How is redoing a bathroom like building an application? The tools may be different, but a lot of the principles of working with contractors are the same. When we meet with clients, we often use home renovation analogies to talk about development projects. This is not only because many people are familiar with the experience, though this helps. Residential construction and repairs, like any complex projects, share many of the same fundamental requirements and resources, and the process is subject to similar challenges. Successful software development, like construction, requires specialized critical thinking at every stage to prevent and mitigate diverse risks and their potential impacts.

Recently, my own experience renovating as a first-time homeowner, working with a contractor, and balancing the project with my other responsibilities, illustrated just how important effective project planning and management is, not only to success, but to the peace of mind of everyone involved.

Getting On the Same Page

Our home dates to the mid-1980s and the previous owners kept it in good condition. However, the outdated fixtures, old carpet, and lackluster bathrooms needed remodeling. We knew we wanted to hire a smaller-sized contractor who could do the job in a month or so without too much hassle and at a reasonable cost. Our friends referred us to a local professional who we contracted to do the work in that time frame and within our budget.

An immediate cause for concern came when we found ourselves making almost daily runs to the local big box hardware store for the materials we needed. While we knew we’d be responsible for purchasing project materials, there are several reasons their acquisition should have been handled by the contractor. At the very least, the exact kinds of materials and how much to buy should necessarily fall on the experts.

This oversight created a snowballing effect with resources and time wasted. All the extra trips for unforeseen necessities and returns on unnecessary purchases added up. We had to push the completion date back a few weeks and, by the end of the project, all parties involved were thoroughly exasperated.

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To make matters worse, the lack of oversight led us to purchase certain furnishings and rush their installation, so we were left dissatisfied. If only we had known that a certain thing wouldn’t fit in the space or work with the existing plumbing or wiring, we might have made different choices. A lack of planning and oversight resulted in costly mistakes associated with compatibility issues that only emerged once the project was well underway. Moreover, both myself (the client) and the builder overestimated each other’s level of understanding and engagement with the scope and details of the project.

We rightly assumed a contractor would be a competent project manager and when they did not meet our expectations we struggled with questions like: were we naive to underestimate the extent to which we should have researched and overseen everything, or were we right to assume that managing the project was part of what we had hired them to do? More importantly, what could we have done to prevent the situation from emerging in the first place?

Where There’s Smoke…There’s a Lack of Project Management?

This kind of story is all too familiar for those who have experienced the joys of remodeling a home. To no one’s surprise who has survived this undertaking, our troubles did not end when we moved in.

As any homeowner can attest, it is common to find underlying issues. However, it is also common to see these seemingly simple issues snowball out of control, requiring multiple visits because of a lack of communication and effective oversight.

While our home has a lovely fireplace, the previous tenants did not use it more than once or twice since the mid-1980s, so we knew it would need servicing. We contracted a company whose representative assessed we would need a custom chimney flue cap. No big worry, we thought, and we consoled ourselves with the fact that we could have fires in the interim.

Unfortunately, when we lit one, within minutes we could see the smoke was not venting properly and we quickly scuttled the embers, but not before our living room and basement (for some reason) attained a lasting smokey smell. After another visit, it turned out the custom flue cap also needed a custom damper, something that the previous technician had not ascertained. Another week later and we had our custom damper installed. Problem solved, or so we thought.

Before he left, I asked the technician once again whether this would fix our draft problems and he said he thought so. However, no sooner had we started a fire when the basement furnace room filled with smoke. I was frustrated that I did not test it out before the technician left, especially because it would be another week before they could return.

It turned out the smoke was reentering through the furnace flu in the chimney, which the first technician neglected to check. Not only did we not need the expensive custom cap, but they did not even have the previous caps they initially removed. The entire situation could have been avoided by better oversight and initial planning. Even something as simple as more communication between team members could have mitigated the contingency.

If we think of software like a house, we can see how the construction, maintenance, and refurbishing of these structures requires careful planning, execution, and troubleshooting. Working with complex, interconnected systems means that experts need to take on flexible roles while also having a holistic understanding of the entire process. And this is where project management comes in, helping keep everything on track, while also keeping the bigger picture in view and looking at the consequences of decisions down the road.

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Project management is intertwined with effective communication strategies. This requires building rapport across teams and with clients. This requires a measure of reflexivity as well. Even experts can become entrenched in the specificities of their roles to the detriment of their holistic understanding of the wider vision. It is easy to lose the forest for the trees, especially when we are dealing with interconnected systems. Internally, social relationships facilitate team dynamics, which ultimately drive business processes, and forming strong bonds leads to stronger work. Had our contractors adopted practices like those of our project managers at DOOR3, we would have had greater success, faster, as well as established a much stronger foundation to sustain a working relationship into the future.

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