5 Common Project Conflicts
and How to Minimize Them

From utility conflicts to poor soil conditions, a little foresight and preparation go a long way when it comes to hurdling over project surprises.

We connected with a few veteran project managers who shared methods for minimizing five of the most common culprits. You can't predict the future. You can prepare for it.

1. Utility conflicts

An unknown pipe has the power to bring a project to a standstill. If you uncover one during design, your engineer can usually design around the conflict. If, however, you discover an unknown pipe during construction, you’re getting a phone call from the field representative.

How to minimize

Research and investigation

“Engage your private utility early and often in the design and construction process,” advises Dave Simons, SEH project manager. “They sometimes have information that is unavailable in record plans or other sources.”

Contract language

Make sure your construction contract language makes room for a show-stopping utility conflict. “A good contract will outline how all parties (i.e., contractor, owner, designer) can work together to resolve an unknown utility conflict,” says Simons.

Look ahead to narrow down the areas of your project where a conflict could arise. Places where you’re not as comfortable with the accuracy of the information.
Dave Simons, PE

Crisis action plan

“Look ahead to narrow down the areas of your project where a conflict could arise. Places where you’re not as comfortable with the accuracy of the information,” says Simons. Then, think ahead to what action and processes you might have in place if a crisis occurs. If you hit a utility conflict, what tasks need to be done, and who will do what? During a crisis, having an action plan in place will keep you focused on doing, rather than on figuring out what needs to be done.

2. Right-of-way issues

Sometimes clients want to do a project and they either don’t know how much right-of-way they have, or they think they have more than they actually do. In some cases, they discover they don’t own enough right-of-way to build their projects. At that point you have two options, both are going to slow you down. You can either go back to the drawing board and redesign the project to reduce right-of-way needs, or acquire additional right-of-way. But even with a willing seller, you’re going to have a delay.

How to minimize

Surveying and title searches

“Right-of-way ownership can be funny, in that you don’t know if you can trust some maps,” says Simons. Where should your project confidence come from? Confirm your right-of-way ownership with professional survey or a title search. Both can help you get a better picture of ownership.

3. Environmental permitting delays

Environmental permitting is complicated in the best of circumstances. Regulatory agencies update requirements on a regular basis — and small oversights can cause big delays — a minor mistake can put a project on hold indefinitely.

How to minimize

Look upstream and downstream

Are you aware of all the lakes, wetlands or stream impacted by your project? Upstream and downstream? Your project might have greater area of impact than you think, resulting in the need for more permits.

Be an early bird

Regulatory agencies may increase permit review time when aquatic resources are affected. While the actual time frame varies from state to state, even year to year, be safe and submit your application early—anywhere from eight months to a year—or you might stall your project or worse: lose your funding.

4. Public or political delays

For better or worse, some projects attract more attention than others. If your project touches a sensitive ecological area, historical properties or brings significant change, you can encounter delays if you’re not prepared.

How to minimize

Engage stakeholders authentically

At its best, public participation is not a checkbox, but a genuine attempt to engage the right stakeholders in the right place at the right time. Use the right participation tools and make sure you understand what public and political repercussions might complicate success.

Related Content: 2 New Methods Attracting Better Community Engagement

5. Poor soil conditions

Turns out your site doesn’t want to support your project. Culprits? Your project is either full of highly compressible soils, like soft clay, silt or organic deposits (peats), which shift and sink beneath the weight of your road, bridge or building, or there are unexpected water issues. In rare cases, you may be able to relocate the project to a different site.

How to minimize

Getting more soil samples

Budget for more soil borings to better characterize the ground beneath your project. “You don’t need to turn the site into a pin cushion,” says Wayne Wambold, SEH geotechnical engineer. “But used in coordination with other geological site data you may have, you can usually have a good idea of where and how many borings will give you the most bang for your buck.” Good planning — and understanding of a phased drilling and testing approach — will help reduce risk when dealing with a difficult site.

...you can usually have a good idea of where and how many borings will give you the most bang for your buck.
Wayne Wambold, PE, PMP

Timing your testing

If you complete your subsurface investigation in fall, after a dry spell, and are building in wet spring, you may discover beneath the surface a rising water table ready to wreak havoc on your construction schedule. More than just the quantity of boring samples, timing your testing and understanding seasonal variations is essential to reduce your exposure to risk.

The bottom line

Every project is different, but a few conflicts tend to raise their heads more often than others. When they do, the best you can do is be ready for them.

About the Experts

Dave Simons

Dave Simons, PE, is an SEH project manager with experience on a wide variety of civil engineering projects. Contact Dave

Wayne Wambold

Wayne Wambold, PE, PMP, is a project manager and senior geotechnical engineer. Contact Wayne

Better Projects 101: Practical Tips

Want a better project? Download our free eBook filled with tips on hiring a consultant, stakeholder engagement, project delivery, project management and more.