Straddling the Project Management Fence

The term “straddling the fence” carries with it some negative connotations—being indecisive, trying to take two sides of the same argument, etc. So when a project manager friend of mine and I were talking recently and he said that he spends much of his day straddling the fence, I was confused since this particular individual happens to be fairly opinionated.

When I asked him to clarify, he made a very good point. Most project managers have to straddle the fence as part of their job, living half in the world of construction business management and half in operational management. Half in the office, half in the field. And as everyone in construction knows, these are two very different worlds.

A few weeks ago I wrote about project documents versus project data and how combining these could serve as a step on the path toward closing the gap between the office and the field. He seemed to agree with this premise, but said (paraphrasing here) “John, the gap might be narrowed, but there’s still a fence—still two different types of work environments that the PM has to live in at the same time.”

I asked him if this bifurcation was the cause of inefficiency for project managers, and he shrugged and said it was a reality that “simply existed.” Since he knows I develop construction software, he went on to say that it was a big reason why PMs so often eschew larger software systems and build their own tools—typically using generic software like Excel.

I’ve never held the opinion that using home-grown spreadsheets is a universally bad idea. I do it myself for certain things. But I do think that having to use spreadsheets because your existing software isn’t delivering is a shame (and frankly an opportunity for me to build a better solution).

So back to my friend. I know his company owns sophisticated business management software and they use one of the larger of the project management software systems on the market. I asked him what he and his colleagues used spreadsheets to do, and he said that the biggest use was to simply “make sense of the ton of information that flies around a project each day.” They maintain multiple logs, project schedules, budget vs. projection vs. actual data, vendor and subcontract data, and so on. The amount of raw data is tremendous, and so spreadsheets are built for two main reasons – to help sort, filter, and prioritize this data, and to help flag the items that are in greatest need of attention.

I found it a bit ironic that they had these high horsepower software systems yet their solution for business intelligence was built on the back of generic spreadsheets. It reminded me that power does not imply efficiency or effectiveness. In software tools, as with so many other things, “more is better” is not the rule.

And for the Construction Project Manager having to manage activity in two worlds, this is absolutely not the case. They need tools that help them make sense of all the data and documents associated with their products—tools that help create order out of chaos. According to my friend, they’re stuck on that fence. The least we can do is give them a saddle.

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