10 ways to excel as a project manager
In the past decade, the number of small architecture firms has been shrinking while the number of large firms has increased.
The reason? A steep rise in the complexity of the projects firms are working on.
As buildings get taller and more advanced, firms need bigger teams to handle the scope. And those teams would be lost without a good project manager to organize it all.
Flora Bao, project manager at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), shared what it takes to be an excellent project manager, from soft skills to design knowledge to balancing internal and external goals.
1. Balance design experience with communication
Most project managers in architecture come from a design background.
“We have the hard skills to know what design should be and hopefully we have enough experience to know the components for everything,” Flora said.
It’s important for a project manager to be well-rounded as a professional where they don’t just know their own scope, but all of the adjoining ones and how they fit together.
But equally important to design know-how are soft skills, such as communication and the ability to set team expectations.
“You need to know how to communicate with people,” Flora said. “Communication basically is that super important aspect of being a project manager.”
With those in balance, you should also be resourceful so that the team can rely on your guidance.
You might not have all the answers, but you need to be able to get the answers.
2. Change your PM role based on firm size
PMs in large firms and small to mid-sized firms have different roles to play.
In a large firm, PMs should be completely hands-off when it comes to design.
“Let them do their thing, but you need to have your eye on everything so that if you see that something is falling through or falling behind, you're going to have to be that bad cop to be like, Hey, what's going on with this item?” Flora said.
She compared the role to that of an usher or a conductor of an orchestra. You’re there to lead and guide, not to play an instrument yourself.
At a small or midsize firm, the lines are less delineated.
“Then that's really a person to person, team to team discrepancy,” she said. “Even within the same company, you might work with different teams that do things differently.”
If your project lead has a close relationship with the client, you can let them be the liaison.
Make sure that you’re copied on all information that is being sent out, but you don’t have to be the designated communicator of the team in that situation.
3. Use simple tools
Most of the tools a PM needs are basic office software applications.
“You just need the Microsoft Suite,” Flora said. “You just need your Word documents to create your contracts. You need your Projects to create your Gantt charts.”
If you’re working with international clients, you may have to use other apps in those cases. Flora accommodates those requests from her Chinese clients.
“There's almost like a second duplicate set of systems that I work in for China projects,” she said. “And if the client insists on using that platform, you can't say no.”
Most of the time, you’ll need to be ready to use whatever communication platform the client prefers, like WeChat instead of a phone call.
4. Figure out org charts
Good communication is not just about the message itself, but how it’s delivered. To ensure that you’re sending the right information to the right person, Flora recommends creating an org chart.
“In the U.S., it's a little bit easier because people are a little bit more transparent and you can find information online to figure out what their hierarchies are within the company,” Flora said.
But in China and other countries, it can be opaque.
“I really did start wanting to do org charts just to put my own head together, to make sure that I know who to ask first before I ask the next person,” she said. “And these things are very sensitive in different cultures.”
In some cultures, there are layers of hierarchy that you need to go through before you’d be able to ask questions of the CEO. An org chart can help you navigate that adeptly.
“It's not just about the content that you're communicating, it's about who you're communicating to,” she said.
5. Cut up large projects into chunks
When keeping track of what questions need to be answered, focus on one phase of a project at a time. Otherwise, you’ll be overwhelmed with unwieldy lists.
For instance, target the first 50% of the SD phase. Create a chart and then let that chart go once it’s completed.
“Maybe copy over the questions that are still outstanding after you've submitted 50%,” Flora said. “Then you start a new chart. Here are the goals or the questions that have now emerged during 50-100%.”
If you break work into chunks, especially with large projects, you can better manage and track the history of each phase.
Another important tip is to get everything in writing even if there are tools to help with reviewing drawings.
“Otherwise it's very, very often somebody who will do a screenshot, draw some red lines with an arrow and they think, oh yeah, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about,” she said.
Even if you do understand, get the message clarified in written form. Not only is it helpful confirmation, but the email might prove of legal value down the line if you need to prove where a decision came from.
6. Develop soft skills
If Flora was hiring a PM to do her job, she would look for the soft skills required to work with a team of people.
“I would look for somebody who is compassionate, actually, because you need to be on everybody's side,” Flora said.
“You are not the decision-maker. You are the person in the middle, so you need to be able to be level-headed enough to encounter all different personalities.”
It’s also important to be able to be strong and put your foot down when needed to make sure things get done.
The last thing is to be agile and transparent with your team.
“I think because all fields are becoming more transparent, you need to become more agile to different people and just be open,” she said.
“You don't want to be somebody who's hoarding information. That's the worst thing, because then everything ends at you.”
7. Clarify internal and external goals
One of the first things a PM needs to learn if they’re just stepping into the role is the clear distinction between internal and external goals.
“What I mean by that is the project team, the conversations that you have with your internal team and your internal goals may not align with any of the external, whether it's client or consultant goals,” Flora said.
It’s like playing a game of cards, where you have to figure out what to reveal.
“You're trying to see, what are you going to trade me for?” Flora said. “If I give you this, are you going to give me more money to do that?”
Flora noted that learning this takes time. It’s best to take it slow.
“I don't think that you can fast track it too much, to be honest, just because I feel like because it's a human job, it's a communication job,” she said.
8. Work with each team member individually
In order to learn everyone’s personalities, what gets them excited, and what motivates them, you have to spend time talking to people one on one.
“So I really do look at every team member on a one-on-one basis,” Flora said.
Having conversations about any issue from design problems to schedule questions helps form close relationships with each team member.
When you know them all individually, you can balance their personalities and give them the support they need.
“You should not have a meeting with 10 people all the time,” Flora said. “There will be some of those people in that team that are not going to speak out, because they're always surrounded by other people.”
Not everyone will have the same personality as you or feel comfortable speaking in front of a group.
“You need to recognize when somebody is trying to speak, but has not been able to,” she said.
9. Gather experience
The key to becoming an effective PM is to get as much experience as possible as an architect so that you can see projects from all angles.
“If you're going to do a shortcut, then you don't get the respect because you don't know what you're saying, or you haven't gone through it,” Flora said.
If you’re a designer looking to take the step into project management, make sure you’ve spent enough time in the trenches, pulling all-nighters, and learning the ins and outs of the job.
“If you find yourself stuck doing one thing, ask for some other task to be done for the next project,” she said. “To be well-rounded, you need to do as many different things as possible.”
You’ll never be able to do everything, but you have to have enough variety in your experiences to know what’s out there.
10. Succeed by making everyone happy
Success for a PM is when everyone is happy and things are financially on track.
“If the designers are happy and they can see me as a friend and they can come to me for any questions work or non-work-related, if a consultant calls me up once in a while just to chat, or if the client is happy to respond to my emails all the time, then I feel like I'm on a good track,” Flora said.
Checking in on financial progress is important too, but your partners or management team will tell you when they don’t like the course a project is taking and want to focus more on profitability.
“I think it's always a balancing act,” she said.
“Project managers, we really are just making sure everything is afloat. So if you can keep everything up in the air and rolling along smoothly, then you've done your job.”
There are hard measurements sometimes, but it depends on the firm. Some will put profitability as a high priority, while others will be more focused on design.
Keeping your organizational and soft skills sharp will let you adapt to any project and execute your role with excellence.
Join us on Thursday, June 3rd for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Flora Bao, AIA, LEED AP, Project Manager at BIG - Bjarke Ingels Group.
Flora is a licensed Architect with 14 years of experience in the architectural design and development industry with projects ranging from full city-planning and large mixed-use projects, to single buildings and interiors, carrying these various project typologies from concept to construction completion. She is a Project Manager at BIG (prev. WeWork, SOM) with strong communication and organizational skills honed to identify priorities, align expectations, seek solutions, and lead a team towards a common goal. Flora has a thorough understanding of contract negotiation, scheduling, budgeting, and team collaboration, and is able to navigate well-structured organizations as well as fast-paced startup environments.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Flora about how to project manage architecture.
- Lessons learned from managing projects @ SOM, BIG, WeWork + more
- How does an advanced project manager work with teams?
- and more!