Growing the next generation of project controls

24 March 2020 5 min. read

Evidence-based insights from experts in the field of project controls are invaluable for decision making leading to project success. It’s a skill, and a profession, not getting the attention it deserves. 

The spectrum of project controls is about gathering, managing and analysing data – on costs, scheduling, risk and resources – to plan, guide and influence during the life of a project. It’s about keeping a project on time, on track and on budget by looking at all of the moving parts together. Stacey Wehmeier, a project controls specialist at Synergy Group, explores the challenges facing the future of this specialist field. 

A master craft

Before joining Synergy Group, Stacey worked within Defence for two decades. She was responsible for providing independent cost estimation and assurance for some of Australia’s biggest fighter jets, satellites and helicopters, as well as other platforms.

“During my eleven years in Capability Development Group, I worked on upskilling people in cost estimation and analysis, and creating intuitive tools and systems,” says Stacey. “If was often the case that scheduling, cost estimation, risk and workforce were disconnected, rather than operating as connected pieces of a puzzle. We needed to work on lifecycle cost estimating incorporating risk assessments, schedules and project management – and train people quickly. 

“When the Capability Development Group disbanded in 2017, we had established an integrated controls approach, with cost estimation, schedule management, risk and workforce estimation working together because they are all so closely related in informing the achievability of delivery and sustainment of capability.”

Integrated project controls

It’s this experience – supporting massive programs, big budgets and long delivery schedules, including many types of risk – that Stacey sees as critical to the future of successful, and sustainable, projects and programs.

Why project controls is sexy

Project controls makes it easy for decision makers to succeed by providing evidence and analysis looking forward.

“Data and information is often like a big bowl of salad – and you don’t win friends with salad!” jokes Stacey. “The salad flavour of the month rises to the top in most cases. Project managers want the chunk of steak. They want the simple, short summary of what’s going well and where the project is heading to trouble, then here’s A, B and C to manage how to get on track.”

When you consider a potential $200 billion integrated investment program for Defence over the next decade, that’s a substantial number of staff, projects and high levels of complexity to manage. “Senior leaders may be responsible for well in excess of 50 complex projects and products at any one time, that also need to be managed as programs and domains,” says Stacey.

“Our challenge as project controls is to put the right information and analysis in front of decision makers, so they don’t have to sort through the salad to find the real issues to deal with. As an example, in some recent work we have undertaken, with the right skills, we have taken a quarterly review of projects from two full days to half a day – focusing only on the selection needing attention.” 

By providing a lifecycle view (by using data and seeing the big picture) project controls experts can empower leaders to make decisions at the right time.

“Project controls focuses on putting the right information and analysis in front of decision makers, so they can focus on the real issues.”

“It’s problem solving to effectively predict the future,” says Stacey. “It’s analysis to see where the problems are coming up or will come up, with effective solutions to address them. In a time-poor environment we can make a difference that helps decision makers move forward quickly. “That’s the sexiness for project controls. We float problems to the top and early, so action can be taken quickly.”

Growing the gene pool

The art and science of project controls seems to be an area being forgotten by graduates. 

“I am deeply passionate about project controls and the value it brings to evidence-based decision making as an enabler to robust program and project management,” explains Stacey. “My concern is, who is coming after me and my peers? When the masters are gone, where are the apprentices who will take our place?” 

Stacey sees many transferable skills and opportunities, particularly for those early in their career. “We need to target younger people and give them the skills and invest in the next generation of project controls experts. It also provides an excellent foundation for other careers.”

For Stacey, she’s grown accustomed to being able to predict that she will see the same faces at industry conferences and wants organisations, such as Synergy Group, to invest in growing the next generation for the benefit of us all. 

“It’s time project controls had a professional body of its own so the profession is recognised and supported,” says Stacey. “We need to talk, collaborate, put agendas aside and work for the future of the profession.”