What to Do When Your Construction Project Goes Bad


Recently I lamented in this space about When Projects Go Bad (WPGB) and how the net result is always a learning experience, but that it’s still a hard thing to endure while you’re in the heat of the battle. This post got me thinking about what I would have and should have done differently when I was going through difficult projects. So I decided to write down some of my thoughts here. My hope is that anybody reading this now or in the future gets some benefit from it.

I imagine you near the end of your rope, early in the morning or late at night, exhausted and wondering how much more you can give. Here are a few pieces of advice that I would give:

Document Wisely

The “New Wave” of construction professionals should be adept at documenting. You should document from the start of the project, but if you’re past that point, start today. It’s never too late. What should you be documenting? Blame. We all know that when people don’t meet deadlines, whether it be the owner, architect, subcontractor, or GC, you should be documenting it and notifying them of it. But there is more. You need to be smart about how you document it. Make sure you have valid and documentable reasons why their actions are causing you a delay. A CPM schedule comes in really handy here, but it has to have been consistently updated.

Don’t Be Pacified

Many times on projects we want to “salvage the relationship.” Whether that relationship is with the owner, GC, architect, subcontractor (or anybody else), many times we let excuses be given and we accept them because we want to take people at their words. This isn’t a bad thing,but there’s a time and place for it, and when your project goes bad is not the time for it. When projects go bad the excuses start to flow like a mountain waterfall from everybody on the project. Don’t let it happen to you. If somebody tells you they will have a task completed on a certain date document the conversation, notify them of your understanding in writing, and if they don’t meet the deadline, let them know that their actions have affected the critical path of the project (make sure that it really has). Also, ask them to commit to a new date. By the way, FieldLens does task management with due dates VERY well. The app notifies you when people go past their due dates pushes it to the top of your feed, and notifies everybody who needs to know. On the flip side of all of this is that you shouldn’t promise dates to people that you can’t meet yourself.  Honesty is the best policy here.

Preserve Your Reputation

Construction is interesting for a number of reasons, but the way things travel via word of mouth is especially fascinating. Your reputation with those you interact with—whether it be an owner, architect, GC, subcontractor or all of the above—stays with you and is formed over a long period of time. With that in mind, everybody knows that difficult projects happen.  It’s how you react in the difficult projects that will help form your reputation with colleagues for years to come. As difficult as it may be,be fair with those you interact with when projects go bad.  Being fair, in my opinion,means not rolling over and letting everybody walk all over you, but it also doesn’t mean trying to screw over everybody around you without merit for completely selfish reasons. The term I like to use is, “Be firm but fair.” I can’t understate how difficult this term is in real world practice, but it’s worth it if you can master it. When projects go bad people start to look heavily after their own interests. Many folks get away with screwing over people to preserve their own well being- but it’s short lived. Eventually coworkers and colleagues find out or perceive what’s going on and your reputation is affected. Likewise if you handle your difficult project with dignity it matters.

Leave Work at Work As Much as Possible

When things go bad, the tendency is to bear down and work harder to make things better. This is obviously necessary a lot of the time,but the reality is that even if you are going to put in more late hours and weekends, know that when it’s time to turn it off, it’s time to turn it off. You need time to unplug and relax and so do those around you. Your stress affects them as much as it does you. Try your best to take off the work hat and put on the home hat when it’s time. The project will still be there when it’s time to go back to work.

So there you have it. I truly sympathize with any of you going through rough projects. But if you have a few tools to help you make it through, it can be a valuable experience when you look back on it — maybe even with a few less battle scars. If there’s anything I can do to help make these projects easier for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.


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