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Managing Projects Like a Pro

Updated: Feb 29

An Article for Programa by Andrew Mitchell

(Founder of The Design Coach and director at MR. MITCHELL Interiors)

Andrew Mitchell (Founder, The Design Coach)

Contrary to common belief, managing a project actually starts from the very first interaction with a client (through listening and understanding their needs), and ends well beyond the final hand-over (through actively following up to seek feedback and address any defects). “Management” of a project involves much more than the obvious services required during the construction period and should be factored in when considering the processes needed to adequately set and meet the ongoing expectations of our clients at every step along the way.

To do so, we need to first understand their needs. Gathering this information should start at the point of onboarding, where critical details about the nature of the project are obtained, including the scope, budget and timeframe. At the briefing stage our clients need to share their functional and aesthetic preferences so that we can understand how they want to use the space and feel in the space. Considering that larger projects can continue for 2 – 3 years or more, having systems and processes to effectively manage the clients’ expectations through every stage is essential. Clearly documented processes enable effective, consistent communication and provide a road map for the clients and your design team.

Image by Charles De Luvio, Unsplash

For designers and architects wishing to offer a complete end-to-end service, it’s preferable to manage the implementation of designs through to the final hand-over. Depending on the individual project and the nature of your practice, this will involve a number of different responsibilities ranging from regular site meetings to the provision of procurement services. For architecture practices, this will take the form of Contract Administration, but for design practices, our design management services are often an adjunct to the formal project management services of an external contractor.

Architects are trained to manage contracts on behalf of their clients and can act as the project managers. For designers without a project management qualification, services are limited to supporting the clients by liaising with external contractors and providing top level advice only. In this instance all trade contracts need to be established between the clients directly with the individual trades.

When considering the factors of budget and timeframe, it’s ill-advised to promise to finish a project “on time” and “on budget” as there are many influences (including clients changing their minds) that will ultimately make this almost impossible to achieve. Our responsibility when managing a project is to keep track of changes to the design, budget and timeframe, and communicate the implications of such changes to the clients on a regular basis.

Image by Vadim Bozhko, Unsplash


Tip 1: Follow a clearly defined process

Whether they know it or not, clients want us to be in control of their project (NOTE: Clients who want to be in control should be avoided). They’ve come to us to perform a professional service to help them achieve specific outcomes, and the best way to do so is to operate with a clearly defined staged process.

Successful outcomes rely on delivering more than just well-executed designs. To effectively meet our clients’ brief, we must also actively assist them to manage budget and timeframe. A well-designed process will also provide key touch points to manage these important aspects.

Don't have a defined Design Process? You can access our TDC 9 Stage Design Process via this Free E-Book.

TIP 2: Create a detailed Scope of Work

A project scope becomes the reference point for all parties involved: clients, collaborating design professionals and trades. The scope helps to define the key responsibilities your practice is committing to delivering.

When paired with a detailed set of Terms and Conditions, the scope of work forms the backbone of your legal contract with the clients.

Image by Mina Rad, Unsplash

TIP 3: Set clear boundaries

Use your Terms and Conditions to communicate important information about responsibilities (designers’ and clients’), inclusions and exclusions, payment terms and potential additional charges.

More than a document to protect you if things go wrong, a well-resolved set of T&C can be used at the start of the project to set clear boundaries, allowing for healthy discussion about what’s acceptable, and what the ramifications are if either party steps outside the agreed terms.

Once the project commences, remember to stick to the rules! There’s no point having T&C’s if you don’t enforce them.

To maximise the power of your T&C and manage expectations effectively, remind the clients of important terms at the appropriate milestones. For example, leading into the construction stage, review your procurement terms before embarking on any invoicing and ordering.

To access our proven set of Terms and Conditions, review our TDC Contracts.

TIP 4: Document everything thoroughly

Whether it’s 2D/3D documentation used to communicate design intent, schedules for accurate quoting and ordering, or meeting notes allocating follow-up tasks and dates to individual stakeholders, documenting everything in detail provides clear records and protects all parties involved.

Streamline your documentation using a project management program such as Programa where teams can access relevant, up-to-date information about all projects in one easy to manage location. Cloud-based record keeping also removes conflicting versions of schedules and streamlines the quote to invoice to purchase order process.

Programa is an Australian Project Management Software Program

TIP 5: Be clear on the limit of your management services

Architects and Project Managers are trained to deal with contracts and manage the scheduling of multiple trades. Most importantly, they are also required to have insurance that covers this level of risk.

One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced designers make is over-committing to the management of external contractors. Our services during construction should be referred to as “Design Management” rather than “Project Management” to provide a clear delineation between our responsibilities and those of a formally qualified project manager.

TIP 6: Communicate regularly

Breakdowns between clients and designers most often happens when changes to design, budget or timeframe are not communicated quickly and clearly. On larger projects, such changes aren’t just possible, they’re inevitable.

When clients feel disconnected from the progress on a project it can erode the all-important trust necessary for a healthy connection with their design team. By establishing a regular and structured path of communication, where information is shared openly and honestly (in a timely manner), clients can better relax into the process and trust that we have everything under control.

Image by Carrie Allen, Unsplash

TIP 7: Action breakdowns immediately

Leading into the facilitation stages, remind your clients that it’s unlikely that everything will go exactly to plan. There will most likely be challenges that require a change to designs or external influences that cause delays out of your control, and there will almost always be changes to the budget.

In an ideal world, we can maintain regular communication with the clients to stay abreast of these challenges and engage in discussions to alleviate concerns. In reality, we are often juggling numerous projects, all with many moving parts, and sometimes a breakdown in communication occurs.

When this happens it’s important to get into action immediately to maintain your clients’ trust. Set aside any fears of having potentially uncomfortable conversations in favour of listening to their concerns and making a plan to get things back on track. Ideally, meet face to face when you feel that some degree of trust has been lost, but if that’s not feasible, a phone call is always preferable over an email or (heaven forbid) text message to address any client unease.

Image by Ava Sol, Unsplash

TIP 8: See it through

To round out a complete management service, it’s important to follow up in the months after handover. This is an opportunity to ensure all defects are addressed and allows designers to check in with the clients to see how they are enjoying the space. How we handle “problems” in this part of the project, no matter how big or small, will define how the clients remember our level of service.

This is also an ideal time to get formal feedback and testimonials, after the dust has settled (literally and metaphorically) from the flurry of work required to get to the finishing line. The care we show when attending to any concerns or requests will strongly influence our ongoing relationship with the clients. Problems become opportunities to strengthen their trust.

To approach the management of a project holistically, designers and architects are advised to consider that the process of management starts from the first conversation with the clients, where hopes and expectations can be recognised and addressed. From this point forward, a combination of consistent communication, clear boundaries and solid processes will enable the nurturing of these important elements, ensuring that we achieve outstanding results that foster strong relationships with everyone involved.

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