Multiple Views of Project Management for Live Events
And how they affect Sales and Operations
Project Management is a profession that is well-defined and
trainable, unless you happen to be in the Live Events business. Individual rental production companies may have thoroughly vetted models for their proprietary PM role, but in studying over one hundred businesses – I haven’t found two that are truly alike or franchise-able. Veteran PM’s – both freelance and staff – confirm that event stagers across North America define an inconsistent book of responsibilities for the PM role. Freelancers in particular report that their skills are underutilized by certain clients.
The reasons for this are fairly clear: as business and communication technology has improved, production rental companies have turned to Project Management to increase their business capacity. For many companies, the PM job has become a catch-all for tasks often left behind by busy salespersons, shop staff, and technicians. In its highest incarnation, Project Management is a mission-critical profit center. On the other end of the spectrum, the job might be nothing more than a crew chief. Here are the four roles commonly (but not exclusively) assigned to project managers in event production companies:
The PM/Crew Chief typically “picks up” the show just before the truck leaves. A quick review of what is being sent and a scan of the crew as booked is all that is needed (or time allows). After a few tweaks, the PM takes a folder provided by the salesperson and/or warehouse and briefs the crew – often on showsite.
He or she is then responsible for managing the stagehands and keeping track of hours. However, the primary job is to be the foil to the ever-present salesperson (who would not need to be on show site if the firm had real project management…).
The function of reviewing a sales proposal and turning it into a shop order is what I affectionately call scrubbing. The PM is responsible for adding cables and accessories while assuring that the right products are specified. In some shops, this person will also reconcile inventory shortages and conflicts by making substitutions or requesting sub-rentals. The Scrubber’s job often begins only a few days before the gig, but some companies apply the scrubbing process two to three weeks in advance. This doesn’t replace the Crew Chief’s process, it just starts a bit earlier.
In some organizations, a PM is not engaged unless the project requires CAD drawings, site surveys, scheduling, and a combination of crew, supplier, and venue coordination. The deliverable includes a detailed package of information for the crew, venue letters, and onsite coordination. This is the most familiar, but least standardized form of project management. The skills employed are not universal nor consistent from person to person. Many companies do not even follow an internal drawing standard, much less utilize industry standards. The PM job description is therefore customized by each person assigned with the title.
The companies that make the PM the point of contact for the customer once the job is sold are employing the Account Manager function. For our purposes let’s assume that there was a salesperson involved up to (and perhaps through) the sale. The AM/PM will take over once the job is confirmed and will be involved in processing change orders, tracking costs, and finalizing the bill. In this incarnation, we typically find that someone else handles the planning and scrubbing tasks (though not always) so that the AM can focus on client requests and eventually crew management on job site.
As your read this, you may find that your organization parses the above roles in yet another way. Most companies do and that is my point. Too often, the role of the PM is built around the existing skills and talents of one or two individuals. These persons tend to evolve by filling the gap in operational deficiencies such as equipment specification, scheduling, and communication. Hiring another PM starts a search for identical credentials. It is almost impossible for companies that define scrubbing as a PM role to find an outsider to support this function. In other words, that particular PM definition is not scalable.
I am going to make the assumption that by now, most of my readers understand that Project Management is a valuable and billable service to your clients. (Some companies still treat project management as a value-added service. That PM model is very Account Manager-ish, but I think we can agree it is hard to charge someone for your salesperson!) In terms of what you can bill your clients, only the Planning and Crew Chief task sets are project-driven. The scrubbing role is operational and should be fulfilled within the organization for the sake of consistency and efficiency. (I could write a whole series of articles about how to institutionalize order scrubbing, but not today.) Account Management is clearly a sales role, but if bundled with planning has the potential to be billable.
The pattern emerges that if your PM exists because of deficiencies in your core competencies – such as not being able to field a crew without a supervisor or pick & pack a rental order using only operational resources – then your PM role is not going to be scalable or billable. The net result is that when the organization is busy, the PM is on showsite and the operations process is compromised.
Similarly, if the PM assumes the Account Management role because the Salesperson is not credible fielding ongoing project questions or interfacing with operations – then upcoming projects are compromised when the PM is on job site.
Profitable and Scalable
I rarely subscribe to the theory that there is only is one right way to do things. Project management is no exception. However, good project management should make you more profitable and your systems more scalable. Being scalable will mean that your PM role is one that you could outsource if you had to. That means that being a PM at your company shouldn’t involve using proprietary tools or executing tasks that an outsider could not effectively perform (like order scrubbing).
To make project management profitable, it has to be a service with quantifiable deliverables. Trying to recover the cost of CAD services isn’t the same as selling a PM. Defining the difference between an event that requires a PM and one that doesn’t – is a start. If your sales and operations process requires a PM be assigned to every project, then it will be difficult to ever make project management a profit center. However, if you can define the PM role within the Planner description (outlined above), then you might have a mission-critical (for certain projects) role that you can standardize, charge for, and easily outsource when necessary.