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How Owners of Projects Will or Won’t Succeed Part I: “10 lbs of Stuff in a 5 lb Bag”​

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Bryan Carruthers, CEO


I have been celebrating. The ARPA – passed with $465 Billion in funding allowable to support infrastructure. IIJA passed with an additional $1Trillion in funding for infrastructure of all types. Finally, owners, lenders, and developers of infrastructure across the US will have the opportunity to access funding to repair, maintain and expand critical infrastructure of all types across the country!

Let the good times roll…well, maybe not quite so fast. As I’ve been celebrating the funding along with everyone else, I have also had a lesson from my grandfather ringing in my ears that aspiring recipients of infrastructure funding would do well to consider: “You can’t fit 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag.”   

When I was a kid, my brother and I would pick up pinecones from my grandparent’s yard. They had tons of pine trees and bags upon bags upon bags worth of pinecones to pick up.  My brother and I would work hard to fill the bag as fast as we could. Our process would go like this: rake cones into a pile, scoop the pile into a bag (harder at the beginning of filling a bag, easier as it got more filled). Faster and faster until the bag was filled to the top.  Then we’d try to close the top so we could move on to the next bag. Oops. 

We couldn’t get the top pulled together to tie because the bag had too many pinecones in it.  My grandpa would come out and watch as we struggled to pull the ends of the bag together. After a bit, he’d offer some advice: you can’t pack 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag (his word choice for “stuff” was a bit more colorful). After multiple attempts to prove him wrong and get the bag closed, we’d resign ourselves to his wisdom and dump out some of the pinecones we gathered to get the bag closed and then we would start the process of picking those same cones up again to put into another bag. If we had been smarter about how we filled the bag, to begin with, we could have saved ourselves a lot of re-work.

This advice has been on my mind because the abundance of new infrastructure funding means Owners will have “10 pounds of projects and programs” to plan, design and build in the coming years. The challenge is that the supply chain, suppliers, contractors, subcontractors, and consultants needed to plan, design, and build those projects are only a “5-pound bag”. There is also the added challenge for infrastructure owners that, unlike a bag, the suppliers, vendors, contractors, designers, and consultants will also choose which pinecones (I mean owners) they want to fill their metaphorical bag. Owners that don’t have a clear strategy and compelling value proposition to the vendors, suppliers, contractors, designers, and consultants for why they should work on their project or program will find themselves with more funding than they’ve ever had and no ability to execute the work. It could also be worse than that. 

...Owners will have “10 pounds of projects and programs” to plan, design and build in the coming years. The challenge is that the supply chain, suppliers, contractors, subcontractors, and consultants needed to plan, design, and build those projects are only a “5-pound bag”.

Bryan Carruthers

Some will find that they start implementing it the same way they always have, only to find that work was being done too hastily by over-worked and under-resourced internal staff, as well as vendors and partners who have realized they could be focusing on other clients where they are more appreciated, their margins are higher, or the value proposition is more compelling. Work will slow, stall, and then errors and oversights will be uncovered requiring even more work to correct. Time wasted, more money spent, and the project/program will become increasingly less compelling. 

Those Owners that recognize these pressures and put together a strategy for how they will navigate this industry constraint will be the ones to see their projects and programs most successfully executed. Those that don’t will struggle. But not all is lost!

Over the course of a several part series, my world-class colleagues at Anser Advisory and I will explore ways that Owners can develop a compelling value proposition through having a clear and persuasive internal organizational structure, thoughtful and comprehensive budget, governance, program/project strategy, procurement approach, systems selection and implementation, and staffing strategy and execution plan.

My grandpa would be proud his advice is alive and well today.

About Contributor: Bryan Carruthers

Bryan Carruthers is Chief Executive Officer of Anser Advisory, a collaborative leader who is passionate about creating and growing upper decile organizations through developing a robust culture that attracts, supports and nurtures industry leading talent.