More Than Getting the Job Done

…at the lowest cost?
…within this time frame?
…with the greatest efficiency?
…with the most customer satisfaction?
…using the strengths of our employees?

Then, they lead teams to develop creative solutions for answering those questions. We asked six local businesspeople about their personal approach to project management and the value of a job well done.

Dexter White

Dexter White Construction

Can you tell us about the nature of your projects at
Dexter White Construction?
Since we’re a general contractor, what we really provide are services. We don’t physically build the house – we subcontract the work out. So what we really become are schedulers and coordinators between our clients and our subcontractor base to give the clients what they want. At any one time we’re working on eight to 10 homes. Each home uses about 30 subcontractors which translates to about 150 to 200 people who work on each site.

What is key to pulling off these projects successfully?
My subcontractor base. I know I can rely on these guys. We’ve worked together for so long and they know what I expect in terms of quality. I don’t have the least expensive subs in town, but I know they’re going to be there if I need them to fix something we did the year before. And they know they have my work as long as they keep their quality and performance up to par.

What else keeps things on track?
Managing the client’s expectations, in terms of what you can or can’t provide. We do everything within our power to keep the project on schedule, but that requires the client to stay on schedule too when making their selections. We probably talk to the average homeowner about 100 to 150 components, but we try to make it relatively simple by grouping several choices together at one time in one place. We know which items need the most lead time, so we dial the client in to those decisions earlier. We give them a schedule that prioritizes the decisions in order of importance.

How do you communicate with the client throughout the project?
Texting and email has made it so much easier to stay in touch and keep the client updated on our progress. We’re also rolling out a cloud-based software that allows the client to see the schedule and action items from any of their devices. They can see how the schedule will change based on their selections. They can also docusign everything from that software platform, so we can have everything we need to be able to continue working.

Jay Caughman

Caughman+Caughman Architects

What is the difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful project?
A successful project makes the client happy because the design I’ve created fulfills their vision in serendipitous ways. A truly great design project is part art and part science. Success comes from combining the client’s intent for the project with thoughtful design.

How does a project begin?
Every project begins with problem identifying and solving and getting to know the personality of my client. During this programming phase, I learn what the client hopes to accomplish with the project by asking lots of key questions about the space I’m creating. It might be something as basic as the size of the cars they have, whether they want a TV in the kitchen, or a view of the brow, down to small things like how many shoes they have or what time they wake up. All of my questions help me create the design parameters and the intuitive aspects of the space.

How do you deal with unexpected challenges?
Our clients don’t hire us to bring them problems, they hire us to solve the problems. During the early phase of the design process, we do our due diligence to discover, address and anticipate potential challenges. If we have issues that pop up in later phases of the project, I always prefer to bring the client options for solving the issue. You have to keep a cool head.

What is key to solving problems in your field?
Creating successful architecture involves partnering with an entire team of professionals with high levels of expertise. An architect is similar to a composer who creates a symphony. For the piece of music to come alive, the composer must trust the expertise of the conductor and musicians. In a symphony everyone plays a critical role. It is the same in the field of architecture. I rely on the proficiency of those I partner with; engineers, general contractors, subcontractors, and vendors. I don’t pretend to know everything, but by partnering with the right high-level experts, there is no problem that can’t be solved.

Melissa Taylor

Director of Strategic Long Range Planning at Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency

Your background is extensively planning-based. What is the most complex project you’ve planned and managed?
I’d have to say the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan tops the list. The plan is necessary for our TN-GA urban area to receive an annual estimated $11 million in federal funds, and it takes about two years to complete. My role is to create a process for establishing a vision, organize a schedule, coordinate staff and consultant teams, and deliver draft and final products.

The plan received one of eight national FHWA/FTA Transportation Planning Excellence Awards. What made it so successful?
Anecdotally, I think it was directly related to my team members’ understanding of their work responsibilities, dedication to timely decision-making, and perhaps most importantly, proactive, passionate, and problem solving mindset. The project required an immense amount of communication and coordination as well as a willingness to reconcile competing interests and needs.

How do you encourage constituents to stay on board until completion?
I think clear, thoughtful, and routine communication is critical. It shows respect for the constituent and that you truly value their time and contributions, and it sends the message that they really do influence the outcome. When constituents feel that inclusiveness, they tend to stay involved and want to be part of seeing the effort to fruition. It builds trust and support beyond the specific plan or project.

Once you’ve made a plan, how do you respond to new information?
When there is new information, we give it thoughtful consideration. Usually we have at least one lengthy discussion on the matter. But we always have to ask ourselves if the anticipated outcome is worth a delay to our schedule. Sometimes the answer is yes, but most often the answer is no and there are interim solutions to carry us forward. I think a common symptom of poor project delivery, especially for large projects, is to get stuck in a rut – a pattern of revisiting decisions and re-evaluating the project purpose or path. Over time, this can lead to a lack of trust in the organization as a whole.

Tiffanie Robinson

President/CRO of Lamp Post Properties

Looking back over your career, what has been the most difficult project for you to plan and manage?
A recent project – The Tomorrow Building. This was the first real estate development project I, or Lamp Post Group, had ever embarked on. Restoring a historical building is tough for even the best in the field. You just never know what’s coming around the corner with a historical renovation project.

How did you plan for that project?
There were several parties involved – architects, general contractors, development consultants, investors, and community members. We brought the community into the mix to give us feedback on the purpose of the Tomorrow Building. Before we did anything else, we wanted to confirm we were meeting an actual need.

When dealing with projects of that magnitude, how do you establish the critical path?
Luckily we had an amazing team in place to help us look at potential obstacles. Naturally, we also had obstacles come up that we could have never predicted, but we were able to work through those quickly to get back to the original plan.

How do you ensure a project stays on course?
Open communication is always key, so we constantly meet as a team. Bad communication will kill a project faster than anything else. I’ve also found asking a lot of questions throughout the process is a great exercise to keep everyone on their toes. It allows you to anticipate potential problems and bumps along the way as you work through the plan.

What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs about project management?
That it’s key to their success and they absolutely need a team member who is gifted in this area. Every company needs someone who knows how to make sure the critical path is staying on target. Building a company is like managing one big massive project. If you can’t handle the details, the road will be tough.

Ben Fischer

President and CEO of Signal Energy

How does your own background influence the way you approach project management?
I’m an engineer by education and an entrepreneur at heart. I grew up in Chattanooga and went to Baylor and Georgia Tech. I’ve found that in this part of the country people really understand the concept of stewardship, which is that you take care of the things you’ve been entrusted with, and if possible, leave them better off than you found them. It’s the foundation for how I approach project management, and in my mind it defines what great project management is at its core.

Can you tell me how the planning process works? How do you establish the critical path?
We ask our customers a lot of questions, and then we listen. Because what seems critical on the surface may not be the most critical aspect in reality. So the first question we ask is, “What does success look like for this project?” Once we’ve defined what success looks like – in terms of energy production, timeline, cost, etc. – we work backward and translate that into the best possible path to achieving their goals.

Could you give me an example of how that approach might play out in a project?
I remember one instance, a wind project, where the client had already conceived how they might design and go about building the project, but it was millions of dollars over budget. When we started asking questions, we learned some of their road parameters were more appropriate for a different part of the country and season, so we came up with some ways to optimize the design. In the end it put the project back within the budget and made it financeable.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in your industry in regard to project management?
I’d say look at challenges as opportunities. I believe we were all created to be creative and we have an innate ability to solve problems and come up with greater solutions. If you have a growth mindset, you will build a strong foundation for success. These are the qualities we really look for in our employees.

Karen Officer-Bell, MBA, PMP

Senior Project Manager, Dam Safety Assurance Program at Tennessee Valley Authority

What professional skills are critical to your work?
Many are required; however, the most important skill for me is emotional intelligence. I’m successful when I’m able to influence people to do their best work in support of a common goal or objective. Project management is more than defining scope, creating a project plan, developing a schedule, and managing a budget. To succeed in today’s work environment, you must be able to team build, influence, collaborate, and negotiate often in a very complex environment while judiciously managing business relationships.

Do you find it helpful to plan a year out?
Yes. Long-term planning is extremely helpful to plan work prior to the start of a fiscal year. I manage TVA’s Dam Safety Assurance Program (DSAP), where the objective is to reduce risk of a dam safety event. This program is comprised of approximately 30 projects. I develop what I call a “DSAP Playbook” for each fiscal year which outlines all relevant information. The playbook and request for fiscal year funding are presented to TVA’s Project Review Board, which is comprised of TVA executives from various organizations.

What is most important when planning a project?
Obtaining executive buy-in and clearly defining roles and responsibilities of joint project team (JPT) members are the most important components. Prior to a formal project kick-off meeting, I work behind the scenes and document each member’s duties relative to a specific project. I also add photos and contact information for each person. At our project kick-off meetings, each person articulates his or her responsibilities to the JPT. This sounds rudimentary, but this process saves a lot of time and eliminates potential confusion.

How do you keep your projects on schedule?
Respect for others is the most important factor. Most employees are overloaded, but I still have the responsibility to ensure project schedules are met and work is performed within budget. I must determine the best way to encourage people to fulfill their commitments while being sensitive to others’ challenges. There is an art to showing empathy while encouraging people to perform their work.


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