208 - TZL - Justin Smith

TZL - Justin Smith

Randy Wilburn [0:00] Hey folks, and welcome to another episode of The Zweig Letter Podcast. I'm your host, Randy Wilburn. I'm excited to be with you today. I'm sitting here with my good friend, Justin Smith from Start to Rise LLC and Justin is part of the Zweig Advisory team like I am. And so, I wanted to bring him on because he's actually teaching a class that I used to teach from time to time for Zweig back in the day. I'm so glad that Justin came on the scene to take it over and has really just molded it into something really special and I'm specifically talking about project management. And for those of you that listen to this podcast on a regular basis, if you work anywhere in the design industry space, you know that one of the biggest challenges that design firms have is project management. How do we make sure that everybody on the team understands how to operate within the confines or construct a project? How to interact with both the client as well as their team members? How to communicate effectively? There are so many moving parts to a project management team. And there are so many qualities of a good project manager, a good assistant project manager, or APM, as we call them, and even a good Senior Project Manager, but we also know what a bad project manager looks like as well. And typically, it's individuals that struggle with communicating effectively and doing so much to move the team along throughout the process. So I said, who better to bring on the podcast than Justin Smith, to have him share what project management really is and also share some of the worst stories that he's gone through throughout his career as both an engineer and a consultant to this space. So without further ado, Justin Smith, I know that was long-winded, but I wanted to set you up for success here. Welcome to The Zweig Letter Podcast for the first time.

Justin Smith [2:07] Well, after that introduction, I feel like I need to lower expectations a little bit before we get into it but thanks very much for having me. A pleasure to be with you. Always a good time talking to you, Randy.

Randy Wilburn [2:18] Absolutely. Well. Listen, man, I'd love for you just to give the audience your superhero origin story and just tell them a little bit about yourself.

Justin Smith [2:27] So originally born and raised in Midwest, Michigan, specifically. I went to school at SMU in Dallas, Texas, go ponies. I majored in Civil Engineering, primarily because I was

drawn to math and found myself to be a pretty concrete thinker, but struggled a little bit with some of the abstract nature of more advanced math. So engineering seems to blend the best qualities of science, math, concrete thinking, and the ability to produce tangible results. And I found myself really drawn to that combination. So I graduated with a BS and an MS from SMU and went to work for a local civil structural firm in Dallas, Texas. In 2008, what better time to enter the industry, but it definitely taught me a lot of lessons about learning quickly and getting a peek into how leadership teams made decisions on projects. So from there, my career took me across the country. I worked for a time in New York, worked for a time in Florida, and now I'm presently located back in New England in Connecticut. But throughout that time, I worked in small teams, large teams, small organizations, and large organizations, and really found myself drawn to project management and the ability of a team to successfully execute a project as a strategic initiative within firms. Not just something that we do passively to deliver engineering services, but really a strategic opportunity for firms. So over the past few years, I've been focused on working with project management teams and leadership teams to pursue project management as a strategic objective. When you boil it down, the ability to successfully deliver a project is the thing that enables all the other things that firms want to focus on.

Randy Wilburn [4:30] That essentially lines up with the mission of Start to Rise, which is to help AEC firms codify their project management playbook giving them more time to focus on their people and their business.

Justin Smith [4:47] That's exactly right. I mean, having a great project management system that is all consuming is better than not having anything but really what we want to do is we want to help firms lean out the process, and focus on the non-negotiables so that they can deliver more successful projects and spend their time running the business instead of fighting fires.

Randy Wilburn [5:09] So, you started working with Zweig during the pandemic and you said it was a unique set up because you did a lot of virtual training, and then you finally did some in-person training. As we all know, Zweig Group offers a number of online education programs, as well as personal training. A lot of companies can call Zweig Group to have them come in and do a bespoke training for that particular company's needs, whether it's leadership, it could be a number of different factors. Typically, the main focuses happen to be leadership, sometimes financial management, but probably the most requested is project management. Most firms want help in that area because every firm has shortcomings as far as that's concerned. There

are a few firms. There are some outliers, as we like to say that really do project management well, and they tend to be the beacons of hope that we all look to when we're focusing on the North Star of project management. But you've had a chance to really go in and even before coming to Zweig, to go into a number of different firms and identify some of the major pain points about project management. I'm wondering if maybe you could tease that out so that some people in the audience listening to this might even identify some of the challenges that they're facing before we get into how you structure your project management training and what it actually looks like. So let's talk specifically first about the challenges that firms struggle with when it comes to project management. Justin Smith [6:49] So it's interesting because whether your firm is a sole proprietor, 10 people, 500 people, what we found is that there are a lot of common elements among firms of varying size that they tend to struggle with and pop up time and time again on projects. The opportunity really lies in smaller firms recognizing those and codifying their solutions to those problems early so that as they grow, they're solving a smaller problem on the front end versus a very large problem. But it does seem that communication is a common challenge, being able to structure the way that you communicate about projects and assign work. Looking internally, and then when it's looking outwardly, it's really the ability of project managers to tease expectations out of their clients and help walk their clients through the thought process to arrive at good decisions on projects. Leadership is a huge element. We'll talk about this in just a minute but when we looked at the body of research out there on project management, leadership is a huge topic. And leadership ability of the project manager has been identified as the strongest link to project success. And then we look at more portfolio challenges. Resource planning is a challenge that has been thorny for a long time. There are a lot of solutions out there, but the firms that can capture their resource needs now and capture their resource needs in the future, and then make good plans to bridge the gap between where they are and where they want to go are really the ones that find themselves relaxed during the last two weeks of a deliverable versus under the gun. And then the last piece that we see really commonly is the ability to solve problems. And we're not talking about engineering problems. We're not talking about architectural problems. We're talking about when groups of people get together with competing interests. How can the project manager be the one that really leads the team to a solution that is a true win-win? So regardless of whether the firm is one person that is working with some consultants or a small founder-led company, all the way up to hundreds of employees, these tend to be those common data elements or those common issues that seem to be coming up time and time again. And the firms that are well positioned in these areas are the ones that struggle a lot less with project management than the ones that aren't.

Randy Wilburn [9:17] You're totally speaking my language here. You've brought up a bunch of issues. Where would scope creep fall in all of this because that's always the buzzword that we all talk about when it comes to project management issues and challenges - how to avoid scope creep, that dreaded scope creep whenever we would bring that issue up. That was one of the outlying factors that most companies struggled with was how to address those issues both internally as well as externally. Justin Smith [9:50] It comes up everywhere. What I like to say is it's all about expectations management and you are working on any project you're working with expectations but you get to choose who sets them. You as the project manager can set the expectations or you can allow them to be set for you. And when it comes to something like scope creep, as simple as it might sound, the best way to address that is really just to put yourself in a position to have that conversation on the front end. And I think a big reason why scope creep is such a challenge for project managers is because they're either apprehensive or they don't know how to have that conversation proactively. So a lot of times it becomes a runaway train, and then by the time you've got to address it, it's uncomfortable, you've probably let it go on a little bit too long. But it really comes down to you wanting to be the one setting the expectations for the project so that you can put yourself in the driver's seat and have a pre-set solution to that problem when it comes up. But unfortunately, it comes up everywhere resource planning, communication, and leadership, they're all facets that enable scope creep to occur. Randy Wilburn [11:04] Again, I think part of the issue is just the awareness of it. And I think you said that word, it's the word that I always talk about managing expectations. A good project manager, as you said, has to manage the expectations of the client but then they also have to internally manage the expectations of everybody on their team. Are they giving enough time to each person? One of the things that I know is that Zweig has to unearth when doing a number of the surveys that they do, especially when they survey companies. And I remember doing this previously when we would go out and do any type of training, we would survey and when the surveys would always come back to us saying, hey, I work with our project managers but the challenges that we run into is that there's no active listening involved. There's no real communication. Everything is one-sided. They're not taking us by the hand to show us exactly what to do properly so that we won't make these mistakes in the future. And so, those are some of the challenges that we've seen over and over again, and this is old hat. This was happening in the 90s and I'm sure it was happening in the 80s before I got into the industry. I've been in

this industry and involved with this space for 20 plus years. I also want to say that this is not an indictment of the design industry. I think most vertical industries struggle with this in some way, shape or form, it's just that we just have to come up with solutions on how we deal with it, and create better leaders that can flow even in the face of challenges that they're going to face because every project has a challenge, no matter what. There's no such thing as a perfect project because every project has its challenges that you have to overcome. The question is, do you have the tools necessary to overcome them? Justin Smith [12:57] I love your comment about communication. When we talk to project managers about communication, or when we serve our project managers, we get a lot of that same feedback that the different forms of communication are real challenges. You've got kind of that vertical communication inside a company. How well is the strategic intent being communicated up and down the org chart so that the project manager understands why the expectations are what they are? What are the goals of the project and why are they the goals? And then horizontally across teams when it comes to resource planning, how well are project managers inside an organization communicating with each other about the competing needs? And then we've got that upward and outward communication. How well are project managers pushing their needs up to the people above them inside the organization? And how well are they reaching out to the client and gathering the information that they need? I think somewhere along the way, the AEC field, and I'm speaking specifically about engineers, and I feel as though I'm entitled to do that as one, we confused communication with being good with language. And I think communication is really about understanding and being understood. It's not about proper sentence structure. And I think that's one of those areas where we see a real struggle. We ask project managers a lot about their preferred method of communication and we often get feedback that written communication is their preference. And when probed a little deeper about why it is your preference, it's often, it gives me the greatest amount of time to sit and think about what I want to say but it is purely one directional communication. It's not about being understood. It's purely about information, declaration if you will. So communication, huge challenge, and I don't know where it started but I have communication challenges in my own life and I’d like to think I'm decent at it. So I think to some degree, everybody deals with it.

Randy Wilburn [15:04] Yeah, absolutely. Namely, I can think of the communication challenges that I have with my wife. And for those of you that are married or thinking about getting married, trust me, the fun is just starting. I think that's the first place that it starts in the home, and then it grows out from there. So, tell me just a little bit about this project management

2022 program that you guys offer. You offer an online program now that you started doing with Zweig during the pandemic because as we all figured out, we didn't want to stop learning but we also didn't want to catch the virus. And so we wanted to figure out a safe way to do that and one of the ways to do that was to create really well-thought-out intentionally created courses that could be offered online in a lot of different formats. And so I would love for you just to kind of walk through the offerings and the ways that you are distributing project management training now because you're both doing it online, but you're also doing it in person. So I'd love for you to share that. Justin Smith [16:11] So we got a couple of different formats that we work within but I think the best way to describe it is to start back at the beginning. When the pandemic started we were in the process of delivering a revamped project management training or a new or different project management training that got the brakes slammed on right before it got started. So we were building a program that was a little bit different than some of the offerings that are out there, to begin with, which is, rather than start with Justin's experience, we'd like to call it an “N” of one, Justin's experience and we're going to build our project management training around an “N” of one. What we did is we said, let's look at the available body of research into project management for engineers and architects, and let's see what's being studied what's working and what's not working. And we found amazing research into AEC organizations across the world. So in addition to the over 2 million data points that Zweig is collecting every year about domestic AEC firms, we're able to reach out and look at research organizations that had been studying similar companies across the world. And what we found is that the research was able to boil down some common elements of successful project managers that almost regardless of their place in the world, and the type of environment that they work in, there were these common attributes or these common competencies that rose to the surface in successful projects, almost no matter where they were located, or the specific type of project. So what we said is, well, this just makes sense to build a training around these skills that have been proven to be the keys to success. And as simple as it might sound it boiled down to time management, the ability to manage your own time and properly structure the work of your team. The second piece is communication and not communication, meaning be good with language, the ability to understand and to be understood. The ability to relay and receive information in a relatable way. And then leadership, the ability to lead your internal project team and lead the client, and do it in a way that enables open and transparent communication. And then the fourth piece is problem-solving and conflict resolution. So identifying sticking points in a project where conflicts commonly occur, and then creating a structured process through which you can solve those problems. Now, we didn't plan it this way but it worked out nicely. These four topics allowed us to take what was going to be a one-day training, and break it up into modules that

can be delivered virtually. So our virtual offering currently is four modules, 90 minutes per week, and four back-to-back weeks, where each week is focused on one of those modules, walking through those four content areas. When we deliver this program in person, the big changes: there's a little bit more blending of the modules; it's a little bit less one module starts stops; the next module starts stops, a little bit more blending. But we also introduce real-life cases that which the participants in the program work in small groups. Some of these are project problems, and some of them are interpersonal problems. Sometimes we ask them as a project team to actually build something. So here you go, you've got a real life project, you've got a time element, you've got a material element, you've got a scope element, you've got a cost element, let's see how we blend these things to work together as a group. When we bring it in-house to affirm, we're going to look specifically at what are that firm's key challenges and how can we structure the discussion topics and the cases to that particular firm's unique pain points. And then kind of on the other end of the spectrum, we've got what we call full custom program, which is, we come in, we evaluate what's working, what's not working inside a program, and the way I like to describe it is we want to understand where you are, we want to understand where you want to get to. We want to understand the size of that gap. We want to build a bridge to get from one side to the other. And then we want to walk your team across the bridge. What's unique about that last option is that it could be anything. Every firm's challenges with respect to project management are a little bit different but they're all layered on top of these foundational skills. Randy Wilburn [20:40] It's so funny, as you were talking about that bridge. I was thinking about the Rainbow Bridge and Thor and how that bridge can literally take you anywhere. And so, in the same way, this custom focus of doing this in-house project management training really gives you the opportunity to lay out something that has never been seen before within your organization. So it's not off the rack, it is something that's highly bespoke to what your needs are. Justin Smith [21:14] That's exactly right. And it's custom all the way. We're going to build the training around the tools and systems that you use. So when we give cases, you are going to work these problems using your own tools as if this is a real project. And we're going to provide the framework to do it successfully. We might pretend to be your client and give you a hard time during it to see how you react. There are a lot of different ways that we can take it but the idea is to train a group within a company in that company's playbook for how they run a project. A client recently said we really want our project managers to be the quarterback and we want

the quarterback to know the strengths and weaknesses of every position. So that if we call a play, and they come to the line, and they see that what the defense is giving them is not going to work, they know enough about where we're trying to go, that they can call audibles at the line, and we're confident in their ability to do that. So we want to build a playbook that is flexible enough that it allows the project manager the latitude to make changes as they need to, but we want to make sure that the goals of project management. So how that particular firm measures the effectiveness of project management is non-negotiable. Everybody understands it and they're calling plays with a clear understanding of what's expected of the role. Randy Wilburn [22:39] I love that football analogy too because when you think about the best quarterbacks in the game, those that can read a defense and can call audibles on a regular basis. Because a lot of times, coaches, leaders, and in this same vein when you think about a coach being somebody in the C-Suite is somebody that's leading the company doesn't always give their quarterbacks the ability to audible, but when a company has people that are trained adequately and they have confidence and trust in the process, then you can give people audibles and know that they're going to follow through properly to make sure that things don't fall by the wayside. Justin Smith [23:21] That's exactly right. And I think having a program that leadership teams have a hand in creating is a huge component of building that trust. It's essentially the ability to come in and level set expectations across the whole organization and feel confident in the ability of everybody that's in the project manager role. So that you know what their ability is, you know what they've been trained in, you know how much latitude to give each person, and you send them out to manage your company's most valuable resource, which is your client relationships. But you've got to be confident that they've got the nuts and bolts nailed down before you can allow them the latitude to go out and audible. And I think what we see a lot of is putting project managers in the seller doer role without putting any focus on, are they actually equipped and enabled to do the job that they're supposed to be doing first before we reach for that next thing. One of the best things that project managers can do to further deepen the strength of those relationships is to deliver successful projects over and over and over again. And I think, a lot of times when project managers think about this term marketing or seller, doer, they think about this as well, I got to be taking people to lunch and it's no in your role, what you need to be focused on is deliver success and be a steward of the client relationship for the organization; that's really what it's about. But you can only do that if you've got a really good process that repeatedly delivers good results.

Randy Wilburn [25:02] You use the S word. I love that. You want to be a good steward and that manifests itself in so many different ways within successful organizations. And so I think that's like the mindset that individuals in the design industry space have to have or in any business for that matter that wants to be successful. You have to be the stewards of your time, over the talent that surrounds you, over the capabilities that your organization offers. I think it's really important and going through a strong project management training program can put you on that path to success. And I'd be curious to know as we wind this up because this is a good conversation. And as I told you, before, I set it in advance, and for the audience, just in case, you're wondering, I already told Justin that I'm bringing him back on for another deep dive into this conversation. Because I don't think that project management should just have one podcast episode assigned to it or focused on the topic. The subject matter is so rich that you could have a whole podcast on project management. And so, that's an idea too, but the bottom line is we're going to talk more about this because we want everyone that's listening to this podcast to see themselves in this process as they figure out and determine what type of training would be most efficient and effective for their organization. We’re definitely got to spend some more time talking about it, I guess that’s what I'm saying. You've walked us through the different formats and the ways that you're doing it, if somebody's listening to this right now and is like, you know what, I got to move this thing forward and I got to determine what's going to be the best way for us to do project management training, how would somebody go about making that determination or decision outside of just talking to you? Justin Smith [27:04] Sure. So I think the first step is really looking at the problem that you're trying to solve. Because if the problem that you're trying to solve is we've got a really good internal process that works really well for people that once they get a little bit of experience, but really, what we need is a way to rapidly upskill less experienced staff, just getting some basic management and leadership skills, probably a great first step. If you're an organization that is on a growth trajectory and you're looking for a way to establish a program that will deliver consistency to your clients across maybe your geographic areas and it will serve as a great onboarding tool for bringing people into your organization and saying, this is what it means to manage a project here, then something custom is a great way to go because we're going to do a lot of the legwork of building that for you but it's eventually going to be yours and it's going to serve as your firm's way of introducing people into project management. But I think you've got two ends of the spectrum. You've got firms that have highly developed robust processes that work well and they just need to upskill some of their less experienced staff. The content that we cover in the open enrolment when we bring it in-house to you, there's going to be a lot of

good stuff in there. But if you're looking for something that is for you and uses your tools and you are either on a growth trajectory or you're about to be, then my recommendation would be to do it sooner versus later. Because the smaller the group, the easier it is to implement and the easier it is to use it as a foundation. But I think the question to answer is, what are our goals with this? If you're looking to get some training, or you're looking to dip your toe in, then some of the more open enrollment content is going to be great. If you're saying we've been to pm training, it's good stuff, but we want something for us, then I would steer you toward let's talk about what that could look like for you. Randy Wilburn [29:21] I love that because I mean, again, you break it down perfectly. And I think everybody listening to this needs to understand where you are, you being the individual that's listening to this design firm leader. Where are you in this process as Justin just so perfectly laid out, whether you want an off the rack version of the project management training, whether you want to go in and get a custom tailored version, or even if you just want to send some of your people to online training that just gives them some of the foundational basics just to get their head around it? There are a lot of firms that have never given time to project management in the past but have realized that's one of the shortcomings they struggle with and there’s nothing wrong with that. The simplest way to solve a problem is to recognize you have one and then figure out how to solve it. So you make a lot of good points there, Justin. I really appreciate that if people listening to this want to get connected with you what’s the best for them to do that? Justin Smith [30:25] So you can email me anytime at justin@strgroup.com or jsmith@zweiggroup.com. I’m happy to hop on the phone with anybody listening that is maybe thinking about this and isn't really sure where they want to go. It wouldn't be appropriate to leave without a plug for our upcoming June training next month. I think it starts in about two weeks, two and a half weeks, coming up in June. So if you're looking to get some exposure, that's great, what I'd say lower time commitment, since it's weekly. It's 90 minutes per week. We try to structure it around lunchtime. Now, we have some folks that have joined us in the past from Hawaii, and they say eight o'clock is not lunchtime, but we're trying to structure it around lunchtime for some people but that's a great way. Just shoot me an email and let's set up a time to talk. I'm happy to lay it out for anybody that's interested and help them understand the different paths they could take.

Randy Wilburn [31:32] No, that's perfect. We'll make sure we do that and certainly, if anybody's listening to this that’s on Hawaiian time, we'll figure something out for you for sure. Justin, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and I really appreciate it as somebody that's been working with Zweig since ‘97. I appreciate the addition that you have been to the Zweig team of advisors, because, again, this is one of the most critical areas of a company - how you manage projects. You can either do it well, you can do it so-so, or you can do it really bad. And our goal is to get everybody into a place where they feel like they're doing project management at the highest level and that they can humanly do it. And certainly, what you have brought to the table and what you're bringing to bear through the training that you've created, that you've continued to refine is going to help so many firms be the better version of themselves. And so thank you so much. I appreciate you doing that and the effort that you're putting into making this a reality for so many design firms. Justin Smith [32:42] Our goal for firms is to look at where you are and move you at least one rung up the ladder. If you're currently passive, we want to move you from passive to active. If you're active, we want to move you from active to proactive. And kind of circling back to the beginning of the conversation you asked about scope creep. So, sometimes some of these things that we teach are mind bending and people look at them and they think I just don't see this working and then they try and they say where's this been all my life. Sometimes it's really simple. So when it comes to scope creep, here's a free tidbit for anybody listening. I made the comment at the beginning, you're either managing expectations or you're allowing them to be managed for you. When it comes to scope creep. Having that conversation early is going to help but it can be a difficult conversation to start. So my advice to anyone that's listening that's in the project management space is the next kick-off meeting that you have, ask this simple question. Mr. and Mrs. Client, how would you like me to handle it when you asked me to do something that's not in our scope? Ask it at the kick-off meeting, record the answer, send it out in the minute and if it comes up again, all you've got to do is circle back to the expectation that's already been set.

Randy Wilburn [34:00] That's perfect right there because again that puts everybody on notice that this is what it's all about. And, I mean, in a world where we document everything why not document that? That's perfect.

Justin Smith [34:16] And make the conversation a lot easier when you have to have it a second time.

Randy Wilburn [34:19 And sometimes people have to eat humble pie too, and there's nothing wrong with serving that up every now and then. Justin, this has been great. Thank you so much for joining us on The Zweig Letter Podcast. Again, this will not be the last time. We will bring you on for part two of this project management discussion. This episode will come out prior to that event in June so that way folks that are listening to this at that time will have a chance to sign up for that online event. But then also I want to encourage you that if you're listening to this month down the road or even next year sometime you have Justin's information contact him. You can also go to the Zweig Group website for additional information on project management training. I'm here to tell you that if you want to spend some really good money and see a difference and the change in how your company will grow, especially with your younger people, if you're developing your project managers to be the best version of themselves, then those folks will take care of your younger folks and will really bring them along and before you know it, you'll have a stable of strong PM’s, strong APM’s and strong Senior Project Managers, you won't know what to do with it. And I can tell you that a lot of your peer firms out there, a lot of your competitors aren't as prepared as you will be so take that for what it's worth. And so, Justin, thanks again for coming on the podcast.

Justin Smith [35:44] My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Hope to be back soon.

Randy Wilburn [35:47] Well, folks, that's another episode of The Zweig Letter Podcast. To learn more about one of the oldest newsletters in the design industry, visit zweiggroup.com Check out our brand new website. Let me know what you think. You can also read articles online. You can listen to this podcast and sign up for a free subscription to the newsletter and have it delivered right into your email inbox every Monday morning. Sign up today. For more info about Zweig Group's Advisory services like what we discussed in today’s episode or any of Zweig’s group's publications, visit zweiggroup.com. You can subscribe to the Zweig Letter Podcast, wherever you listen to it, and please consider rating and reviewing us on Apple podcast. I'm your host Randy Wilburn, and we'll see you here soon. Peace.

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