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Should we all want to be project managers? Tim Chapman

Contestants on the BBC’s Apprentice make a great kerfuffle about who should be  project manager” for each task – with often who stays or is fired hinging on the success of that individual.  The role is seen as one of command – and all other roles are subservient to it. It is viewed as the only role worth having and the others aspire to take that control in order to be recognised.

The same aspiration is often apparent in this industry with many young geotechnical designers seeing the role of “project manager” as the epitome of their success. They perceive it as a route to become a decision maker and get other technical bods to do what they are told.

However this  view  is based on a misapprehension that there can be a patrician class who don’t know how to do things and just instruct others to do tasks that make up a whole.  Yet the nature of engineering design is far more complex and also far richer and more fun than that. 

On complex projects, the design process is one of iteration around requirements, constraints and opportunities, a cycling through various disciplines of which geotechnical engineers are but one. This process isn’t easy or quick – and rushing it can lead to substantially suboptimal solutions, which are deeply regretted later.  The key players need to understand the nuts and bolts of their own discipline well, but also all those of others with which they interact, so that a great solution can be arrived at. It involves a process of challenge and negotiation to ensure that the optimisation is responsive and prescient.  On a typical big building project there may be 18 other disciplines in addition to the geotechnical engineer, and on a big infrastructure project, perhaps 10 or more other disciplines with whom the issues need to be aired and discussed.

While there certainly exists a role of integrator, that role tends to be more effective if the integrator can engage actively in the technical detail across a number of the disciplines and not just to the technical discipline with loudest voice or most influence. 

Hence, that integrator can often be more effective if they have a base discipline which is a component of the solution, but they should also be sufficiently literate in other disciplines too.  That person takes of the lead on design and I believe that role is a far more compelling one than just that of project manager, with no denigration intended for that noble but separate profession.  Project managers, whose role is to allocate and track resources and plot progress on Gantt charts so that timely delivery is assured, are part of the solution but generally they should not drive the form of the final project.

I urge young geotechnical engineers to retain a keen interest in  technical matters and to aspire to become great geotechnical design leaders rather than forgetting their geotechnical skills in order to become just a project manager, in the strict sense of the words.  Our profession’s influence will be all the more powerful if young entrants are encouraged to aspire to be a design leader than a project manager.

Tim Chapman leads Arup’s infrastructure design group in London

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