The (Contract) is parent to the (Project)

It’s been a late spring filled with travel and tragedy.  Blogging had taken a hiatus, except for, which I highly encourage you check out.  My next item will be posted there the first week of July.  The news from Orlando is that we are united and strong as a community, facing down both crackpots and opportunists, and so it is back to work.

At a recent conference one of the more interesting conversations surrounded the difference between contract and project management.  To many people this is one of the same–and a simple Google search reinforces this perception–but, I think, this is a misconception.

The context of the discussion was interesting in that it occurred during an earned value management-focused event.  EVM pitches itself as the glue that binds together the parts of project management that further constitutes integrated project management, but I respectfully disagree.  If we ignore the self-promotion of this position and like good engineers stick to our empiricist approach, we will find that EVM is a method of deriving the financial value of effort within a project.  It is also a pretty good indicator of cost risk manifestation.  This last shouldn’t be taken too far.

A recent DoD study, which is not yet published, demonstrated that early warning cannot be had by EVM even when diving into the details.  Instead, ensuring integration and traceability to the work package level tied to schedule activities could be traced to the slips in schedule (and the associated impact of the bow wave) against the integrated master schedule (IMS), which then served as the window to early warning.  So within the limited context of project performance, EVM itself is just one of many points of entry to eventually get to the answer.  This answer, of course, needs to be both timely and material.

Material in this case refers to the ability to understand the relevance and impact of the indicator.  The latest buzz-phrase to this condition is “actionable” but that’s just a marketing ploy to make a largely esoteric and mundane evolution sound more exciting.  No indicator by itself is ever actionable.  In some cases the best action is no action.  Furthermore, a seemingly insignificant effort may have asymmetrical impacts that threaten the project itself.  This is where risk enters the picture.

When speaking of risk, all too often the discussion comes down to simulated Monte Carlo analysis.  For the project professional situated within the earned value domain, this is a convenient way to pigeonhole the concept and keep it bounded within familiar pathways, but it does little to add new information.  When applied within this context the power of Monte Carlo is limited to a range of probable outcomes within the predictive capabilities of EVM and the IMS.  This is not to minimize the importance of applying the method to these artifacts but, instead, a realization that it is a limited application.

For risk also includes factors that are external to these measurements.  Oftentimes this is called qualitative risk, but that is an all too familiar categorization that makes it seem fuzzy.  These external factors are usually the driving environment factors that limit the ability of the project to adapt.  These factors also incorporate the framing assumptions underlying the justification for the project effort.  Thus, we are led to financing and the conditions needed to achieve the next milestone for financing.  In government project management, this is known as the budget hearing cycle, and it can be both contentious and risky.

Thus, as with the title of this post, the project is really the child of the contract.  Yet when speaking of contract management the terms or often intertwined, or are relegated to the prosaic legalese of contract clauses and, in government, to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).  But that does not constitute contract management.

This is where our discussions became interesting.  Because need invoke only one element not incorporated into consideration to prove the point.  Let’s take Contract Budget Base (CBB).  This number is made up of the negotiated contract cost (NCC) plus authorized unpriced work (AUW).  In order to take these elements into account, since existing systems act as if they are external to consideration, ephemeral tools or spreadsheets are used to augment the tracking and incorporation of AUW and its impact on the CBB, though the risk of incorrectly tracking and incorporating this work is immeasurably more risky than any single work package or control account in the more closely monitored program management baseline (PMB).  The same goes with management reserve (MR), and even within the PMB itself, undistributed budget (UB), work authorizations (WADs), and change order tracking and impact analysis are often afterthoughts.

But back to the contract itself, the highest elements of the contract are the total allocated budget (TAB) and profit/fee.  But this is simply shorthand for the other elements that affect the TAB.  For example, some contracts have contract clauses that provide incentives and/or penalties that are tied to technical achievement or milestones, yet our project systems act as if these conditions are unanticipated events that fall from the sky.  Only by augmenting project management indicators are these important contract management anticipated and their impacts assessed.

In my own experience, in looking at the total contract, I have seen projects fail for want of the right “color” of money being provided within the window for decisive impact on risk manifestation.  Thus, cashflow–and the manner in which cashflow is released to fund a project–enters the picture.  But more to the point, I have seen the decision regarding cashflow made based on inadequate or partial data that was collected at a level of the structure that was largely irrelevant.  When looking at the life-cycle management of a system–another level up in our hierarchy–our need for awareness–and the information systems that can augment that awareness–becomes that much more acute.

The point here is that, while we are increasingly concerned about the number of angels dancing on the head of the EVM pin, we are ignoring other essential elements of project success.  When speaking of integrated project management, we are speaking of slightly expanding our attention span in understanding the project ecosystem–and yet even those moderate efforts meet resistance.  Given new technology, it is time to begin incorporating those elements that go well beyond the integration of cost, schedule, and bounded schedule risk.


One thought on “The (Contract) is parent to the (Project)

  1. Nick,
    The post is so informative on various components that make up project and contract management. I am not a PM type of person for certain, however, when I was in another career(sales), a real estate partnership was involved in a very large development, where land, infrastructure, along with other major project work were underway. (Partners were experienced in this type of undertaking and had individually invested substantial assets into the partnership). However, nowhere in their analysis or (Monty Carlo simulations), did the real estate bubble and the start of the economic chaos which followed, factor into the models. Their project stopped, only partially complete. Ultimately, this cost $145,000.00 in commission that I did not take (knew the client would not commit the funds). My boss at the time, accepted his commission from the transaction, and had to repay the firm over the course of a year.

    In the very large scale projects that PM individuals along with others working together on a shared goal (successfully completing the undertaking (project), within the guidelines specified in the contract(s)), events occur that are multitudes of standard deviations of expected events, that simulations using available tools (like Monte Carlo simulations), are of little help.
    Thank you for posting this onto your blog.


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