Digital Structured Project Management

From 2005 to 2007, I assisted a Philadelphia-based architecture firm, KieranTimberlake, to become North America’s first ISO 9001 certified design studio. The partners had the vision of using the latest digital design/3D/BIM software with the purpose of moving directly into digital fabrication/3D printing in order to bypass the “messy” construction process. By detailing dozens of procedures for ISO, they believed that the quality of their buildings would increase and costs would decrease through precision manufacturing. While the approach had its merits, the partners worried that the rigid certification requirements might create unnecessary constraints and stifle their creativity. This persists as a critical dilemma for our industry today – how should we reconcile the flexibility and capability of digital systems with our existing, rigid project management methods?

Separate the Practice from the Process 

This past year, I was invited to speak at both the Hexagon Live and Bentley Year in Infrastructure events. I loved being there and I marveled at just how powerful and informative the latest digital environments have become. The concept of the digital twin (i.e., a digital replica of a physical asset) will be transformative, but if, and only if, we’re willing to separate the practice/tools from the process/delivery method. In working with lots of companies over the years, I’ve concluded that this separation is difficult for most people to do. This is why the greatest technologies we’ve seen in decades are often (and unknowingly) applied to an inappropriate or inadequate structured project management method. Overlaying new practices or technologies on an outdated processes severely limits the impact that they can have on our business. A member of CII’s Strategic Planning Committee recently pointed out we have to first seek to understand a new technology for what it can do, rather than blindly using it to automate something we’re currently doing.
Structured Project Management Methods

I’m proposing that the industry (involving groups such as CII and CURT) undertake the research and development to create a new, digital structured project management method so that we can maximize the benefits of the latest breed of practices and technologies. Most experts agree that there are currently about 7-10 structured project management methods – all of them analog – each requiring human interaction at multiple decision points. About half of them are resource-based and often found in IT projects (Agile, Scrum, Kanban, XP) while the rest are activity-based and in the domain of engineering and construction projects (Waterfall, Lean, Stage-gate, PMBOK, PRINCE2). The main shortcoming of the existing analog methods is their general inability to react to, and recover from, turbulence or change. By contrast, a digital structured project management method might be agent-based, capable of using computational models to continuously simulate the actions and interactions of individuals and groups to assess their impacts on the system as a whole. Such a method would have the ability of incorporating aspects of existing and emerging best practices.

Going Digital

Talk to anyone in our industry and the word “digitalization” will come up. Companies are grappling with the problem of what to do with the endless barrage of new software and digital tools. Questions about how the tools will work with each other abound. Digitalization can be a blessing or a curse – the choice depends on your willingness to really understand the entirety of the environment where you intend to deploy. In order to “go digital,” the industry must work to create an environment capable of learning from, and compensating for, the unexpected. In the project world, black swans seem to be increasingly commonplace and success is entirely dependent on your ability to mitigate their impact and move forward in a new direction. In 1880, Prussian military commander Helmuth von Moltke wrote that “no plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force.”  Indeed, you always need a plan B, C, D (and much more). The good news is that we now have the computational power to constantly help us figure out what the next step should be toward achieving successful projects.

Date posted: December 4, 2018