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October 25, 2012

Consulting engineers change the playbook as prime consultants

  • One of the great strengths of consulting engineers is their ability to focus on their role, and not be distracted by meetings, politics, changes, schedules and personalities.
    Coffman Engineers


    For many engineering firms, our work environment is not unlike the football field. The owner shares his goals with the team coaches and quarterback; they in turn interpret how to reach those goals through a game plan. The consulting engineers are playing as the linemen, starting on the “archiback’s” count, running the assigned route, and sharing in the glory of reaching the goal.

    So what happens when one of the linemen suddenly gets a chance to play quarterback?


    Getting the chance to lead the team is exciting, but requires a set of unique skills. One of the great strengths of consulting engineers is their ability to focus on their role, and not be distracted by meetings, politics, changes, schedules and personalities.

    As a prime, there is no room to be introverted or shy. Clear and open communication with the owner and team members is essential.

    Image courtesy of Coffman Engineers [enlarge]
    Running a construction project can be similar to playing football, where the team works together to meet the owner’s goals.

    Developing communication skills comes with experience and practice. Firms can enhance the communication skills of their project managers through programs such as Dale Carnegie, Toastmasters and mentoring.

    Face time

    Holding regular team meetings has proven to be a fundamental part of our success in prime projects.

    The creativity generated by sitting down over the plan is amazing. In this day of electronic mail and social media, the advantage will go to those willing to take the time to meet face-to-face and talk to the people in their network. If time and distance are limiting your ability to meet in person, consider contacting the client by phone or setting up a video conference.

    The bottom line is that the tone of voice and body language matter. These communication skills take effort and need practice to be effective.

    Understand the client’s goals

    The prime is accountable for the entire game plan, the execution, and the outcome. The prime must take a broad view, understanding the owner’s program, and how the work fits into the project’s overall context. After understanding the goal, it can only be met by careful attention to the parameters of scope, quality, schedule and cost.

    The prime role presents the chance to establish and control the implementation of a project, as opposed to running a route prescribed by someone else. Make sure your team members understand their role; everyone contributes, but not to every task.

    Your team will have a greater chance of having a successful project completion if you, as the project manager, are clear on scope, deadlines and budgets.

    Use the client’s money wisely

    Financial responsibility to the owner is heightened as a prime consultant. You are the steward of your client’s money, as well as responsible for the financial health of your firm. Make sure your team members are producing the value for which they are being paid. The use of earned value reporting is increasingly important to the financial success of our projects.

    As on the field, change is inevitable.

    Bring changes and challenges to the client’s attention; sometimes they have a solution, and they certainly don’t want to be left in the dark. It’s better to make adjustments in real time, rather than try to explain after the game why the team missed the point.

    While the detailed game plan is critical to reaching the goal, the cost of reaching that goal is always on the owner’s mind.


    After the snap, the quarterback steps back, and has to make a decision about what to do. The prime’s project manager is the quarterback for the team, and must make hard decisions every day. There will always be options, opinions and needed information.

    While drawing on experience, knowledge and consultation to make decisions, you must commit to move forward.

    Commitment requires courage as a firm, and as an individual. Unfortunately, taking a sack once in awhile can also be part of the project. A good relationship with the owner and team members guarantees that you will be offered a helping hand to get back on your feet.


    As the team leader, your job is to remove obstacles and create the opportunity for every team member to succeed. The prime must be willing to supplement weaknesses, use strengths to everyone’s advantage, and give credit to the teamwork that makes integrated delivery approaches work.

    No football team ever succeeded without a strong quarterback, and no quarterback survives very long without the other players, owners and coaches.

    Getting your team motivated and working together toward a common goal sounds trite, but when it happens on a project, it is like winning the Super Bowl. Working with an owner as a prime consultant is a unique opportunity for most engineers, fraught with stress and hard work, but well worth the effort when you win.

    Scott Mohr, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and project manager at Coffman Engineers. Mohr has a background in architecture and a career in project management that spans more than 30 years. He has experience with budgets, schedule development and user interface.

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