• Sarah Schutte

“Getting to grips with the law: a challenge to Project Managers”

This article was commissioned and published by Gower Publishing in October 2016. Sarah features as Guest Editor of the Month. Click here to see more.

These days, a Project Manager (PM) faces a myriad of demands in delivering a project successfully, some of which threaten to derail it entirely. I’m going to add one more challenge to your workload: getting to grips with the legal framework.

Picture this: you are engaged on a project as the nominated project manager. You know that you play an essential part in whether the project outputs are achieved. But how can you do your job when several communications land on your desk daily, notifying you of some anticipated risk event or updating you for the umpteenth time on one you already know about, but haven’t had time to assess yet? These make you feel cross, but also nervous: you know you need to be looking in 3 directions, controlling what’s happening right now, containing what has happened and anticipating what’s likely to happen.

On top of this, you are charged with managing the programme and project risks and resolving site issues. How are you going to assess the programme, and on what should you base your assessment? What should you do about notified or suspected risks? How can you encourage the parties to collaborate when in an impasse?

Well, a little legal knowledge will help!

You are not alone: it’s difficult!

Law is complex and ever-changing. English law is based on common-law and supplemented by statute, EU regulation and case law. Construction law is a specialist area, with its own rules (governing payment and adjudication, for example). But in my experience it is worth a PM understanding key legal principles because the legal framework in which projects are procured, let, delivered and managed is a steadying force, and research repeatedly tells us that claims and disputes are linked to failures to understand and read the contract properly, and to manage it well. One cannot manage a project well without understanding core contract law.

The project contract and your professional engagement

These are the key documents: if you read nothing else, read these! If you don’t have a copy of them ask for one: they set out what one party has promised to deliver for another, how output is to be measured and on what basis, how payment is to be administered. How can you manage a project if you don’t know what your contracted services are? How can you deliver a project if you don’t know what the required outputs are and under what conditions? What are the key drivers for the project? Who are the stakeholders? What risks have been allocated to whom and on what basis? Are there any key gaps in the parties’ knowledge (e.g. ground conditions)? I could add many more questions to this list… ask yourself in relation to one of your current projects: can you confidently answer every one of these questions fully?

Legal aspects of the project manager’s role are rarely properly understood, and project managers are rarely given the time and information to study their role properly before the project starts. I think it is essential for PMs to be allocated time and space to do this as, after, all they are the “glue” which binds the parties and the project. I know from the work I do with project leaders and PMOs to improve the knowledge base and skill set of project managers that you will be able to measure tangible benefits!

Differentiate yourself: you’re worth it

On your personal development side, and the corporate value side, consider this: given that businesses and the public purse invest a significant amount of money in projects (the majority of which, according to PMI’s “Pulse of the Profession”, do not deliver the benefits planned (hoped?) for), there is a huge opportunity for the profession, and yet a huge need for improvement. These can both be realized when project management is based squarely on a basic understanding of the legal framework. It doesn’t matter which jurisdiction you are in: I work all over the world and this challenge is universal.

In an ever-changing world, where projects are becoming bigger and more complex, clients are demanding more and more quickly, there is global instability, shortage of materials, mind-boggling technology, and more governance, ethics and regulation than ever before, there is a urgent demand for competent and experienced PMs. I challenge you all to embrace the law and to use it. Take the time to invest in dedicated training to up your skill-set to enable you meet the challenges posed. You need to know how contracts work, and the legal mechanisms available to you in order to excel demonstrably and go from being a “good” PM to a “great” one.

Such self-growth will bring you personal satisfaction and add value to the project, as well as increase the efficiency and profitability of your organisation. And the cycle repeats as reputations grow. But reputations are fragile and easily lost: incompetence or carelessness could result in a professional negligence claim, and no-one wants to go down that road with the entailing cost, stress and distraction.

A pocketful of legal principles

In the workshops I create, centred on the PM’s role, we explore the fundamental legal principles associated with core functions, dissect issues, which cause you pain, exchange best practice techniques and debate real-life case studies. I promise you will better manage yourselves, and your projects, through understanding your duties, and how to play an active, competent part in avoiding and resolving disputes. Are you up for the challenge?

I would welcome feedback from readers.

By Sarah Schütte

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