5 Fundamental Practices of Strategic and Effective Project Management
As you build your career in real estate development, one thing will make itself clear, brilliant and effective project management, for yourself or by those on your team, is the most critical part of real estate development execution.
I started my career in 1995 working for Mike Costa at Kaufman and Broad Multi-Housing Group, a subsidiary of what was then known as Kaufman and Broad, one of the nation’s largest homebuilding companies. You now know it as KBHome.
After my first interview with Mike and his team (mostly Cal Poly SLO grads BTW), I called Mike on a monthly basis for over a year. Finally, I landed the position of Assistant Project Manager and began my career in real estate development properly. Side note: I had worked on my family's apartment development projects, and in the skilled subcontractor trades after that, but this position was my entry into the professional environment of real estate development (RED).
I started as the lowest rookie project manager (PM) on the team of a large corporate development shop, and worked my way up to Senior PM at KMBH with P&L responsibility on multiple projects, and then moved to founding and managing a company focused on RED development projects and RED advisory for commercial businesses. The company I founded, Urban Pacific, been doing this for 17 years now.
Two things came from my corporate project management experience:
First, working for others at a larger corporate shop was hands down the best crash course in RED that you could ever imagine. I was fortunate to work with Mike, Kevin Payne, Tom Erickson, and Moe Mohanna, all excellent RED executives, senior development managers, and project managers each in their own right. You should do the same for your career, i.e. find a great RED company and work for them for a period of time. If possible, find a mentor at the company you work for, whether a direct report or not; they will be invaluable to your learning.
Second, at no personal financial risk, working for KBMH taught me what it was to be a strategic, competitive, and effective project manager. To this day, at Urban Pacific, we use these lessons learned daily.
This article then is to pass on the fundamental practices of competitive and effective project management. For you to use in your own competitive learning practices, and to ultimately apply these practices to your own projects or career ambitions.
The 5 fundamental practices for effective project management are as follows:
1. Keep project objectives front and center
First and foremost, you must always keep your objectives front and center. This sounds obvious, but in the heat of the moment, in the middle of execution, you must always remind yourself and stay in line with your objective.
I’ll use a real world example to demonstrate. At KBMH, I was assigned two affordable housing projects in Simi Valley, CA. These two project had won their tax credit awards, were brought into the company through different channels, and had the unique condition (relative to today’s tax credit thresholds) of not being fully entitled before the LIHTC allocation.
In this time period, the city of Simi Valley was very difficult to work with. They had a number of excellent staff at the planning department, but the city council and the mayor were driving the direction of design standards in a difficult direction. I was tasked with moving the project through the entitlement and design review processes, where we were meeting with the subcommittee of the council. During this period, the city absolutely did not want affordable housing in their city, and at every turn, worked against our objective of completing the entitlements, closing the construction loan, build the project (the tax credits were revoked if you did not start construction within a certain period of time after allocation).
So here I am, a super green project manager, at the city council chambers, with a very cantankerous mayor who had zero business designing our project, and yet did exactly that. The lesson here was about strategy to achieve our objective. I was pushing to get the project through the design phase and into production and completion, that was my objective. The mayor was having none it, he wanted to change building colors, roofing materials, redesign outdoor space, on and on. This was going to be a major delay and I pushed to avoid these changes, and I mean I pushed hard, against a super crusty old mayor who was not going to budge one little bit. So we locked horns in the meeting, and I did not win that day.
But, the most important lesson here, was that the objective of the project, to get it under construction. So on my way home, I called my boss, and told him that I had become embroiled in a no-win battle and that he should come in as the “good guy” and work a different angle to get the project pushed through. I took myself out of play, because the objective was not being met by my actions, and needed a change to effectuate the project objective. Sometimes you have to subsume your own personality traits and ego to get the project done on time and on budget.
One addition to this first part: Watch where you have multiple competing objectives within a project, or if you have multiple projects. Watch that you don’t slip on your process and tracking when switching between projects. There is a limit to what one person can handle as a PM, and it’s so very easy to lose track of what you are trying to accomplish. Stay centered, be objective about your capacity, and if needed, decline a new project or task, if that will cause a breakdown in your present objectives. See #3, this is where checklists really shine.
2. Killer follow up - relentless, never ending, until objectives achieved.
This one is really the heart of the guidance I’ll give in this article. In so many cases, where I have seen breakdowns in projects by others, or our own, it was related to not enough follow up. Historically, I have always been a believer in follow up, but more recently in my ongoing and competitive learning practices, I have been studying the work of Grant Cardone. He is by domain a sales trainer, but his philosophy of follow up related to sales is highly applicable to project management in the RED domain. Here is his philosophy verbatim:
- Follow up until somebody dies: Follow up immediately and combine, phone call, emails, text message and another in person visit.
- Be so frequent people think you're a freak: When you believe persistence is achieved. Believe in what you're offering and offer it over and over. Make it your obligation to make people understand the value in what you have.
- Get Creative! Creativity follows commitment. When following up frequently you have to think of other ways to engage. Be so creative they don't even think they're being sold. Have an arsenal of useful information and share it to help them make a decision.
Now this guidance is for the sales conversation, but change the text to apply to getting your objectives fulfilled on your project, and it works perfectly. That project management follow up process IS sales. You have to sell someone that your items need tending to before all others, and how it can benefit them.
I’ll add: Follow up in ½ the time you think it needs. Meaning, if you think 2 weeks is good follow up time, do it in one week instead. And follow up in the 2nd week too.
3. Killer tracking, checklists baby!
Checklists are the kingpin of project management.
I always know how good someone is if they take good notes in meetings, and utilize checklists for tracking project management tasks. Asking lots of questions is a good sign too.
Yes, I know, there are people who say they can remember multiple items from a meeting, but I call BS on this in reality. Too many times I’ve seen items slip, because care was not taken to get tasks into a checklist. The human brain is a powerful tool, but in today’s environment where our attention span is getting shorter and multiple technologies compete for our attention, the old fashioned practice of taking notes and using checklists is a competitive advantage.
Combine note taking with technology or cloud-based systems. Spreadsheet, actual project management systems such as Basecamp, Smart Sheets, FieldLens, or plain old excel (or GSheets if cloud based). Use these to track everything possible, and get in the practice of reviewing your checklist daily. It’s not the technology that’s so important, but the practice and discipline of referring daily to your list, to make sure nothing is missed.
4. Always asking about timing and cost, never leave a meeting or call without clarity on cost and timing of decisions made in the meeting.
For our company, there is a base set of questions, and they are grouped in two categories:
What is the timing?
What does the timing look like?
When will that be completed?
What’s your deadline for that item?
When do they say to you they’ll finish?
Why do you think the timing is that?
Why makes you think that’s the schedule?
Have you updated the project schedule, and do these dates concur with your schedule?
What’s the cost on that?
What does the cost on that look like?
Why do you think it costs that?
Do you have bids to support that cost?
Will that require a change order?
Will that cause a change order to be generated?
What’s the cost delta?
I don’t care what business you're in, timing and cost drive everything that involves transactions and finances. It’s so fundamental that people almost forget about it (or the amateurs don’t know it yet).
Never, and I mean NEVER leave a meeting without asking these questions. I always kick myself or our team when we forget to ask that question.
Have a firm stance with all parties when you ask these questions. Don’t allow slippage, sloppiness, or float. Float is when people give soft answers that are really non-answers, assurances, or bullshit. Assurances are: “No problem Scott, we’ll get that taken care of soon!” My response: When, exactly? Pin them down on exact dates or exact amounts of money. And if they don’t have the data right there, guess what: FOLLOW UP!! Blow up their phones, email, text, twitter, be relentless. You’ll drive people crazy, and if you are? Your are on the right track!
5. Finish strong, most projects don’t end definitively
As our final item on this list, always make sure you finish your projects definitively. As they say: “It's Not How You Start But How You Finish.”
Satisfaction for other parties, be it financial partners, lenders, city folks, JV partners, will be highly dependent on completing any project with authority. It is a strategic advantage to finish a project and close it out completely and authoritatively and produce client satisfaction. You get the point: “Finish your projects strong, and produce satisfaction so clients want to work with you again”
Scott Choppin is the Founder and CEO of the Urban Pacific Group of Companies, which focuses on urban infill real estate development and real estate development advisory services to family offices, landowners, and commercial businesses.
Urban Pacific was founded in 2000, and focuses on the development of multi-family rental projects throughout California and the Western United States. Urban Pacific has developed real estate projects with a total historic deal valuation of over $900M.
Urban Pacific also provides real estate development advisory services to family offices, landowners, and commercial businesses. A recent and ongoing client is the San Pedro Fish Market, where Urban Pacific was hired to facilitate multiple real estate development and construction management projects.
Urban Pacific is based in Long Beach, CA