The PM conundrum

Already saddled with an endless list of responsibilities, is it fair to ask your project managers to chase down aging accounts receivable?

I don’t know about you, but I’m increasingly concerned that many in our industry view project management as an all-encompassing role for nearly every element of our businesses. From budget management and work product delivery to client development and accounts receivable, the role of the project manager within the typical A/E firm is not only vast, but seemingly endless.

As an example, assume for a minute that something needs to be done about the plus-90 accounts receivable in your firm. If yours is like most, someone in leadership will inevitably respond by instructing the PMs to start making some calls. While having the PMs follow-up on their A/Rs probably isn’t so bad, the task is rarely that simple. That is, when the PM gets the word that he needs to start calling his clients, he in turn will generally reach out to someone in accounting asking for a summary of billings, payments, histories, etc. After several rounds of this, the VP of accounting is likely to push leadership to add training on the various nuances of the firm’s accounting system to the growing list of PM responsibilities so that they need not distract accounting staff with such matters. Sarcasm aside, my point is all of this takes time and is a distraction from what is otherwise the PM’s highest and best use.

Understand, this is just one example of the increasing number of non-project-related distractions to which PMs are being subjected to on a daily basis. I’m sure those of you reading this can come up with many examples of your own. But, here’s the crux of my concern: what’s going on in terms of the PM’s real responsibilities – his day job of ensuring service quality and delivery – while he’s out chasing A/Rs or doing whatever else has been directed of him? I’m guessing the projects probably aren’t getting the attention they are due.

Personally, I believe PMs should be left to manage projects and corporate services staff left to handle issues like the enforcement of contract terms and conditions, including collections. While some of you might have a different opinion, over the years, I have found this to work well – a differentiation of power that lends itself to effective negotiation and dispute resolution when things might go rough; a sort of god cop/bad cop scenario. I believe that our PMs should always be viewed as client advocates, and that we let accounting personnel handle account administration and support the PM function.

It’s not that I lack an appreciation for the burdens to which all staff, including corporate services personnel, are also subjected, or an understanding of A/R. It’s just that I’ve been around the block enough to know that effective project management is what drives a firm. (Let’s be frank, without effective project management, a firm would cease to exist.) I’ve also been a PM and can empathize with the seemingly endless list of responsibilities to which they are faced. That said, I find the practicality of what a PM can and cannot accomplish in a given day as sorely lacking in the context of most leadership discussions.

Let’s stick with my A/R example for a moment. Do we as an industry really believe that PMs should be responsible for A/R and collections? Most of the PMs in the firms I know were appointed to their positions based on their technical acumen and demonstrated ability to deliver exceptional work products on time and on budget. (Few, if any, have ever gone through any formal collections training, and most lack the signature authority to negotiate terms or price concessions anyhow.) Given that realization, I think many in leadership need to step back for a moment and ask themselves if distractions such as these (whatever your example), truly are within the scope of a PM’s highest and best use. Or are we simply justifying our decisions to have PMs run point by rationalizing that because they know their clients and projects best, they are more capable than someone else? Perhaps. But, as the demands on our PMs’ time continue to increase, I believe we as an industry need to be looking at the practicality of what a PM can or cannot accomplish in a given day, and not stray from what is truly their highest and best use – ensuring service quality and delivery.

Marc Florian is vice president for Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc., a professional consulting, engineering, and scientific services organization on four continents. He can be reached at

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Posted in Archives | October 9th, 2017 by