Cultural resource management companies, want to dramatically improve productivity and efficiency? 2

Archaeology supervisors: explain what you want your employees to do before they do itIn the course of my random discussions about working in cultural resource management archaeology and historic preservation, I seem to have come across the same conversation time and time again. It all revolves around some “hell project”— a project that went so FUBAR that the company ended up losing money. In worst-case scenarios, archaeologists ended up losing their jobs as well. There were three common causes for these disasters:

1)  Unpredictable events made it impossible for the project to be completed within the scope of work (for example, much more archaeology was discovered and the contract didn’t allow for a change order).

2)  The project was lowballed so badly that archaeologists really had no chance of a successful outcome.

3)  Crucial pieces of information were withheld/unknown/not conveyed from management to the boots on the ground and the fieldwork was screwed up so badly that it had to be done again.

While we can’t do anything about unforeseen events, CRM company PIs can definitely do something about lowballing— don’t do it. Know your limits and overhead costs. Don’t budget a project so tightly that you can’t make money off of it.

We can also do something about the lack of communication and that’s an area where I see the potential for CRM companies to dramatically improve their productivity and efficiency.


My solution: Supervisors should take a few hours to sit down and explain in intricate detail exactly what you want your subordinates to do. That’s it. Take time to explain exactly how you see this project unfolding, exactly what you want the crew to do in the field, and exactly what you expect.

This is the step that is missing from over 90 percent of the projects I’ve worked on and 100 percent of the projects I’ve totally fu*ked up. I used to work for a company where the managers always seemed too busy to give you a pre-field briefing. When we did meet, it was pretty much a re-hashing of the scope of work without the detailed information already mentally amassed by the PI, who had worked for decades in this state. We always went out and did the fieldwork only to find out that the PI knew about some site or potentially historical building that was really close to the project area. Then, there was a bunch of hand-wringing and worrying about whether or not the client was going to find something (fortunately, they never did while I worked there).

At this same company, I was always set loose to write the report without any guidance. I was told to use boilerplate, but it was never explained that the boilerplate I was using was outdated or inappropriate or simply poorly written. My reports got sliced and diced by the editor and the PI was always displeased. Let’s face it. We aren’t writing the report for the client or the American public. We’re writing to simply get the document past the editor and our boss. Most of my bosses never sat me down and explicitly told me the kind of report they wanted or explained exactly what they wanted me to write BEFORE I started writing. The result: dozens of hours’ worth of revisions and edits that could have been avoided. Time and money wasted.

The easiest way to set employees up for success is to explicitly explain what exactly you want them to do. I know we’re supposed to learn the CRM archaeology trade through trial and error, but failing to communicate and be an effective leader mainly sets your employees up for failure. Field techs, crew chiefs, and field directors all work for department heads and PIs that, oftentimes, have very specific ideas of what they’d like us to do. Subordinates work in support of management. There are state standards for CRM work, but subordinates are mainly working to please their bosses because without the boss’ approval their work doesn’t get out of the building.

If you want to see huge leaps in productivity and efficiency, take the time to explain exactly what you want your employees to do. Give them the opportunity to ask questions. Tell them your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with a given project area. Spoon-feed them the answers in the way you’d like them presented. I know supervisors are busy, but time spent explaining exactly what you want is not time wasted. It’s a characteristic of good leadership.

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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2 thoughts on “Cultural resource management companies, want to dramatically improve productivity and efficiency?

  • Jonathan Haller

    I think you hit the nail on it’s head. I don’t know what the hangup is, but PIs never really talk about the project. And they rarely communicate what they want specifically.

    I find that even attempting communication changes the whole mood of a project. One might be bad at it, but the attempt makes the project run better. It encourages techs and crew chiefs to speak up about things that come up. Or they have great ideas. Or any number of things.

    From the GIS side I often have different streams of requests and production from different departments that aren’t communicating. The GIS doesn’t necessarily have to be the same for all departments, but there are certainly times when I can complete multiple requests at the same time if they weren’t coming in piecemeal over a 6 month period. In the vast majority of my projects I do not even know what departments are involved until weeks into it.

    If we’re talking about being efficient with our time and staying in budget, I can easily automate so much of my work and get people data before they even request it. I just have to know what is going on with the project.

    • Bill

      I think it’s a combination of several things but the biggest problems are a lack of project management skills and lack of accountability. I can’t think of a single archaeologist that receives project management training either on the job or in college. Most importantly, there are rarely any individual repercussions for the folks that blow budgets. Instead, the whole company suffers when managers screw up.

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