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Anyone who has worked in construction or a related business knows that project delays seem to be part of the process. 

The reasons may be beyond control – weather, natural disasters, natural resource shortages, etc. – but all too often project delays are caused by issues such as lack of consistent understanding, adapting to the inevitable changes that come with every project, agreement by all the parties and poor communication. In fact, communication, or lack of it is frequently listed as a key reason for project delays across industries. 

Whatever the reason, delays cost time, money and often even credibility as builders. Although the reasons for delay are diverse, more often than not, they all boil down to a math problem known as the Project Paradox. 

The Project Paradox essentially states that the overall probability a project will complete on time, (for example, a building finished) is the sum of the probabilities that each individual task – e.g. contract signed, foundation complete – will be completed on time. In other words, a project’s overall successful completion (on-time and on-budget) hinges on success in every single task. 

The Project Paradox statistical calculation is actually based on the “Expected Values” formula that dates back to the mid 17th century when it was first put forth by two famous mathematicians. However, old as this math is, and as simple as it is, the vast majority of people who work on projects are unaware of the massive influence it still has on outcomes today. 

For example, in the world of construction, it takes a lot to hit on all cylinders on a project. Even with best subs on the job, plans and design down to the last detail, and perfect weather, chances are someone or some process will fall short, even if “just a little.” The problem is, if everyone falls even just a little short, those individual minor shortfalls snowball until the project is doomed to fall behind, and subsequently cost more money. 

 How does that happen? Take, for example, a job that involves four different subcontractors working on say 20 different tasks. According to the Project Paradox, even if each of the subs is 90 percent reliable for on-time delivery, the overall project would have an on-time completion probability of not more than 12 percent. The problem is exacerbated when changes are introduced mid-project, thus increasing the probability of delays and profit loss even more.

The primary contributors to the Project Paradox that drive project delays can be boiled down to three key ones:

  • Lack of Accountability. Successful management of any project relies on accountability -- everyone being clear on what they're supposed to do and then doing it. Back in the day, those conversations were sealed with a handshake, but in the world of digital communication, that's been lost. Everyone is relying on emails, static spreadsheets and charts for communication which is why clear understanding of project status is not working. 
  • Lack of Predictability. Material shortages, change orders, labor issues – any one of these can derail a project, particularly if there’s no warning. A lack of warning eliminates the ability to manage risk and make contingencies.
  • Lack of connection or communication between key players on a project. How often have two people walked away from the same conversation with two completely different interpretations? Or sent an email, thinking it was clear, only to find out later it was completely was misunderstood or mis-read. 

Simplistic as it sounds, these three factors are at the root of most project delays. There are specific steps, however, to take to overcome the Project Paradox and increase the chances of on-time-, on-budget projects more often than not. 

  1. Clearly Define the Project’s “Critical Path." The critical path is the sequence of dependent tasks that defines the shortest time for project completion. Research has time and again shown that putting in the hard work upfront to clearly define in excruciating detail what needs to be done will pay off in the long term particularly on large, complex projects with many moving pieces. A picture of the critical path allows those who need to know to visualize dependencies to identify risk, calculate impact and adjust to project delays in real-time. 
  2. Ensure Task Ownership. Don't just assign work – create agreements to ensure accountability. The problem with communicating via email or text is that one person is talking at the other, and it leaves the recipient free to ignore or misinterpret the work assigned to them silently. Project success depends on every individual understanding and agreeing to what is expected of him or her, and in what timeframe. This is especially important when the assigned tasks are priorities.
  3. Create Transparency. Once the critical path has been identified, jobs have been assigned and everyone understands their role, and how it impacts the overall project, transparency keeps everyone clear on expectations, timing and eliminates “he said, “she said.” 
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Collaboration and project completion depend heavily on communication. Communication is 360 – to crews, supervisors, clients, back office, etc. There are numerous ways to communicate, from texting, emailing, phone calls, meetings and a host of others. The most successful communication channels take into account the audience age, language proficiency and preference, educational level and more. Is email the correct way to communicate regular updates? Is it face-to-face status meetings? Is it a combination of push and static media? Regardless it needs to be regular, relevant and ensure that everyone involved... IS involved. 
  5. Think beyond traditional communications. email is 45 years old, yet it’s still the communication channel of choice for many. Effective communications require thinking non-traditionally. Mobile use has grown dramatically in the last eight years. The average person spends five hours a day on their mobile device and checks it 85 times. According to a 2017 emarketer report, U.S. adults spend nearly half of their media day consuming digital content, with more than half of time spent with digital on a mobile device. A slightly older research finding stated that the average person spends five hours a day on their mobile device and checks it 85 times. Consequently, communications need to reflect the trends to be effective.  
  6. Manage change and expectations. Construction projects are rife with unexpected changes. Whether a new requirement, uncovering unknowns or modification to what the customer wants, change is constant. The key to successfully managing it is ensuring communications are clear with everyone – from the field, to the back office, to the customer and everyone understanding the updates. Managing change allows for mitigating risk. 

Daunting as the Project Paradox can seem, putting in place these six simple steps can help the smart builder overcome it, and recoup the profit loss along the way. 

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