If running a construction team can be equated to conducting an orchestra, the new breed of “thin” project managers are maestros of fine-tuning the team.
If a construction project is a symphony, then its early stages are dominated by instruments played by the client. During the next phase, the architect and other designers’ instruments take the lead. The volume and intensity increases until the contractor’s drums herald a new and more menacing overture.

The project manager is the conductor. But, unlike an orchestra conductor, the traditional project manager often funds the orchestra, writes the music and plays an instrument as well as wielding the baton.

I advocate a new type of project manager, who, like his orchestral counterpart, focuses on getting the team to play together rather than trying to be part of the team.

Whereas the team approach is appropriate for a tangible service such as producing drawings and specifications for a design, “thin” project management is concerned with expert orchestration of the project, not the production or process.

The problem is that when project managers go to meetings, they feel they must produce something to justify their fee. They often end up drawing up the design information and construction programmes and get sucked into endless discussions about who does what and when. Such distractions should be avoided and the project manager should step back from the team to see the overall picture. The fee is lower because nothing tangible is being produced, but time is saved.

The other key to thin project management is continuity. There is only one project manager all the way through the project. And if all that is provided is project orchestration, it has to be the best. Having just one person running the project from conception to completion provides the best overview and the best advice.

So, what are the key characteristics of thin project management?

  • reliance on one individual throughout the project. This provides a continuous thread through the project and no variations in interpretation

  • thin project managers subsume themselves into clients’ organisations to the extent that they even use the client’s notepaper

    The new type of project manager, like his orchestral counterpart, focuses on getting the team to play together rather than trying to be part of the team

  • it is most suited to non-expert clients on large, complicated projects

  • after formulation of the brief, all client instructions and directions are given by the project manager acting as the client. However, during the project there are situations where the client needs to be consulted directly on issues such as fine-tuning the brief, important aesthetics and the client’s detailed technical requirements

  • the project hierarchy and meeting structure must be developed by the project manager with the client, and be controlled during the project, largely by the personality of the project manager

  • the project manager does not chair or write minutes of design meetings or contractors’ progress meetings, except where they are client meetings. Administration should not take the place of active management and orchestration

  • thin project managers recognise the architect as the design team leader whose organisation should empower and manage the design. The same applies to the contractor.

As projects become more complex and fragmented, there is a tendency to get more people involved in the project management. Unless carefully defined, this can actually slow down and confuse decision-making, and adversely affect the outcome of the project.

Too often, the project manager has to be seen to be doing something. This is often caused by conflicting agendas, lack of a clear strategy and excessive committee decision-making. Thin project management does not solve these problems, but it does impose a regime where clarity in a complex project is easier to find. A more targeted role means that fees are more economic and better deployed in obtaining total project value.