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Too Much of a Good Thing

Dear Dave
I have a problem with one of my young engineers. "Jack" joined me right out of school and has been registered for about eight years now. He is probably the single most creative and talented design engineer at my 85-member firm. The issue I have is that Jack does not know when to stop when it comes to design. He is a stickler for details and will keep working on a project for whatever amount of time it takes until he is totally satisfied without regard for time or budget. He will personally work around the clock in order to meet schedules, but other engineers working on Jack’s projects and our CAD staff get frustrated with the ongoing changes, especially as delivery deadlines draw near. I’ve tried to talk to him about this in the past, but whenever I have, Jack becomes very defensive claiming the level of work he does on a project is professionally required of him as an engineer. On one hand, I don’t want to discourage his efforts, but on the other hand, I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with his general lack of profitability and the stress and strain his work habits are placing on the rest of the office.

Dear RT
Unfortunately, Jack has developed an immature and narrow understanding of the responsibilities of being an engineer in private practice.

As a project manager, Jack must meet four fundamental objectives for each project he undertakes. Think of these four objectives as being the four corners of a box. The first corner is the scope of service to be completed as agreed between the client and the firm. The second corner is the date by which your firm has committed to complete its work. Corner three is the internal budget for hours available given the fee agreement for the project and the firm’s expectations for profit. And, finally, corner four is the responsibility to deliver a project that fully meets the quality standards of the firm and the profession.

For Jack to be any kind of complete project manager he must learn to keep the design genie in the bottle, avoid excess perfection and stay within the confines of the box by meeting all four objectives, not just one or two. That’s easy, any talented individual could do what Jack does if they too were willing (or allowed) to ignore key elements of their responsibility.

Where do you go from here? Either work with Jack to round out his education and his skills to what is required if he is to remain as a project manager, or work around Jack’s weaknesses by somehow limiting (if possible) his role on projects to take advantage of his creative ability, without assigning him to overall project management for which he is ill prepared.

What you don’t want to do is to do nothing. His poor project management performance is unfair to the people he works with and is draining profits from the firm. Sit down with Jack and gently but firmly talk over the situation and the available options. Let him be party to choosing which direction to pursue.

If Jack elects to remain in project management, and you agree, a suitable process of education and supervision will need to be established. Mentorship would work best. Assign Jack to work under the direction of a seasoned project manager who can demonstrate and coach Jack in the art of balancing the four objectives. The mentor and Jack would meet at regularly scheduled intervals to review the progress of each of Jack’s projects and together make any timely adjustments to make sure Jack’s projects remain within the four corners. If this process is successful, the level of supervision can gradually subside in relation to Jack’s increasing project management skills. If not, you’ll have to consider the option of finding another role for Jack at your firm.

Wahby and Associates