What Are You Really Going to do About Change Orders?

What Are You Really Going to do About Change Orders?

For most tenants or owners the answer is: surprisingly little. Buy why?  The answer lies in an inconspicuous, often overlooked spot in the real property design & construction supply chain: the contract.

The reason is deceptively simple.  Once a contract for architectural or general construction services is signed, the scope and body of the agreement either avoids change orders, controls them, or ignores them and optimistically assumes the best.  The latter position relinquishes control and creates the environment that puts change orders in motion. And this puts the tenant at a disadvantage.

Too little attention is paid to the power of the procurement process.  Consider what Barry Lapatner, in Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets, says:

“[B]uilding contractors [and architects] have at their fingertips all the critical information to establish the business terms with their buyers [owners], but the buyers do not [emphasis added]. That is, the contractor possesses far superior technical and operational knowledge of the industry then all owners,…”

So what does this mean? Specifically, what can you really do to prevent change ordersConsider these five tactics.

Change your mindset. Start by considering what hasn’t worked in the past; or has at least been ineffective. This means to deemphasize project backend beat downs intended to curtail change orders by brute force. Hammering the general contractor for the costs, or even the existence, of change orders is unfair. A general contractor, however clever, doesn’t have the exclusive ability to create change orders.

Let go of liquidated damages.  This seems to be the old school, go-to solution for many tenants and owners.  My view? It’s just mutually assured litigation and unnecessary, ineffective mountains of paperwork. LDs suggest a damaged relationship with key professionals right from the start. It’s the design and construction equivalent of a prenuptial agreement. If you need one, maybe it’s not such a great match. Instead, the root cause is further up the real property improvement supply chain. And that’s where we need to set our sights.

Prevention versus prediction. I remember a colleague of mine commenting this way about the attitude he was seeking in his team members, “I want news makers, not news reporters.” Similarly, reports like risk registers that indicate the likelihood of change orders or the potential impact only deliver the news. The iceberg is already dead ahead. Instead, the solution is to navigate further back in the project improvement supply chain timeline.

Procurement process and not project delivery. Design-bid-build, construction management at risk, and integrated project delivery are all often referred to as a project delivery methodologies. This isn’t an entirely accurate description. They are procurement approaches. They are contractual purchasing mechanisms. Because they are procurement processes at the core, they necessarily happen at the very earliest spot in the real property improvement supply chain. This is the origins and the opportunity for improvement for most change orders.

The power of the procurement process.  Change orders are ensured or avoided the minute the ink dries on the architectural/engineering or construction contract. Or put another way, if the contract, specifications and scope of the contract with your professionals doesn’t exclude and or control change orders, what will?

The solution isn’t your garden-variety legal terms and conditions. I’m not talking about fill-in-the-blank template. And I’m certainly not referring to the vendor’s form of contract. If you’re not emphasizing the power of the procurement process and utilizing a refined services agreement, brace yourself or bolster your budget.

Remember the words of Barry LaPatner.

The contractors’ [and architects’] superior knowledge and informational advantage coupled with the knowledge that [design] errors equal change orders.”

A sophisticated agreement is the most powerful and overlooked advantage in the toolkit of the right project manager – to head off change orders, reduce risks, and control the effects of substandard design and construction.

So before wading into this complex arena, give yourself an advantage and a project management ally up front. Do this simple step and you’ll be able to maximize the value of the vendors you hire, minimize change orders, and enjoy peace of mind along with substantial cost savings.



Apex Project Consulting, Inc., ( based in with California with offices in the San Francisco and Orange County areas, provides one-of-a-kind, full-spectrum project management leadership across a wide variety of project types, including both ground-up and tenant improvements, throughout the U.S. as well as internationally.  Apex has managed over eleven hundred projects, from due diligence and design through construction, including commercial, industrial, office, clean rooms, life science, labs, manufacturing, and specialized environments.

Are You a (Project) Thermometer or Thermostat?

Are You a Thermometer or Thermostat?

What would you think if I said that one of the project leader’s most important jobs is forecasting the future? I’m crazy? Out of touch? Yet it is absolutely true!

If a project schedule is not an accurate and reliable predictive tool, then what’s the point? If a detailed project schedule isn’t used to integrate, communicate and  predictably ensure the on-time, sequenced contributions of project team members, then it’s nothing more than a simple calendar – sans the scenic photos.

At first pass this might sound a bit over the top, but consider this.

A project schedule is to a calendar, what a thermostat is to a thermometer. One simply reports the conditions while the other acts to actually control and predict conditions.

Only the thermostat has any meaningful value.   Which do you want to be (alternatively, which are you?)

Your garden-variety project manager is charged with tracking the budget, updating the schedule, and hosting project status meetings. I would suggest that’s babysitting and not real project leadership.

In the hands of a seasoned expert, the project schedule is a powerful predictive tool. It’s like a roadmap. Or a GPS navigational device. If it doesn’t help predict where you’re going, then exactly what’s the value? Much like a financial forecast, the value is not in telling you where you’ve been, but where you’re going to be. This is actionable information.

Knowing where you’ll be, when you’re going to be there, and what tasks are parts of the critical path is essential to confidently arriving at your target completion date. This knowledge will empower you to make critical business decisions and course corrections before it’s too late. It’s another key element of effective project preplanning.

A well honed project schedule also influences the project outcome.

You may recall from previous posts, that initial conditions are always the greatest indicator of final outcome. Thus an empirically derived schedule is a powerful tool. Consider this example situation.


A client came to us at the end of last year. Their challenge – and our mission – was to get their new facilities designed, engineered, permitted and constructed – as well as their personnel relocated to the new facilities – before their lease expired. There was no way to know the magnitude of this undertaking without some analysis.


The first step towards influencing the project’s final outcome is to objectively observe and assess initial conditions. This is never more true that when it comes to the project schedule. The first thing to do is determine what the prospective schedule predicts. That is, when the fundamental tasks are linked in logical, predecessor-successor sequence, does that project schedule actually predict success? If you can’t make it work on paper, it’s not going to work in real-time.


More importantly, the window of opportunity to make course-corrections or to take remedial steps is before the clock runs out, not after. Or to put it differently, “bad news doesn’t get better with age.” It’s better to find out now – while there is still some elbow to create new or revised schedule improvements.


In the case of this client, the data suggested that they would barely make the move-in date before their lease expired. However, instead of being viewed as bad news it was correctly interpreted as predicting success – but only if we started the project rolling ASAP.


One of the first steps with any project is not to just report out the “temperature”. It’s to predict the temperature and then set it at what you or your client wants it to be. YOU are the thermostat!

Taking this view of the project schedule will turbocharge your ability to stay on schedule and achieve all your project milestones.

Remember, it’s a project leader’s job to predict the future. Or as Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Smokey bear-prevent forest fires image

Are You a Smokejumper or a Smokey Bear?

Pre-planning is to a project’s success what Smokey Bear is to wildfires.

A Smokejumper is a well-trained expert who plunges into active wildfires in a remote or inaccessible area. Often times with nothing more than the gear on their back.

Smokey Bear on the other hand is a friendly iconic reminder that prevention is the best (and most cost effective) practice.

One gets the job done by communication, prevention and pre-planning. The other is a crisis manager – and a hero – which in some respects is part of the problem. But why?

The answer is that pre-planning (and crisis prevention) are consistently overlooked. However, pre-planning out-performs crisis management in every respect.  Pre-planning is an absolute necessity for a project’s success.  Why then, is there tension – or at least confusion – between pre-planning and crisis management?

Crisis Management

Part of the problem is that successful crisis managers are celebrated. Firefighters are heroes. But the person that clears brush around their house? Well, that’s just plain boring, right?

Thus our perspective – and the outcome – is backwards. This paradox is directly applicable to business and project management.

Shouldn’t prevention and pre-planning have an equal if not more important status than crisis management? Consider some of the barriers to preplanning:

  • An environment of no accountability
  • Autocratic organizational structure
  • Fear
  • Control
  • It’s boring!
  • Crisis managers are “rewarded”

Accountability Not Wanted Here

Pre-planning creates accountability. Oftentimes initial projections and assumptions lose their luster when contrasted against an empirically derived plan. Moreover, some organizations and individuals just don’t value being held accountable.

Autocratic Organization: The Emperor Has No Clothes

No one wants to be seen as disagreeing with the boss. Nobody wants to tell the emperor that their clothes are less regal and more revealing.  In a shoot-the-messenger environment, accountability causes tension.

Ironically, this environment is especially inviting to Smokejumpers.  Their job is secure.  Nero is running the business so their services will always be in need.  They’re enablers and beneficiaries of the management-by-crisis culture.

Besides, there is often no political capital in being the one to say “iceberg dead ahead”. The first person to highlight the future problem is probably perceived as being the problem.


Fear is a powerful motivator. What if predicting or pre-planning suggested embarrassment for others? Maybe the executive projections were a bit too rosy?  If pre-planning exposes weaknesses, it’s not going to get a lot of airplay.  Better to bury the issue for the time being and hope the Smokejumpers can mop up after the building is fully in flames.


Pre-planning concedes control. Maybe releasing on control exposes what they should be doing or don’t know how to do?

Sometimes preplanning goes against the grain in a top-down, authoritative culture. A leadership level, accustomed to having their way, is going to bridle at pre-planning efforts that cut against the anonymity of autonomy. It might also expose other weakness.

Pre-Planning is Boring!

Admittedly there’s not much sex appeal with pre-planning. Nobody gets really excited about pro formas, project schedules, risk registers etc. However, benefit is inversely proportional to the “excitement”.  This is where the game is won or lost.

Reverse Incentives

Any Econ 101 student will tell you that if you want more of something, you need to discount it, reward it or pay for it. The same principle applies to crisis managers.

This principal fosters an environment where the attention and behavior of fire fighting versus pre-planning is encouraged. This may also be the most dangerous aspect.

Danger Ahead!

As I mentioned above, crisis management rewards firefighting. Being “rewarded” is often perceived as adding value. The most dangerous type of project team member is the one that perceives value in putting out fires. It sabotages essential pre-planning and satisfies their need to show value.

What Should You Do?

Commit to Change

There are several compelling reason to change this paradigm.  Professional, detailed pre-planning saves money, reduces risk, and makes heroes out of the team that successfully executes a pre-planned project, instead of the crisis manager.

“Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”  Sun Tzu

(Pre) Plan for Success

Pre-planning is positively correlated to success. That seems intuitive, yes?  But either for organizational reasons, autocratic organizational structures or otherwise, it (pre-planning) doesn’t get much traction.

Experts, of any stripe, are successful because they diligently pre-plan. The ability to “see” into the future is really an extension of pre-planning.

Focus on Initial Conditions

Pre-planning is a powerful predictive exercise. Initial conditions are the single biggest determinate of the final outcome.

If no prediction (pre-plan) is created, you can be certain that what can wrong, will go wrong; probably at the worst possible moment.  This axiom is directly related to, and exacerbated by the timing (more on that below).  As an example, consider the approach use by expert professionals.

Experts survive and excel from pre-planning.  I’m reminded of a saying I heard a long time ago: “If you’re losing money or making money, but don’t know why, you’ve got the same problem.”  Experts aren’t in business to lose money. They differentiate themselves by pre-planning. Experts avoid risk. Pre-planning allows experts to focus on what’s going to happen and thus avoid risk.

Surround Yourself with Experts

Hire and or assemble an expert project leader and project team that will professionally speak the truth. As the famous basketball coach was quoted as saying:

“Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people that will argue with you.”

John Wooden

This wise advice does double duty. First get experts. Don’t assume you-know-what-you-don’t-know.  Secondly, give them the freedom to alert you to icebergs.

Depend  on Data

Create an environment where the facts are friendly.  What that means is that the facts do not have an intrinsic value of themselves. They should be viewed as data. Not a personal attack or as exposing a weakness.

Timing is Everything

Pre-planning can only be effective if done early. Time is a powerful asset, and ironically it’s the first thing to go to waste. Seizing on the ability to address problems before they start, by pre-planning is huge. Time can’t be made up or recouped. Once lost, it’s gone.

80 to 90% of any project’s success is dictated by what happens in the first 10 to 20% of the project life-cycle. The initial stages are the most pivotal.  Time wasted is the first causality of failing to pre-plan.


I’m not suggesting that we stop praising firefighters or successful crisis managers. But after all, it’s cheaper and less stressful to stop the fire in the first place. Besides, there is only so much you can do with a fire extinguisher.