Delivering on pledges: How do project managers juggle effectively? By Steve Hogevold

Morse Consultants Blog
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Always be mindful of the big rocks!

jug·gler  (jŭg′lər)


1. One that juggles objects or performs other tricks of manual dexterity.

(Free Dictionary –

Managing a project for a client is like being a champion juggler – only sometimes the items being thrown into the air are giant rocks instead of oranges or lemons!   With the 2015 election in the forefront of our minds and the politicians making promises and pledges they may or may not be able to keep, I have been reflecting on how we as a business can continue to deliver our own pledges and how we manage our time and priorities.  Over the bank holiday weekend I began reading about Stephen Covey’s theory The Big Rocks of Life.

Some of you may be aware of this already.  Dr Covey suggests that our lives and our time are made up of big rocks (priorities) and a number of smaller elements (pebbles, sand and water) which can be squeezed in to a jar if put in in the right order.  On filling the jar, first with the rocks, then the pebbles, then the sand, and finally the water, he asks his audience “what is the point of this exercise?”   One individual responds with an offering that: “if you try really hard you can always fit more things in.”

There are two schools of thought about Dr Covey’s approach to managing time. “No,” he corrects the individual.  “If you don’t put the rocks in first you will never get everything else in!”  This then prompts a practical discussion about prioritizing and managing your goals effectively.

But the alternative view of Covey’s theory is that it is just not possible or reasonable to try and fit everything in because priorities are constantly shifting and therefore some of the rocks need to be removed because the small pebbles (unexpected; urgent; curveballs) can become just as important as the big rocks.

Handling property issues on behalf of businesses, particularly managing projects can be extremely complex, and we carry a huge responsibility on behalf of clients which we as a business take very seriously.  We have indemnity insurance, experts and consultants at our fingertips (lawyers, architects, engineers, IT consultants, asbestos specialists, etc), and we have contracts in place to protect and assist us along the way.  Yet, ultimately, we are 100 percent accountable for interpreting a brief, guiding the client and delivering the project.

But our role as project manager isn’t as simple as holding our priorities at the top and always putting those first.  Sometimes people don’t deliver (mostly they do fortunately), key components of a building might not arrive and set programs back (due to underperformance, misunderstanding or even an Act of God), clients change their minds (or think of a much better idea), and sometimes in the middle of works we unearth horrors that turn small pebbles into huge rocks, forcing us to dig deep to find a solution.

Sorry for all the analogies so far, but I am getting in to this!  I believe we can all set our own personal priorities (rocks) into activities, goals, intentions and people and we can manage those as we see fit.  But if we take our clients’ rocks to represent budget, deadlines, expectations, business aims and quality, you can see that it would be virtually impossible to remove any of those in isolation to give us more time.   Time is money, and in business money is pretty much everything.  So we rely on our team being knowledgeable, adaptable, quick thinking, proactive and flexible to create more space in our jars.  We couldn’t throw any of those rocks out in order to achieve the end product, because that would compromise our service, and the client would not use us again.

Analysing the way in which we work doesn’t always come naturally – our principal has always been to get on with it and deliver come what may – we work hard and we get on with people and that’s that. But as we enter our 12th year of operation, we need to be mindful of the different ways people perceive success.  Whilst we have evidence of ours in the number of clients still using us for our services since the beginning of Morse Consultants, we need to continue to deliver our pledges without compromising our own personal big rocks or those belonging to the business.

Our biggest challenge will always be to try and align the expectations of clients with our own perception of their priorities.  Forming a strong project team and communicating well can help to achieve this.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at different ways of thinking about effective delivery.  Maybe next time I go to a client meeting I will take my jar, some big rocks, and some small ones and ask them to arrange them.  Or maybe I might just suggest we go for a coffee and a chat instead!