As AV technology plays a more central role in communications, the need for competent project management has become paramount to an integrator’s success.
At least, that’s the way Travis Deatherage, president at Linx Multimedia, sees it. “We’re now a very integral part of the construction process, and our infrastructure needs often need to be communicated early in the project because those things are happening right away, when the project kicks off,” he said. And, because AV integrates with so many different trades, someone must be charged with communicating with all of the project stakeholders throughout. “There’s a need for more project management time in a project to ensure it’s going to be successful at the end, because of that integration with all of the other trades.”
Headquartered in Denver, CO, Linx Multimedia is the full-service audiovisual design and integration division of Linx, which also specializes in structured cabling and security. The multimedia group has 90 employees on staff, seven of which are project managers. Deatherage explains that the PMs at Linx Multimedia oversee projects from contract to closeout, both in terms of execution––getting the job done––and dollars. “They’re financially responsible for the success of the job, its profitability, how things get billed, when they get billed, and ensuring change orders get processed and managed appropriately,” he said. To streamline this process, the firm’s foremen manage the actual job sites, so project managers may focus on client communications, coordination with other trades, resource planning, product procurement, and, inevitably, solving problems. “All of those things take a lot of time, and without managing them properly, it’s very difficult to have a successful integration project.”
Christopher Maione, president of Christopher Maione Associates in Northport, NY, a firm that provides business and technical consulting and training to the AV industry, notes that these days, with many of the larger RFPs calling for AV, IT, and security services, it’s not sustainable to dedicate three PMs––one for each category––but rather one project manager who oversees the entire job, and who has access to in-house experts, or lead consultants, with deeper technical knowledge in each of the three disciplines.
“The project manager is facing the client, talking to them and interpreting their different needs, but they don’t need that same level of technical expertise [as they would on smaller jobs] because the lead consultants are supporting them in that role,” Maione said.
Each summer, Linx hosts Linx Academy, which offers employees workshops on leadership, planning, and communication. For project managers, these sessions have focused on what goes into creating estimates and writing project plans, as well as role-playing exercises to demonstrate what goes on during client meetings. “We’ve also had project planning exercises on creating, writing, and managing project plans, and then having change introduced––whether that’s the schedule, or financial or resource challenges, and then teaching them how to deal with those challenges, because jobs never go exactly as planned,” Deatherage said.
However, he emphasized that if you have a solid plan in the first place, managing change is a lot easier. “When you have that plan––that baseline––and you’ve communicated that clearly with the customer, and you’ve set expectations up front, and when that change occurs it’s a lot easier to have that conversation with the customer about the impact of that change because you had an agreed upon set of expectations up front. And that’s probably one of the most important steps in project management—to clarify the schedule and expectations early in the process.”
One issue that project managers often face is that although they may be responsible for a project’s success, they don’t necessarily have full control from the outset. “[Oftentimes] sales set up the project in such a way that it may ultimately lose money, and when a project loses money, the project manager is blamed, even though sales set up a bad job,” said Bradley Malone, PMP, partner at Navigate Management Consulting (formerly Twin Star Consulting) in Hinsdale, IL, and an InfoComm senior instructor. By “bad job,” Malone means that the sales department may not have accounted for any number of variables that could have a considerable impact on a project’s profitability. “[For example,] sales wrote up a scope of work that was more bill of materials-based versus project execution-based. They did a site survey that talked about the size and shape of the room and where the equipment was to be placed, but didn’t show the numerous obstructions in the ceiling, nor that the technicians had to go through security every time they entered the site, the loading dock was another building away, the elevator isn’t large enough to hold the large screens, and several of the rooms were only available in evenings [so prevailing wages applied], and you couldn’t make noise during the day.” Not only does this cost AV firms more labor time (and therefore, more money), the PM in a scenario like this has little hope of managing the project proactively (profitably) rather than reactively.
Resource planning is another big challenge for project managers, Malone notes. After all, AV firms usually have any number of projects taking place all at once, which means any number of PMs are vying for the same resources in the same timeframe. “What often happens is that there’s a lack of capacity planning for resources––the sales pipeline is talking in terms of revenue, but not in terms of the number of labor hours needed and when those labor hours are needed,” he illustrated. Six different salespeople may have sold six different projects with January deadlines, and yet there may be only 10 technicians available to perform the installations when in reality, the workload requires 20. “So a lot of an AV integration company’s problems are really from resource management, not project management.”
To avoid falling into this trap, Malone encourages companies not only to ask themselves: can we execute this project? But instead: can we execute all the projects we sell? “Project management is eight to 15 percent of the labor hours on a job, typically, and that needs to be based on complexity, not size,” he said. The way AV firms can hone their project management skills is to apply them to all projects, regardless of scope. “I find a lot of companies will add project management to a large job, but not a small job. We need to learn our fundamentals of project management on small jobs. What we tend to do is wait until we win the big jobs, and then think that we can manage them well. But again, we didn’t master the skills and processes on the small jobs as a company.”
Accountability: Measuring a PM’s Success
At Linx Multimedia, project managers are accountable for two metrics upon project completion: its financial success and customer satisfaction. Travis Deatherage, the firm’s president, explained that throughout projects, PMs are required to generate monthly financial reports that detail how they expect a project to perform financially, and this data is assessed once the project is done. The company’s marketing department also generates customer surveys to measure the client’s experience.
“The mindset that we build into our project managers is that financial performance and customer satisfaction are not mutually exclusive,” Deatherage said. “I think many people believe that you can have one without the other, or that you can’t have both. I actually believe that if you have both, they feed on each other: if you have a happy customer, you’re usually more successful financially, and if you’re financially successful over the long term, you probably have happier customers. Because customers want somebody who’s going to be responsible, who’s going to be honest, who’s going to be truthful and direct, and who’s going to be there for the long haul. And that requires a level of financial responsibility.”
Techs vs. True PMs
It’s not uncommon for AV firms to promote their lead technicians into project management positions––something that Bradley Malone, PMP, warns companies to be careful of. “It’s a different mindset,” he said, and it really depends on whether the technician wishes to assume the other non-technical responsibilities that are part of project management, such as communications and administration. “I like to take the middle-of-the-road technician who likes to talk to people, likes to see how things work together, and will do paperwork. I’m very careful in the project management selection process to take generalists, not technicians.”