”For us, managing projects is complicated. For them – it’s easy!”
Who do you think said this? A project manager at a construction and infrastructure company or a start-up?
The real answer: both. And it’s been said multiple times by multiple people. In fact, it’s a pretty standard sentence in a business environment.
For example, when talking about general topics, like analyzing schedules in conjunction with a project manager in the construction sector or viewing a Gantt chart in a high-tech firm, the answer is always the same: “Well, for them it’s simple! But for us, the project is really complicated.” On the other hand, when I addressed the schedule buffer, a cross-border issue and a requirement on every project, to someone in high-tech working on an infrastructure project, he told me: “It’s easy for them, and hard for us.”
The first time someone told me so, I thought it just an easy way to dismiss what I was trying to say.
The second time, I began wondering if the sentiment belonged to the “The grass is always greener on the other side” way of thinking. In other words, their project is always easier than ours.
Yet, after hearing this over and over again, I decided to explore this train of thinking.
My first conclusion was that I should give an example to everyone from their content field and frame of reference. This conclusion is important, but sometimes I also slip up and bring examples from other content fields. And again, the same reaction.
So, what’s going on here? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Maybe both are wrong? Can they both be right?
What’s the difference between projects in high-tech and start-up companies, which focus on software, and construction and infrastructure companies?
So, I decided to think about and resolve the matter. What’s so easy and simple, and what’s so complicated?
The Main Difficulty in Construction and Software Projects
In high-tech projects in general and in start-ups in particular, the focus is on software, while the content of the work is unknown. There’s an idea, a purpose, and a riddle that you want to solve, but the solution and the direction to it are unknown. When asking “What tasks should be performed?” the answer is just the beginning. From there, more is unknown than known. Technology is the great unknown.
In contrast, in construction and infrastructure projects, technology has not been the unknown for many years. How long does it take for concrete to solidify? Everyone knows this fact for all types of concrete. So, what’s so difficult about construction and infrastructure projects?
The first answer is stakeholders. No matter the size of the construction project – whether it’s a private home, a multi-story residential building, a high-rise tower for residential or office space, a hotel, or even a bridge – there are multiple stakeholders involved. What’s the definition of stakeholders? And who are they really?
A stakeholder is any person or entity that’s somehow connected to the project.
Who are the stakeholders in a construction and infrastructure project?
Let’s look at a project where a lovely young couple has purchased land and decides to build a house on it. There are the obvious initiators of the project, in this case the young couple. And who else? The couples’ parents? Their children? Is that it? Of course not!
There are the architects who will design the project, the engineers who need to approve the construction, the plumber who needs to install the water pipes, and numerous contractors and sub-contractors.
So, are we done yet? Of course not! There are also all the suppliers for the flooring, lighting, water system, sinks, showers, stairs, safe room, etc.
So now we’re done? Definitely not! Before even starting the construction, you need to get permits and you’ll have to pay for them. These authorizations are obtained from the Israel Land Authority and local municipality. If the couple has decided to set up their residence in a locality that’s not a city, there’s a community council and local council.
Ok. So that’s all, right? Of course not! All the neighbors in the area will be interested in their decision.
Like I said earlier, anyone with some connection to the project.
The biggest difficulty in construction projects is managing the project, while interfacing, operating, and scheduling with all relevant stakeholders.
Larger projects require numerous stakeholders in various fields and the level of complexity always increases.
Are there any other differences between software projects, and construction and infrastructure ones?
Resources – Resource Availability
In a software project, the technology “unknown” is expressed in the following question: What tools will be used to solve the issue for which the software is written?
The tools chosen – programming language and work environment – will define the experts who need to be recruited to build the software. Will it be easy to recruit experts? And will it be easy to fashion those experts into a cohesive team capable of addressing the issue for which the software was created? In general, the answers to these questions demonstrate that the recruitment process is never easy and that it’s difficult to form a team from scratch. If it were so simple, then it wouldn’t be a such an issue! However, it should be noted that from the moment the experts are sourced, and the team formed, the work is internal, meaning that outside factors play less of a role.
In a construction and infrastructure project, the problem of determining what resources are required to build the project is usually solved easily. Often, the difficulty lies in answering the following questions:
- What are the ways to approach this project through which all the required resources can be moved? Are they suitable?
- Is it possible to put all the required resources in place that are designated for the project? For example, if the project scope is narrow, it won’t be possible to put the tools in place and then leverage them properly to perform the work.
- Are there resources available? For example, in the early 2000s, there were no more than 4 pile drilling machines with a diameter of 45 cm per project in Israel. There were a few machines with a 60 cm diameter in Israel, and ones with a diameter of 80 cm had to be imported. Today, these restrictions don’t exist for drilling machines, but there are other restrictions.
- How long does it take for a resource that we don’t manage? For example, obtaining the necessary licenses and permits from the municipality and police.
In a construction and infrastructure project, since the content of the project is defined and the way to undertake is known, then the way to build a schedule is the “waterfall” method using a Gantt chart or Tilos.
The explanation is that in the waterfall method, each task stems from another task. Between the tasks, there’s a logical dependency expressed in links. (For an article on dependencies in schedules, please click here ). These dependencies between the tasks create paths from the beginning of the project all the way to its end. In the taksk network, you need to find the critical path according to the CPM (the path that ends the latest), as well as the critical path according to HCP (the longest path). To read more, please click here.
Is it easier to build schedules for construction and infrastructure projects?
Well, it depends on which stage.
It depends on how many vested parties will need to be involved in the project and how much project time and scope is dependent on them. To read more about life cycles in project scheduling, click here.
If we’re dependent on other factors, the process will be more complex. If we’re “only” dependent on ourselves, then it is much easier.
In the waterfall method, it’s not possible to define and characterize loops, in which an event is re-iterated multiple times. Each time is a little different until the correct solution is found. Loops are not required for a construction project, but they are required in a software project. Often, in software projects the correct way to achieve the solution is not as clear-cut.
Hence, building schedules utilizing the waterfall method for software projects is nearly impossible. The solution to this can be found in other methods, namely such as Agile. Agile’s methodology divides the puzzle into small, digestible issues. For each “small issue,” a short time frame is defined in which to execute a sprint to solve the issue.
Within the sprint framework, the same iterations are executed, i.e. repetitions with changes, until a solution to the problem is found.
How long does a sprint take? This is the ultimate question and there’s no textbook answer or solution. It could take two iterations, or even six or seven. Possibly more. Who knows exactly? No one! After all, there’s a problem and a solution hasn’t been found yet. The reasoning is simple. If a solution had been found in the first place, there wouldn’t be a problem.
Solving the “small issue” leads to solving other problems or even raises additional problems on which additional sprints are executed. This continues until the software development cycle is completed, which is the ultimate solution to the first puzzle. This solution is the reason the start-up or team is formed.
The more unknowns there are, the more difficult it will be to construct a budget.
Hence, in a software project, a greater number of unknowns, such as determining which software will be utilized (or purchased) and how to recruit the right experts, will completely complicate the budgeting process.
In a construction and infrastructure project, if we know the scope of the project, we can schedule better and properly determine the budget.
However, if the content of the project is not precisely defined and there are numerous unknowns, or in professional lingo steps “on hold,” then this well need to be reflected in the missing budget.
Are there any similar issues between software projects, and construction and infrastructure projects?
One of the main resources in any project is human capital. People need to be assigned roles, set tasks, form teams, build team spirit, lead, instruct, teach, reward, punish, grow, and develop.
Managing people is the same. The nature of the management needs to be tailored differently to different people. Is managing software workers easy, while managing workers on a construction site difficult? Or is it the opposite? It’s hard to gauge. The assessment of whether the management task is easy or difficult is personal and specific to the manager and project.
Communication between people is required for every project. If there isn’t clear communication among the various parties in the project, it simply won’t progress. This is true both for software and construction and infrastructure projects.
The nature of communication varies from project to project, and encompasses emails, texts, meetings, and even water cooler conversations. The important thing is to make sure that the message is conveyed, understood, and absorbed by all parties. There’s no difference between project type.
Effective communication and teamwork will always bring forth positive results. Click here for more information.
The time estimates that we give our tasks are almost always wrong. It could be that we’re “sick” with planning fallacy and give too short a timeframe for execution, or we take into consideration safety measures, as Goldratt said that we add 50% buffer of time to each task.
This is true for any project. There’s no difference between a software project, a construction and infrastructure project, and other projects.
It’s always possible to fix something! In short, there always should be a project buffer of extra time before any final milestone. To learn more, please click this link.
Uncertainty and Risks
There are uncertainty and risks in any project.
Risk is embedded in nearly every decision that we make, regardless of project or industry.
Decision making is not only affected by uncertainty and risk, but is also impacted by our own biases and personal experiences.
To learn more about navigating decision making and risk management, read this article.
Monitoring and Controls
Monitoring and controls are required for every project.
Without proper controls, the project won’t progress in the direction we want.
Depending on the frequency of the controls, we can make sure that the project is moving along accordingly. Alternatively, controls alert us to any red flags that arise during the course of the project.
Controls can be implemented in various ways, depending on the project. It can take form of software controls, humans who perform the actual test and control, or any other way relevant to the project.
the project successfully.
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Summary - Software Projects & Construction and Infrastructure Projects - It’s easy for them, but difficult for us…
Often, project managers from varied fields have told me that project management is easier in other fields – “it’s easy for them, but difficult for us!”
Yet, it turns out that there’s truth on both sides. Neither point is completely incorrect.
There are areas easier to manage in a software project, but more difficult in construction and infrastructure projects, and vice versa.
And there are areas that will be difficult for both.
If, at the end of reading this, you’re still not convinced, let me tell you a true story. A colleague of mine, one of the premier scheduling consultants in the country, told me once while we were arguing about ending projects on time: “Well, you probably always get the easy projects. I’m always stuck with the difficult ones.” 🤔