the real picture, which is why schedulers and estimators are always severely quarantined from ‘Brass.’

Schedulers and estimators simply don’t know how to BS the way account executives and project managers do. They learn fairly early on at a firm that the schedules they generate are the only input they will see on a project, as there always seems to be a need for a smooth talker to parse the information into a rosier perspective, a more politically palatable one. They invariably spend half of their time training their audience – construction manager, architect, and the other half justifying hard immutable facts.

“Execs don’t know because they already jumped the shark

This idiosyncrasy is what colors project controls with its (unjust) esoteric reputation: project controls are not so difficult to comprehend, if one takes the time to learn. I fear that more mundane factors are at work, such as laziness, disdain, or disinterest. It’s easy for executives to jump this shark because, in their capacity of Clueless Emperors, they delegate project controls to others. Judging from the merits of these delegations many seem to be ends in themselves.

As megaprojects founder and bumble along for decades armies of project controls operators are swept along with the greedy and insatiable tide of delay and disruption.

Publicly appointed MBA-minded technocrats with no construction experience don’t belong in the building industry, yet that’s who’s invariably calling the shots. They are the ones ultimately responsible, yet never held accountable, for the overall industry poor performance and negative production rates. They are rarely held accountable because they consider themselves ‘delegators,’ who rarely act in their own name. This is the same argument made by many German WWII war criminals, in the Nuremberg Trials. Perhaps they are not fully to blame, as they didn’t make the rules. Well, unless we want to continue cultivating losing business ethics, maybe it’s time for a new rule book.

“Just what sort of ‘agency’ are we talking about when there is a void in competence?

AIA stipulates its architects as Owners’ agent in many of its contracts. Insofar as project controls go, that’s like ‘the blind leading the blind,’ because AIA neither requires architects, nor trains them, to working knowledge of project controls. Typically, this ignorance masquerades a general disdain for what they don’t understand.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame the project leaders for everything – they have their minion corporate executives and agents to bugger things at the micro-level, and insulate them from criticism or blame. At the end of the day, there is little accountability above the humble scheduler and estimator level. This absence of accountability is a deal-breaker because there are a limited supply of these specially trained professionals who invariably are taken to task for oversights for which they were mostly blameless.

Demand accountability in executive project controls by requiring remedial exams for execs with holes in their CVs.

The process by which project teams are selected and implemented at the executive project controls level is invariably random and asymmetrical in its traditional organization – a futile attempt to blend business administration with construction smarts, but tainted with incompetence and nepotism. The industry will not break away from this practice until the process changes to one that is driven by industry experienced leaders, is meritocratic, and is not political.

Public officials and stewards of major capital construction projects should be required to demonstrate at least working knowledge of project controls applications and methodology. So should their corporate minions. We continually hear about the shortage of skilled construction personnel; especially project controls professionals, yet we seldom hear of such problems at the top, which is odd, being that “it” always runs downhill, and there seems to be no signs of relent in (over) sight.

*The Oxford Olympics Study 2016: Cost and Cost Overrun at the Games, Bent Flyvbjerg†Allison Stewart Alexander Budzier


Written by

Derek Graham is a Primavera 6 scheduler and schedule oversight consultant for public and private sector projects with four decades of construction industry experience. He has been an active construction expert witness in over 30 cases – both nationwide, and Federally, since 2006, when his book Managing Residential Construction Projects, was published by McGraw Hill