Demystifying Project Control

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In this episode, we discuss Project Controls with Dr. Dimitris Antoniadis, the author of the book “Demystifying Project Control”.

Dr. Dimitris has more than 30 years of experience in Program and Project Management having covered phases from concept to handover and operation, maintenance, as well as holding senior management posts in major utilities, infrastructure, and construction organizations. He was awarded his Ph.D. from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom for his research into managing complexity in project teams.

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Highlights from Episode 126: “Demystifying Project Control” with Dr. Dimitris Antoniadis

Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into project and program management?

Yes. First of all, thank you very much and the Project Paradise for the invitation. How did I start 33 years ago? I decided to join the construction part of project management and just beneath my degree in mechanical engineering, but unfortunately, those days if you were not a civil engineer, you could not get into project management. So, I joined the profession as a project control engineer and then I worked my way up and through various organizations to become a program manager, then head of PMO. I spot between project management, program management, and Head of PMO.
So, basically, I did a part-time masters in project management, and then because I didn’t know what to do between 12 o’clock and 2 o’clock at midnight, I have done a part-time PhD. But basically, because I was looking at how and what is happening around on the project. So, I was thinking “With all these processes and everything that we have, it should be running properly. Why do we get that many, you know, project failures?” And this is why, basically, my PhD is on complexity in project management, specifically in project teams.

What are the main misunderstandings people have about project controls?

Apart from thinking that it is a black art, basically, yes, some people think of it as unnecessary. Unfortunately, despite all, you know, what the Project Management Institute and the Association of Project Management have been saying for the last few decades now. They see it as unnecessary, they see that’s fragmented. The fragmentation in the project control and in the industry, the profession is something that we need to do if and when we are on delivery or is too much unnecessary software, that’s the other thing that some of us, and I have to admit in my early times, you know, we were thinking software will give us a lot of the solutions which is not the case. It’s basically how do you sell the concept of project control? You know, everybody knows about the processes that are needed in project management. But how do you need to sell the process of project control? And that is the biggest, I think, issue that we have around us now.

How do you re-engage those people who think that it is a black art?

Well, this is exactly the reason I wrote the book because I wanted to show people that it is not a black art. What I always said in all my positions, especially when I was the head of program management. I told people that, you know, project control is like a loose straitjacket. You need to follow the standards that have been set up for the last 50, 60 years now. What needs to happen to project control is that you need to allow the flexibility to the project managers that they are accountable for delivering the project to move within the bandwidth that is given not by project control, but from the company. And the other thing is they need to understand that the project controller needs to, not just with the project team that delivers a project, but there are other disciplines like finance, procurement, or supply chain that design document control. These are all the things that project controllers need to understand, that they need to work with and by just sitting in front of the laptop on a Primavera or an Open Plan or a Microsoft Project doesn’t make you really a project controller because you need to be talking to people to get all the information you need. That will guide the project, including project control.

Do you have any tips for project managers who may be starting out or maybe just examining the way that they do things? What’s your number one tip?

Look at using the standard project management structures and by that, I mean the work in the construction. These are the standards that you need to kick off your project with and your project controller is there to help you do it properly. Many times it comes the other way around. The project controllers are the guys that come back to the project manager to say “This is what we have to do.” And the project manager is like “No, no. No, that’s not the way I see it.” So, this is the reason I wrote my book, you know, “Demystifying Project Control” to make it clear to project practitioners, that it’s not all mystic and black art. It’s the basic standards that have been set up for decades now, and then implementing them properly on your project. Communication is the key.

Why is communication so important?

It’s not like you’re isolating yourself in a room and you work your black art through the scheduling tools. You need to be communicating, and communication happens in both directions. The project managers asking and the project controller also asking and receiving that information and data that comes. If you are the project controller, you need to drill into the details of the data you receive and then be able to analyze and sit down with the project team and the project manager and talk about it. And it’s not “That’s because I said so”, it is because the schedule says so and this is what we’re doing.

How do you manage those controls across a program?

At program level, you need to roll up, and obviously, you need to be able to report to the program managers, the senior project manager in that position, directors of the company. At the same time, at that senior level, you need to be considering the other directors if you’re working for a client, you need to be looking at your client to the delivery, which is your asset management department or another department that delivers projects. You need to be working closely with your finance teams, and that’s the finance director obviously, strategy director if he’s needed because PMO is looking at the most strategic level, you know, rolling up all the data and enabling decision making through the information that comes out from the project control tools.

So tell us a little about some of the nice guidance you might have given as director of PMO incorporating all of those directorships to deliver the program.

As I said, you need to keep an open mind and that is thinking that what the delivery requires for a successful, you know delivery of projects or programs. But at the same time, think of how finance has a specific deadline every month, and at that particular point in time finance needs that information, the data that will run and enable them to run their own processes. So, you need to be talking to finance. In my case, I had to talk to the Treasury because our organizations were the companies working with foreign exchange. So, the Treasury would come to me and say: “I need to know what we, as a company, are going to procure from a number of different countries in the world? And therefore I need my effects to be more, I need to head for my foreign exchange.”

So, you need to be open-minded and look around at the players. At the same time, one thing I am not excluding is the people that deliver the work, I’m not talking just about the project manager. I’m talking about subcontractors or sub-consultants that work within the team and this is the intricacy that comes from the outside and not all organizations have the same standard. Therefore, you need to work with these people in the company and see what exactly is the information they want. If they work with you, if you’re in a client environment, you from the client-side, you need to understand what these organizations require for them to survive really and have a successful, you know, project, from their side, as well.

How do you ensure that your project controls are in place to manage the enormous budget?

Obviously, the project control of the PMO, in that particular case, supported the program management. Yeah. So, what we needed to do is set up the reporting. Maybe some people think it’s exaggerating, but the project control plan and the project control handbook, as many times I call it, is agreed by everyone. So, sitting down with the finance department and agreeing at the cut-offs which will allow the project teams to report properly progress and allow Finance to work within week perhaps with the figures, come back and confirm and therefore we all sort of sing from the same hymn sheet, rather than that you know a project manager reporting progress X and Finance saying “You’re way behind.”
So, it’s the coordination of the interfaces which was part of my PhD and that’s why, when I was thinking about it and reading about complexity, it’s the interfaces that happen between the parties and the people that caused the problems. So, I was looking at these interfaces, and in that particular case, the major interface was the European Commission, where they were the funders of the program. So, every quarter they will come and audit the way we do things, you know, to justify where the money’s going and is the money allocated properly and spent properly. But obviously, to ensure that our processes are transparent.

You are all in a team, working, you are not a group, you are teams working for the same output, a successful output, be that a project, be that a program of works, because at the end of the day, it’s what the company needs to do and how you’re going to make it successful for the company. Unfortunately, we have this splitting of the disciplines in the UK within project controls and you see the schedulers doing the schedule on their own, quantity surveyors doing the commercial side, you get others like risk management being kept separately and everybody is doing their own bit with no coordination.

Show Notes

Connect with Dr. Dimitris Antoniadis on LinkedIn.
Get your copy of “Demystifying Project Control” here.

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