Johann Schmoll
Photo | Nadine Stenzel
6 min.

Sabine Walter in conversation with ...

Johann Schmoll, Managing Director of Prof. Burkhardt Engineers in Munich

Mr Schmoll, what do you love about your job?

The independence. As a consultant in project management and especially, of course, in the role of managing director, I am in a position to move our company and our projects forward. If you approach such a task ambitiously and seek responsibility, then you gain maximum freedom in the choice of means. That is a real asset for me. The construction industry is my professional home. Here I am a generalist and can have maximum impact. I have always wanted to work in this industry, I never questioned that for myself. However, I question the forms of work and organisation that we know in our industry almost every day. There's room for improvement, and we have to use it.

When it comes to managing large construction projects, the central question is: How do those involved in the project work together so that a great whole is created with as little friction as possible, and on schedule and within the planned budget? That's exciting. And it succeeds when a project is really led - we at the Prof. Burkhardt Engineers are the leaders in the project team, so to speak.

S.W.: What does it mean to be the leader in construction projects?

Being a leader means having a clear picture of the goals to be achieved and the way to get there. To follow this path successfully, one has to convince the others and also deal with conflicts that arise. Many limit themselves to moderation or administrative techniques - management in the literal sense of the word. Experience shows that this is at the expense of the project goals. Successful projects need the courage to lead - not well-behaved facilitators!

My aspiration is to be courageous. For me, this means enduring conflicts, addressing them and, above all, resolving them. And that requires independence. My personal driver thus represents an essential value of our company. Independence is part of the product we sell. Without independence, we would be crushed between the various interests. We must be free in spirit, make our own decisions and stand by them.

I am convinced that independence of thought plays a significant role in the quality of our advisory services and is even a unique selling point. Our customers appreciate that. Even if it means for our customers that we do not always implement everything 1:1 that they initially envisage, because we critically question these ideas until we have found a solution that both we and our customers and stand behind 100%.

What parallels are there to what we do, personality and organisational development?

A lot. Only our starting point is different. We do not come via the need for personal or organisational development per se. We come via projects. As I said, from my point of view, every project needs a Leitwolf or lead wolf. And my claim is that we are these leading wolves. But no one is born a leader in the constructive sense. No one becomes a leader by putting a sign on his or her head saying "lead wolf". Leaders need to be developed. And here we are in the middle of personality development.

S.W.: How do you do it?

My staff know the term "lead wolf" from many conversations. Because I use this image to explain to them my expectations of the role of a project manager. We then define the role together. Thus, at the beginning of the development process there is a clear target image of the role. Then it is about exchange, about dealing with the strengths and development areas of each person. It is about working independently. It is about taking time and answer questions. It's about getting to know the focus on solutions, away from the problems. It is about taking a leap of faith, tolerance and openness for other ways and, of course, accepting mistakes. If you demand independence and creativity, then you also have to get involved with the solutions that develop. Sometimes things can go wrong. Then you have to straighten it out again.

Let's move on to the Organisational development. If one understands organisational development as corporate development, then this parallel is not quite so prominent for our project work. We provide organisational consulting - for me, this term is more appropriate - at the project level. This involves questions of organisational structure and processes. Which goals do I set? Which goals do I question because I don't think they are realistic? How should I set up a project to achieve these goals?

And of course we take great care to find out what makes our clients' organisations tick above the project level, what communication culture and decision-making cultures and structures we find. After all, we are involved in our projects. We take care of a - usually temporary - project organisation that is integrated into the company organisation.  

To use an image: we play on the piano that we find. But we don't want to make an organ out of the piano.

When do you get the best ideas?

In the morning in the shower. 

What will your profession look like in 2050?

In the mainstream, one might now say completely digital. But that will not be the case. Interpersonal relations will continue to play a key role in projects in the future. But we will travel much less. We will hold meetings 80% or even 90% online. We will no longer be so afraid to turn on the video camera. And we will have a digital infrastructure that also allows everyone to be present via video without the servers crashing.

We will have learned to deal with each other digitally, so we will also work. We will no longer talk on the phone, but exchange ideas via video calls. We will no longer send emails, but work in networked spaces. If someone then sends a 24 MB e-mail from A to B, he is immediately sent back to the year 2020 and has to eke out an existence there. (laughs) Time travel will be possible by then.    

Today, virtual reality goggles are often more of a gimmick than a real contribution to finding solutions - also because of the still rather meagre model-based planning available. By 2050, we will have become accustomed to conducting our planning meetings in e-rooms and wearing VR goggles. Whether this really always brings added value, we will see. That depends very much on the quality of the available planning models and the availability of fast data networks. We have a lot of catching up to do - both in our planning methods and in the infrastructure required for this.

Despite all this, I am convinced that personal contact, the interpersonal aspect of projects, will still be a key element in thirty years' time. We are human beings and due to higher mechanisation, mindfulness will become more and more important. "Homos zoon politikon", as the ancient Greeks said. This insight is over 2000 years old and will still hold true in 30 years. If we tried to live completely digitally, we would lose ourselves as humans in these digital worlds. But I rather think that in 2050 we will be more mature in our use of social media and digital media, that is, we will also be more cautious and purposeful in our use of these media.

S.W.: Where would you like to be in 30 years?

Me? Then I would be in my mid-80s. I would like to still be alive and enjoy it together with my wife. And I would like to sit in peace in my conservatory, smoke a cigar and take things as they come.

Johann Schmoll is a graduate civil engineer and managing director of the Prof. Burkhardt Ingenieure (PBI) GmbH & Co. KG in Munich. He comes from a project management background and was head of project management at HOCHTIEF Projektentwicklung in Munich from 2008 to 2014.

Since then, he has been involved with digital working methods in project management and Building Information Modelling. In October 2014, Johann Schmoll took over the management of PBI in Munich. One of his main objectives is to use digital working methods to free up resources for the essential topics in project work. Where do we want to go? Where are we? Where are we going?

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