CONSTRUCTION JOURNAL

What makes a good PM or QS? Thoughts from an infrastructure client

Listening to feedback from those we work with can only help us to improve the quality of service we provide. In the first of a series of articles, we speak to an infrastructure client about his experience working with project managers and quantity surveyors

Author: Geoff Gilbert

06 April 2019

Q: What is your experience of working with project managers and quantity surveyors?

Geoff Gilbert: I am part of the client team delivering major infrastructure schemes at HS2, as I was at London Underground. The majority of professionals in the construction industry are probably most familiar with conventional built environment client–consultant models. Infrastructure organisations tend to use a blended project teams model. This means the delivery team comprises both direct employees and people from external organisations. Certain tasks are procured as a service contract from construction consultancies.

Q: Which qualities and skills do you look for when appointing or working with a project manager? 

GG: From a technical perspective, I seek knowledge and experience of the built environment, and an ability to lead and manage both a multidisciplinary team and a supply chain to achieve the client's required project outcomes. Soft skills such as patience and the ability to communicate and manage people effectively are also needed, both upwards in the organisation and in the delivery team and supply chain. Clarity in communication is important.

The most difficult part, of course, is the ability to anticipate the issues and uncertainties that arise in complex projects. It's difficult to anticipate them all, but quick action is necessary to mitigate or avoid any you do. It's also important to keep the client informed about the emerging issues, their impacts, and what's to be done about them. Above all, quality of service must be a given.

"Soft skills such as patience and the ability to communicate and manage people effectively are needed, both upwards in the organisation and in the delivery team and supply chain"

Q: Can you give any examples of good or bad practice? 

GG: Bad practice is not acknowledging problems and issues. One of the most important aspects of leading is to listen, understand what you're being told, reconcile the different views and decide on the appropriate course of action. Otherwise issues snowball and result in a host of problems, including losing clients' trust. This most often occurs when clients exhibit poor behaviour themselves; for example, being unwilling to acknowledge or accept any bad news. 

Good practice is a strong strategic approach, problem-solving capabilities and coming up with better ways of achieving the project objectives. There are various examples of project managers collaborating and deliberating to devise different delivery and procurement models that are more suited to the nature of certain projects, particularly in large and complex infrastructure projects.

Q: How do you see the role developing in the future?

GG: There is a great deal of professional guidance from various organisations in the form of templated processes and approaches. However, if you don't change something when it doesn't work, then you're going to get the same outcomes. There are many examples where the conventional approaches result in poor project outcomes. I therefore think project managers are going to need to be more thoughtful and adaptable to new ways of working. They're certainly going to need to be able to capitalise on the digital tools available to help manage projects. An increase in the amount of accessible data often makes the decision process more difficult because there's just so much of it to sift through and understand. Project managers will need to be equipped with the analytical skills to be able to do that.

Q: Which qualities and skills do you look for when appointing or working with a quantity surveyor? 

GG: Technically, the important skills are estimating and cost planning, although they seem to have less prominence in the skill set of quantity surveyors now than they did when I was training. It is absolutely critical to have these skills to carry out commercial roles in infrastructure projects. In turn, cost management is becoming increasingly sophisticated, particularly on complex projects. Clients need to know exactly where they are against their budgets at regular intervals, and quantity surveyors need to know what the pressures, issues and uncertainties are with those budgets. 

Procurement is also important: being able to procure a supply chain for the project in a way that is aligned to your client's objectives, and then managing the contracts and the relationship with the supplier. I put the two together because there are a lot of people who can manage contracts, but administering a contract is just one aspect of managing supply chain performance. The contract allocates responsibilities, but it's important to take a proactive approach in managing supplier relationships so that they understand what you want to achieve, what a good outcome looks like and how the parties will work together. You need to be able to understand the supplier organisation's sensitivities and maintain a collaborative and productive working environment. An ability to understand how differences are resolved is equally important. 

In terms of behaviours, cooperation, collaborative capability and flexibility are key. Collaboration takes many forms, including the ability to work effectively in a multidisciplinary team, and to work in an integrated supply chain team. Communication skills are important to achieve this: written, presentational and verbal.

Trustworthiness is also key – in the sense that individuals and organisations can be relied on to give a good service. And finally, a degree of honesty and professionalism in providing advice and services is vital. Again, quality of service is paramount.

"Cooperation, collaborative capability and flexibility are key; collaboration takes many forms and communication skills are important to achieve it"

Q: Can you give any examples of good or bad practice?

GG: Good practice is knowing the nature of the client organisation that you're working for and what it is trying to achieve. You're then better able to provide the kind of service clients are looking for. This knowledge is often difficult to acquire when dealing with large client organisations, and they need to do more to help with this.

Bad practice is the unthoughtful promotion and application of standard processes or overly complicated strategies and methods without sufficiently considering their appropriateness. Consultants can sometimes be too willing to please their customers; being brave enough to tell the client what it doesn't want to hear makes you a trusted adviser. Good client relationships at all levels are critical.

Q: How do you see the role developing in the future?

GG: To a degree, quantity surveyors started their life as the quality assurers of designs. In the early stages of my career, there were often lengthy exchanges with designers and project managers, issues were identified and fed back to designers and then corrected. Different approaches are required in the digital age. Quantity surveyors must embrace the digital tools increasingly available, but also understand the risks that come with adopting them.

Producing tender documentation and bills of quantities is almost redundant now that computer-aided design and building information modelling have enabled those to be done automatically. However, the 'rubbish in, rubbish out' principle still applies: if the design information in the building information models is inadequate, then the tender documentation is going to be wrong. An ability to look directly into the models and check the automated documentation is right is a skill quantity surveyors need to acquire. 

An ability to provide strategic advice to clients on commercial issues is also important. Despite all the automation and digital tools, thought still needs to be given to the way in which supply chain strategies are developed and implemented. Finally, interpersonal skills are increasingly important as we live in an increasingly collaborative world, particularly in the delivery of large and complex infrastructure.

Geoff Gilbert is head of commercial for Area South at HS2 and formerly held a similar role at Transport for London. He is a chartered quantity surveyor with 25 years' experience in infrastructure, the past ten as part of the client team. The views expressed in this article are his and not those of his present or past employers  geoff.gilbert@hs2.org.uk

Related competencies include: Leading projects, people and teams

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