Shake it Out – Embracing the Future in Program Management – Part One: Program and Project Management in the Public Interest

I heard the song from which I derived the title to this post sung by Florence and the Machine and was inspired to sit down and write about what I see as the future in program management.

Thus, my blogging radio silence has ended as I begin to process and share my observations and essential achievements over the last couple of years.

Some of my reticence in writing has been due to the continual drumbeat of both outrageous and polarizing speech that had dominated our lives for four years. Combined with the resulting societal polarization, I was overwhelmed by the hyper-politicized environment which has fostered disinformation and dysfunction. Those who wish to seek my first and current word on this subject need only visit my blog post, “In Defense of Empiricism” at the AITS Blogging Alliance here.

It is hard to believe that I published that post four years ago. I stand by it today and believe that it remains as valid, if not more so, than it did when I wrote and shared it.

Finally, the last and most important reason for my relative silence has been that I have been hard at work putting my money and reputation where my blogging fingers have been—in the face of a pandemic that has transformed and transfigured our social and economic lives.

My company—the conduit that provides the insights I share here—is SNA Software LLC. We are a small, veteran-owned company and we specialize in data capture, transformation, contextualization and visualization. We do it in a way that removes significant effort in these processes, ensures reliability and trust, to incorporate off-the-shelf functionality that provides insight, and empowers the user by leveraging the power of open systems, especially in program and project management.

Program and Project Management in the Public Interest

There are two aspects to the business world that we inhabit: commercial and government; both, however, usually relate to some aspect of the public interest, which is our forte.

There are also two concepts about this subject to unpack.

The first is distinguishing between program and project management. In this concept, a program is an overarching effort that may consist of individual efforts that, together, will result in the production or completion of a system, whether that is a weapons system, a satellite, a spacecraft, or an engine. It could even be a dam or some other aspect of public works.

A project under this concept is a self-contained effort separated organizationally from the larger entity, which possesses a clearly defined start and finish, a defined and allocated budget, and a set of plans, a performance management feedback system, and overarching goals or “framing assumptions” that define what constitutes the state of being “done.”

Oftentimes the terms “program” and “project” are used interchangeably, but the difference for these types of efforts is important and goes beyond a shallow understanding of the semantics. A program will also consider the lifecycle of the program: the follow-on logistics, the interrelationship of the end item to other components that will constitute the deployed system or systems, and any iterative efforts relating to improvement, revision, and modernization.

A word on the term “portfolio” is also worth a mention in the context of our theme. A portfolio is simply a summary of the projects or programs under an organizational entity that has both reporting and oversight responsibility for them. They may be interrelated or independent in their efforts, but all must report in some way, either due to fiduciary, resource, or oversight concerns, to that overarching entity.

The second concept relates to the term “public interest.” Programs and projects under this concept are those that must address the following characteristics: legality, governance, complexity, integrity, leadership, oversight, and subject matter expertise. I placed these in no particular order.

What we call in modern times “public interest” was originally called “public virtue” by the founders of the United States, which embody the ideals of the American Revolution, and upon which our experiment in democratic republicanism is built. It consists of conducting oneself in a manner in which the good of the whole—the public—outweighs personal interests and pursuits. Self-dealing need not apply.

This is no idealistic form of self-delusion: I understand, as do my colleagues, that we are, at heart, a commercial profit-making enterprise. But the manner in which we engage with government requires a different set of rules and many of these rules are codified in law and ethical practice. While others do not always feel obliged to live by these rules, we govern ourselves and so choose to apply these virtues—and to seek to support and change our system to encourage such behavior to as to be the norm—even in direct interactions with government personnel where we feel these virtues have been violated.

Characteristics of Public Interest Programs

Thus, the characteristics outlined above apply to program and project management in the public interest in the following manner:

Legality: That Public Interest Programs are an artifact of law and statute and are specifically designed to benefit the public as a whole.

At heart, program and project management are based on contractual obligations, whether those instruments apply internally or externally. As a result, everyone involved in the program and project management discipline is, by default, part of the acquisition community and the acquisition process. The law that applies to all government acquisition systems is based on the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). There are also oversight and fiduciary responsibilities that apply as a result of the need for accountability under the Congressional appropriations process as well as ethical standards that apply, such as those under the Truth in Negotiations Act (TINA). While broad in the management flexibility they allow, violations of these statutes come with serious consequences. Thus, as a basis for establishing hard and fast guardrails in the management of programs and projects. Individual government agencies and military services also publish additional standards that supplement the legal requirements. An example is the Department of Defense FAR Supplement (DFARS). Commercial entities that hold government contracts in relation to Program Management Offices (PMOs) must sign on to both FAR and agency contractual clauses, which will then flow down to their subcontractors. Thus, the enforcement of these norms is both structured and consistent.

Governance: That the Organizational Structure and Disciplines deriving from Public Interest Programs are a result of both Contract and Regulatory Practice under the concept of Government Sovereignty.

The government and supplier PMOs are formed as a result of a contractual obligation for a particular purpose. Government contracting is unique since government entities are the sovereign. In the case of the United States, the sovereign is the elected government of the United States, which derives its legitimacy from the people of the United States as a whole. Constitutionally, the Executive Branch is tasked with the acquisition responsibility, but the manner and method of this responsibility is defined by statute.

Thus, during negotiations and unlike in commercial practice, the commercial entity is always the offeror and the United States always the party that either accepts or rejects the offer (the acceptor). This relationship has ramifications in contract enforcement and governance of the effort after award. It also allows the government to dictate the terms of the award through its solicitations. Furthermore, provisions from law establish cases where the burden for performance is on the entity (the supplier) providing the supplies and services.

Thus, the establishment of the PMO and oversight organizations have a legal basis, aside from considerations of best business practice. The details of governance within the bounds of legal guidance are those that apply through agency administrative law and regulation, oftentimes based on best business practice. These detailed practices of governance are usually established as a result of hard-learned experience: establishment of disciplines (systems engineering and technical performance, planning, performance management, cost control, financial execution, schedule, and progress assessment), the periodicity of reporting, the manner of oversight, the manner of liaison between the supplier and government PMOs, and alignment to the organization’s goals.

Complexity: That Public Interest Programs possess a level of both technical and organizational complexity unequaled in the private sector.

Program and project management in government involves a level of complexity rarely found in similar non-governmental commercial efforts. Aligning the contractual requirements, as an example, to an assessment of the future characteristics of a fighter aircraft needed to support the U.S. National Defense Strategy, built on the assessments by the intelligence agencies regarding future threats, is a unique aspect of government acquisition.

Furthermore, while relying on the expertise of private industry of such systems that support national defense, as well as those that support space exploration, energy, and a host of other needs, the items being acquired, which require cost type R&D contracts that involve program management, by definition are those where the necessary solutions are not readily available as commercial end items.

Oftentimes these requirements are built onto and extend existing off-the-shelf capabilities. But given that government investment in R&D represents the majority of this type of spending in the economy, absent it, technology and other efforts directed to meeting defense, economic, societal, climate, and space exploration challenges of the future would most likely not be met—or those that do will benefit only a portion of the populace. The federal government uniquely possesses the legal legitimacy, resources, and expertise to undertake such R&D that, pushing the envelope on capabilities, involves both epistemic and aleatory risk that can be managed through the processes of program management.

Integrity: The conduct of Public Interest Programs demands the highest level of commitment to a culture of accountability, impartiality, ethical conduct, fiduciary responsibility, democratic virtues, and honesty.

The first level of accountability resides in the conduct of the program manager, who is the locus of integrity within the program management office. This requires a focus on the duties the position demands as a representative of the Government of the United States. Furthermore, the program manager must ensure that the program team operate within the constraints established by the program’s or project’s contractual commitments, and that it continues to work to meeting the program goals that align with the stated interests and goals of the organization. That these duties are exercised regardless of self-interest is the basis of integrity.

This is not an easy discipline, and individuals oftentimes cannot separate their own interests from those of their duties. Yet, without this level of commitment, the legitimacy of the program office and the governmental enterprise itself is threatened.

In prior years, as an active-duty Supply Corps officer, I came across cases where individuals in civil service or among the commissioned officer community confused their own interests—for promotion, for self-aggrandizement, for ego—with those duties demanded of their rank or position. Such confusions of interests are serious transgressions. With contracted-out positions within program offices adding consulting and staffing firms into the mix, with their oftentimes diversified interests and portfolios, an additional layer of challenges is presented. Self-promotion, competition, and self-dealing have all too often become blatant, and program managers would do well to enforce strict rules regarding such behavior.

The pressures of exigency are oftentimes the main cause of the loss of integrity of the program or project. Personal interrelationships and human resource management issues can also undermine good order and discipline necessary for the program or project to organize itself into a cohesive, working team that is focused on a common vision.

Key elements mentioned in our opening thesis regarding ethical conduct, adherence to democratic virtues which include acceptance of all members of the team regardless of color, ethnicity, race, sexual identity, religion, or place of national origin. People deserve the respect and decency deriving from their basic human rights to enjoy human dignity, as well as of their position. Adding to these elements include honesty and the willingness to accept and report bad news, which is essential to integrity.

An organization committed to the principle of accountability will seek to measure and ensure that the goals of the program or project are being met, and that ameliorative measures are taken to correct any deficiencies. Since these efforts oftentimes involve years of effort involving significant sums of public monies, fiduciary integrity is essential to this characteristic.

All of these elements can and should exist in private, commercial practices. The difference that makes this a unique characteristic to program management in the public interest is the level of scrutiny, reporting, and review that is conducted: from oversight agencies within the Executive Department of the government, to the Congressional oversight, hearing and review processes, agency review, auditing and reporting, and inquires and critiques by the press and the public. Public interest program management is life in a fishbowl, except in the most secret efforts, and even those will eventually be subject to scrutiny.

As with a U.S. Navy ship that makes a port of call in a foreign country, the actions of the conduct of crew will not only reflect on themselves or their ship, but on the United States; so it is also with our program offices. Thus, systems of programmatic governance and business management must anticipate in their structure the level of adherence required. Given the inherent level of risk involved in these efforts, and given the normal amount of error human systems create even with good intentions and expertise, establishing a system committed to the elements of integrity creates a self-correcting one better prepared to meet the program’s or project’s challenges.

Leadership: Programs in the Public Interest differ from equivalent commercial efforts in that management systems and incentives based on profit- and shareholder-orientations do not exist. Instead, a special kind of skillset is required that includes good business management principles and skills combined with highly developed leadership traits.

Management skills tend to be a subset of leadership, though in business schools and professional courses they tend to be addressed as co-equal. This is understandable in commercial enterprises that focus on the capitalistic pressures regarding profit and market share.

Given the unique pressures imposed by the elements of integrity, the program manager and the program team are thrown into a situation that requires a focus on the achievement of organizational goals. In the case of program and project management, this will be expressed in the form of a set of “framing assumptions” that roll into an overarching vision.

A program office, of course, is more than a set of systems, practices, and processes. It is, first and foremost, a collection of individuals consisting of subject matter experts and professionals who must be developed into a team committed to the vision. The effort to achieve this team commitment is one of the more emotional and compelling elements that comprise leadership.

Human systems are adaptive ones, complex, which react and are created by both incentives and sanctions. Every group, especially involving creative and talented people, starts out being a collection of individuals with the interrelations among the members in an immature state. Underlying the expression of various forms of ambition and self-identification among mature individuals is the basic human need for social acceptance, born from the individual personal need for love. This motivation exists psychologically in all individuals except for sociopaths. It is also the basis for empathy and the acceptance of the autonomy of others, which form the foundation for team building.

The goal of the leader is to encourage maturity among the members of the group. The result is to create that overused term “synergy.” This is accomplished by doing those things as a leader necessary to develop members of the group that fosters trust, acceptance, and mutual respect. Admiral James L. Holloway, Jr., in his missive on Naval Leadership, instructed his young officers to eschew any concept of perfectionism in people. People make mistakes. We know this if we are to be brutally honest about our own experiences and actions.

Thus, intellectual honesty and an understanding on what motivates people within their cultural mores, above all else, is essential to good leadership. Americans, by nature, tend to be skeptical and independently minded. They require a level of explanation and due diligence that is necessary to win over their commitment to a goal or vision. When it comes to professionals operating within public service in government—who take an oath to the Constitution and our system of laws—the ability to lead tends to be more essential than just good management skills, though the latter are by no means unimportant. Management in private enterprise assumes a contentious workplace of competing values and interests, and oftentimes fosters it.

Program and project management in the public interest cannot succeed in such an environment. It requires a level of commitment to the goals of the effort regardless of personal values or interests among the individual members of the team. That they must be convinced to this level of commitment ensures that the values of leadership not only operate at the top of the management chain, but also at each of the levels and lateral relationships that comprise the team.

The shorthand for leadership in this culture is that the leader is “working their way out of their job,” and “that in order to be a good leader one must be a good follower,” meaning that all members of the team are well-informed, that their contributions, expertise and knowledge is acknowledged and respected, that individual points of failure through the irreplaceable person syndrome are minimized, and that each member of a team or sub-team can step in or step up to keep the operation functioning. The motivating concept in these situations are the interests of the United States, in lieu of a set of stockholders or some fiduciary reward.

Finally, there is the concept of the burden of leadership. Responsibility can be can be delegated, but accountability cannot. Leadership in this context entails an obligation to take responsibility for both the mission of the organization and the ethical atmosphere established in its governance.

Oversight: While the necessity for integrity anticipates the level of accountability, scrutiny, oversight, and reporting for Programs in the Public Interest, the environment this encompasses is unique compared to commercial entities.

The basis for acquisition at the federal level resides in the Article Two powers of the president as the nation’s Chief Executive. Congress, however, under its Article One powers, controls appropriations and passes laws related to the processes, procedures and management of the Executive Branch.

Flowing from these authorities, the agencies within the federal government have created offices for the oversight of the public’s money, the methods of acquisition of supplies and services, and the management of contracts. Contracting Officers are given authority through a warrant to exercise their acquisition authority under the guidance and management of a senior acquisition authority.

Unlike in private business, the government operates under the concept of Actual Authority. That is, no one may commit the government except those possessing a warrant. Program Managers are appointed to provide control and administration of cost type efforts, especially those containing R&D, to shepherd these efforts over the course of what usually constitutes a multi-year effort. The Contracting Officer and/or the senior acquisition authority in these cases will delegate contract administration authority to the Program Manager. As such, it is a very powerful position.

The inherent powers of the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branches of government create a tension that is resolved through a separation of powers and the ability of one branch to—at least in most cases—check the excesses and abuses of the other: the concept of checks and balances, especially through the operation of oversight.

When these tensions cannot be resolved within the processes established for separation of powers, the third branch of government becomes involved: this is the Judicial Branch. The federal judiciary has the ability to review all laws of the United States, their constitutionality, and their adherence to the letter of the law in the case of statute.

Wherever power exists within the federal government there exists systems of checks and balances. The reason for this is clear, and Lord Acton’s warning about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely is the operational concept.

Congress passes statutes and the Judiciary interprets the law, but it is up to the Executive Branch through the appointed heads of the various departments of government down through the civil service and, in the case of the Department of Defense, the military chain of command under civilian authority, to carry out the day-to-day activities in executing the laws and business of the government. This creates a large base of administrative law and procedure.

Administrative Law and the resulting procedures in their implementation come about due to the complexities in the statutes themselves, the tests of certain provisions of the statutes in the interplay between the various branches of government, and the practicalities of execution. This body of law and procedure is oftentimes confused with “regulation” in political discussions, but it is actually the means of ensuring that the laws are faithfully executed without undue political influence. It is usually supplemented by ethical codes and regulations as well.

As a part of this ecosystem, the Program in the Public Interest must establish a discipline related to self-regulation, due diligence, good business practice, fiduciary control, ethical and professional conduct, responsibility, and accountability. Just as the branches of the federal government are constructed to ensure oversight and checks-and-balances, this also exists with normative public administration within the Executive Branch agencies.

This is often referred to both positively and, mostly among political polemicists in the negative, as the bureaucracy. The development of bureaucracies in government is noted by historians and political scientists as an indication of political stability, maturity, and expertise. Without bureaucracies, governments tend to be capricious and their policies uncertain. The practice of stare decisis—the importance of precedent in legal decisions—is also part and parcel of stability. Government power can be beneficial or coercive. Resting action on laws and not the whims or desires of the individual person is essential to the good order and discipline of the federal government.

As such, program and project managers, given the extensive latitude and inherent powers of their position, are subject to rigorous reporting, oversight, and accountability regimes in the performance of their duties. In R&D cost-type program and project management efforts, the risk is shared between the supplier and the government. And the government flows down this same regime to the contractor to ensure the integrity of the effort in the expenditure of public monies and under the performance and delivery of public contacts.

This leads us to the last important aspect of oversight: public scrutiny, which also includes the press as the Fourth Estate. When I was a young Lieutenant in the Navy working in contracts the senior officer to whom I was assign often remarked: “Never do anything that would cause you to be ashamed were it to end up being read by your grandmother in the Washington Post.”

Unlike private business where law, contractual obligation, and fiduciary responsibility are the main pressures on tolerated behavior, the government and its actions are—and must be—under constant public scrutiny. It is expected. Senior managers who champ against the bit of this check on official conduct misunderstand their role. Even the appearance of malfeasance or abuse can cause one to steer into the rocks and shoals.

Subject Matter Expertise: Given the interrelated characteristics of legality, governance, complexity, integrity, leadership, and oversight—linked to the development of a professional, permanent bureaucracy acting through a non-partisan civil service—the practices necessary to successfully shepherd such efforts has produced areas of expertise and specialization. These areas provide a basis for leveraging technology in gaining insight into meeting all of the requirements necessary to the good administration and control of Program Management in the Public Interest.

The structures and practices of program and project management are reflected in the private economy. Some of this is contractually prescribed and some of it is based on best business practice learned through hard experience. In the interplay of government and industry, most often an innovation in one has been refined and improved in the other, only to find its way back to practice on the originating “side” of the transaction.

Initially in our history this cross-fertilization occurred through extraordinary wartime measures: standardization of rifled weaponry passed down by Thomas Jefferson and Eli Whitney, and for railroad track gauge standards issued by the Union government during the Civil War, are just two examples that turned out to provide a decisive advantage against laissez faire and libertarian approaches.

As the complexity of private business concerns, particularly in the international sphere, began to mimic—and in many cases surpass—the size and technical complexity of many individual government efforts, partnerships with civil authorities and private businesses saw the need for industry standardization for both electrical and non-electrical components and processes. The former was particularly important in the “Current Wars” between Edison and Westinghouse.

These simple and earlier examples highlight the great conundrum of standardization of supply, practice and procedure in acquisition: the need for economy through competition of many sources for any particular commodity or item weighed against the efficiency and interoperability needed to continue operations. Buying multiple individual items with the same function but produced using differing standards creates a nightmare of suboptimization. Overly restrictive standards can and have had the effect of reducing competition and stifling innovation, especially if the standard is proprietary.

In standards setting there are several interests involved that must be taken into account: the technical expertise (technical, qualitative, etc.) that underlies the standard, the public interest in ensuring a healthy marketplace that rewards innovation, diversity, and price competitiveness, the need for business-to-business cooperation and synergy in the marketplace, and the preponderance of practice, among others. In the Defense industry this also includes national security concerns.

This last consideration provides an additional level of tension between private industry and government interests. In the competition for market share and market niches, businesses are playing a zero-sum game that shifts between allies and competitors. Still, the interest of individual actors is focused on making a proprietary product or service dominant in the target market.

Government, on the other hand, particularly one that operates as a republic based on democratic processes and virtues and a commitment to equal rights, has a different set of interests that are, in many cases, diametrically opposed to those of individual players in the marketplace. Government needs and desires a broad choice of sources for what it needs, while ensuring that qualitative standards are met under a fair and reasonable price. When it does find innovation, it seeks to reward it, but only for the limited terms, conditions, and period of the contractual instrument.

The greater the risk in these cases—especially when cost risk is shared—the greater the need for standards, especially qualitative ones. The longer the term of the effort, the greater the need for checks and balances through evaluation, review, and oversight. The greater the dollar value, the greater importance for fiduciary and contractual accountability.

Thus, subject matter expertise has evolved over time, aligned with the functions and end items being developed and delivered. These areas include:

Estimating – A critical part of program and project management, this is a discipline with highly specialized quantitative methods for estimating and projecting project costs, resources, and duration. It is part of the planning phase prior to program or project inception. It can be used to support budget planning prior to program approval, during negotiations and, after award, to inform the project plan.

Systems Engineering – as described by the International Council of Systems Engineering, “a transdisciplinary and integrative approach to enable the successful realization, use, and retirement of engineered systems, using systems principles and concepts, and scientific, technological, and management methods.”

As it relates to program and project management, the technical documents related to providing the basis and structure of the lifecycle management of the end item application, including the application of technical standards, measures of effectiveness, measures of performance, key performance parameters, and technical performance measures. In simplistic terms, systems engineering defines when the item under R&D reaches the state of “done.”

Financial Management – at the program and project management level, the planning, organizing, directing and controlling the financial activities such as procurement and utilization of funds to adhere to the limitations of law and consistent with the terms and conditions of the contract and the its ancillary planning and execution documents.

At its core, financial management within this discipline includes the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process for the financial requirements of successful program execution. As with any individual enterprise, cashflow for required activities with the right type of money determined by Congressional appropriation presents a unique and specialized skillset under program management in the public interest. Oftentimes the lack of funds necessary to address a particular programmatic risk or challenge can be just as decisive to program execution and success as any technical challenge.

Risk and Uncertainty – the concept of risk and uncertainty have evolved over time. Under classical economics (both Keynes and Knight), risk is where all of the future events and consequences of an action are known, but where specific outcomes are unknown. As such, probability calculus is applied to determine the risk management: mitigation and handling. Uncertainty, under this definition, is unknowable events that will result from our actions and is implicit in human action. There is no probability calculus or risk buy-down that can address areas of uncertainty. These definitions are also accepted under the concept of complexity economics.

My good colleague Glen Alleman (2013) at his blog, Herding Cats, casts risk as a product of uncertainty. This is a reordering of definitions, but not unuseful. Under Glen’s approach, uncertainty is broken into aleatory and epistemic uncertainty. The first—aleatory—comes from a random process, what Keynes, Knight, et al. would define as classical uncertainty. The second—epistemic—comes from lack of knowledge. The first is irreducible, which is consistent with classical economics and complexity economics; the second is subject to probability analysis and risk handling methodologies.

Both risk and uncertainty—aleatory and epistemic—occur within all phases and under each discipline within the project management environment. Any human action involves these forces of cause-and-effect and uncertainty—and limit our actions under the concept of “free will.”

Planning and Scheduling – usually these have been viewed as separate entities, but they are, in fact, part of a continuum, as are all of the disciplines mentioned, but more on that later in these blogs.

Planning involves the ability to derive the products of both the contract terms and conditions, and the systems engineering process. The purpose is to develop a high-level, time-phased plan that captures program events, deliverables, requirements, significant accomplishment criteria, and basic technical performance management achievement that will be the basis for a more detailed integrated master schedule.

The scheduling discipline is tasked with further delineating the summary tasks into schedule activities based on critical path methodology. A common refrain when I worked on the government side of program management was that you cannot eat an elephant in one gulp: you have to eat it one piece at a time.

As it relates to this portion of project methodology, I have, over the years, heard people say that planning and scheduling is more of an art instead of a science. Yet, the artifacts upon which our planning documents rest exist as part of the acquisition process and our systems and procedures are mature and largely standardized. The methods of systems engineering are precise and consistent.

The lexicon of planning and scheduling, regardless of the software applications or manual methods used, describe the same phenomenon and concepts, despite slightly different—and oftentimes proprietary—terminology. The concept of critical path analysis is well documented in the literature with slight, though largely insignificant, differences in application.

What appears as art is, in reality, a process that involves a great deal of complexity because these are the documents upon which all of the moving parts of the program are documented. Rather than art, it is a discipline that requires attention to detail and collaboration, aside from the power of computing.

Resource Management – as with planning and scheduling, resource management consists of a detailed accounting of the people, equipment, monies, and suppliers that are required to achieve the activities detailed in the program schedule.

In the detailed and specialized planning of projects and programs in the public interest, these efforts are cross-referenced and further delineated to the actual work that needs to be completed. A Work Breakdown Structure (or WBS), is the method of time-phasing the work using detailed tasks that integrate scope, cost, and schedule at the lowest level of achievement.

Baselining and Performance Management – are essential for project control in this environment. In this case, project and program schedule, cost, and resources are (ideally) risk adjusted and a performance management baseline is established: the basis for the assessment and control of the project.

This leads us to the methodology that is always on the cusp of being the Ozymandias of program management: earned value management or EVM. The discipline of EVM arose out of the Space Age era of the 1960s. The premise is simple: when undertaking any complex effort there is a finite amount of money and resources, and a target date for the needed end item. We need a method to determine whether the actual work performed in terms of budgeted resources and time is tracking to the plan to produce the desired end item application.

When looking at the utility of EVM, one must ask: while each of the disciplines noted above also track achievement over the lifecycle of the project or program, do any combine an analysis against budgeted time and resources? The answer is no, and so EVM is essential to management of these efforts.

Still, our other disciplines also track important information that is not captured by EVM. Thus, the entire corpus of our disciplines represents the project and program ecosystem. These processes, procedures, and the measures derived from them are interconnected. It is this salient fact that points us in the direction regarding the future of program management.

Conclusions from Part One

Given that we have outlined the unique and distinctive characteristics of public interest program management, the environment and basis upon which such program management rests, and the highly developed disciplines that have evolved as a result of the experience in system development, deployment, and lifecycle management, our inquiry must next explore the evolutionary nature of the program organization itself. Once identified and delineated, we must then determine the place of program organization within the context of developments in systems and information theory which will give us insight into the future of program management.

Walk This Way — DoD IG Reviews DCMA Contracting Officer Business Systems Deficiencies

The sufficiency and effectiveness of business systems is an essential element in the project management ecosystem.  Far beyond performance measurement of the actual effort, the sufficiency of the business systems to support the effort are essential in its success.  If the systems in place do not properly track and record the transactions behind the work being performed, the credibility of the data is called into question.  Furthermore, support and logistical systems, such as procurement, supply, and material management, contribute in a very real way, to work accomplishment.  If that spare part isn’t in-house on time, the work stops.

In catching up on reading this month, I found that the DoD Inspector General issued a report on October 1 showing that of 21 audits demonstrating business system deficiencies, contracting officer timeliness in meeting DFARS deadlines at various milestones existed in every case.  For example, in 17 of those cases Contracting Officers did not issue final determination letters within 30 days of the report as required by the DFARS.  In eight cases required withholds were not assessed.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the six business systems assessed under DoD contractor project management, they consist of accounting, estimating, material management, purchasing, earned value management, and government property.  The greater the credibility and fidelity of these systems, the greater level of confidence that the government can have in ensuring that the data received in reporting on execution of public funds under these contracts.

To a certain extent the deadlines under the DFARS are so tightly scheduled that they fail to take into account normal delays in operations.  Forbid that the Contracting Officer may be on leave when the audit is received or is engaged in other detailed negotiations.  In recent years the contracting specialty within the government, like government in general, has been seriously understaffed, underfunded, and unsupported.  Given that oftentimes the best and the brightest soon leave government service for greener pastures in the private sector, what is often left are inexperienced and overworked (though mostly dedicated) personnel who do not have the skills or the time to engage in systems thinking in approaching noted deficiencies in these systems.

This pressure for staff reduction, even in areas that have been decimated by austerity politics, is significant.  In the report I could not help but shake my head when an Excel spreadsheet was identified as the “Contractor Business System Determination Timeline Tracking Tool.”  This reminds me of my initial assignment as a young Navy officer and my first assignment as a contract negotiator where I also performed collateral duties in building simple automated tools.  (This led to me being assigned later as the program manager of the first Navy contract and purchase order management system.) That very first system that I built, however, was tracking contract milestone deadlines.  It was done in VisiCalc and the year was 1984.

That a major procurement agency of the U.S. Department of Defense is still using a simple and ineffective spreadsheet tracking “tool” more than 30 years after my own experience is both depressing and alarming.  There is a long and winding history on why they would find themselves in this condition, but some additional training, which was the agency’s response to the IG, is not going to solve the problem.  In fact, such an approach is so ineffective it’s not even a Band-Aid.  It’s a bureaucratic function of answering the mail.

The reason why it won’t solve the problem is because there is no magic wand to get those additional contract negotiators and contracting officers in place.  The large intern program of recruiting young people from colleges to grow talent and provide people with a promising career track is long gone.  Interdisciplinary and cross-domain expertise required in today’s world to reflect the new realities when procuring products and services are not in the works.  In places where they are being attempted, outmoded personnel classification systems based on older concepts of division of labor stand in the way.

The list of systemic causes could go on, but in the end it’s not in the DCMA response because no one cares, and if they do care, they can’t do anything about it.  It’s not as if “BEST TALENT LEAVES DUE TO PUBLIC HOSTILITY TO PUBLIC SERVICE”  was a headline of any significance.  The Post under Bezos is not going to run that one anytime soon, though we’ve been living under it since 1981.  The old “thank you for your service” line for veterans has become a joke.  Those who use this line might as well say what that really means, which is: “I’m glad it was you and not me.”

The only realistic way to augment an organization in this state in order the break the cycle is to automate the system–and to do it in a way as to tie together the entire system.  When I run into my consulting friends and colleagues and they repeat the mantra: “software doesn’t matter, it’s all based on systems” I can only shake my head.  I have learned to be more tactful.

In today’s world software matters.  Try doing today what we used to do with slide rules, scientific calculators, and process charts absent software.  Compare organizations that use the old division-of-labor, “best of breed” tool concept against those who have integrated their systems and use data across domains effectively.  Now tell me again why “software doesn’t matter.”  Not only does it matter but “software” isn’t all the same.  Some “software” consists of individual apps that do one thing.  Some “software” is designed to address enterprise challenges.  Some “software” is designed not only to enterprise challenges, but also to address the maximization of value in enterprise data.

In the case of procurement and business systems assessment, the only path forward for the agency will be to apply data-driven measures to the underlying systems and tie those assessments into a systemic solution that includes the contracting officers, negotiators, administrators, contracting officer representatives, the auditors, analysts, and management.  One can see, just in writing one line, how much more complex are the requirements for the automated panacea to replace “Contractor Business System Determination Timeline Tracking Tool.”  Is there any question why the “tool” is ineffective?

If this were the 1990s, though the practice still persists, we would sit down, perform systems analysis, outline the systems and subsystem solutions, and then through various stages of project management, design the software system to reflect the actual system in place as if organizational change did not exist.  This is the process that has a 90% failure rate across government and industry.  The level of denial to this figure is so great that I run into IT managers and CIOs every day that fail to know it or, if they do, believe that it will apply to them–and these are brilliant people.  It is selection bias and optimism, with a little (or a lot) of narcissism, run amok.  The physics and math on this are so well documented that you might as well take your organization’s money and go to Vegas with it.  Your local bookie could give you better odds.

The key is risk handling (not the weasel word “management,” not “mitigation” since some risks must simply be accepted, and certainly not the unrealistic term “avoidance”), and the deployment of technology that provides at least a partial solution to the entire problem, augmented by incremental changes to incorporate each system into the overall solution. For example, DeLong and Froomkin’s seminal paper on what they called “The Next Economy” holds true today.  The lack of transparency in software technologies requires a process whereby the market is surveyed, vendors must go through a series of assessments and demonstration tests, and where the selected technology then goes through stage gates: proof-of-concept, pilot, and, eventually deployment.  Success at each level gets rewarded with proceeding to the next step.

Thus, ideally the process includes introducing into the underlying functionality the specific functionality required by the organization through Agile processes where releasable versions of the solution are delivered at the end of each sprint.  One need not be an Agile Cultist to do this.  In my previous post I referred to Neil Killick’s simple checklist for whether you are engaged in Agile.  It is the best and most succinct distillation of both the process and value inherent in Agile that I have found to date, with all of the “woo-woo” taken out.  For an agency as Byzantine as DCMA, this is really the only realistic and effective approach.

DCMA is an essential agency in DoD acquisition management, but it cannot do what it once did under a more favorable funding environment.  To be frank, it didn’t even do its job all that well when a more favorable condition was in place, though things were better.  But this is also a factor in why it finds itself in its current state.  It was punished for its transgressions, perhaps too much.  Several waves of personnel cuts, staff reductions, and domain and corporate knowledge loss on top of the general trend has created an agency in a condition of siege.  As with any organization under siege, backbiting and careerism for those few remaining is rewarded.  Iconoclasts and thought leaders stay for a while before being driven away.  They are seen as being too risky.

This does not create a condition for an agency ready to accept or quickly execute change through new technology.  What it does do is allow portions of the agency to engage in cargo cult change management.  That is, it has the appearance of change but keeps self-interest comfortable and change in its place.  Over time–several years–with the few remaining resources committed to this process, they will work the “change.”  Eventually, they may even get something tangible, though suboptimized to conform to rice bowls; preferably after management has their retirement plans secured.

Still, the reality is that DCMA must be made to do it’s job because it is in the best interests of the U.S. Department of Defense.  The panacea will not be found through “collaboration” with industry, which consists of the companies which DCMA is tasked with overseeing and regulating.  We all know how well deregulation and collaboration has worked in the financial derivatives, banking, mortgage, and stock markets.  Nor will it come from organic efforts within an understaffed and under-resourced agency that will be unable to leverage the best and latest technology solutions under the unforgiving math of organic IT failure rates.  Nor will deploying the long outmoded approach of deploying suboptimized “tools” to address a particular problem.  The proper solution is to leverage effective COTS solutions that facilitate the challenge of systems integration and thinking.

 

 

The End (of Analysis) Is the Beginning Is the End

Been back in the woodshed for a bit.  I just completed my latest post for AITS.org, which should be published sometime in mid-July.  In the meantime, I’ve been looking at issues of data visualization, process improvement, and performance management–and their interdependencies.  The APQC blog has some interesting things to say about project management challenges which, to be quite honest, sound a lot like “mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”

But there are nuggets of gold in there which I will save for another post, while focusing on another article by Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland on the top challenges in organizational performance management.  There are essentially three challenges.  The first is “establishing a performance culture.”  Given that APQC’s mission is broader than what I would view as traditional complex project management, this first statement is more than gratuitous.  The second is “identifying the right benchmarks and their source.”  At first blush this gets a big “duh”, but in every profession and discipline this is an area with a pretty consistent failing, especially on the back end of that statement.  For example, if one transitions from processed, human-readable reporting to just accessing the source data should not the results be the same?  I have been told otherwise in both meetings and during private conversations at project management conferences, which should be a counterfactual and raise some eyebrows.  The third and last is “defining and using process measures (leading, in-process, and lagging) in the business.”

While somewhat conceptual and non-specific, I would view all three of these challenges as elements necessary to an successful performance management system.  Furthermore, what is interesting here is that Ms. Lyke-Ho-Gland illustrates the connection between process and performance management.  The source of the data–and its credibility–is as important as collecting data.  Furthermore, I would posit that the job doesn’t stop at finding anomalies in the data or variances in performance.  This is just the beginning of the process in determining root causes of the issues and appropriate corrective action.  Thus, information analysis isn’t the end of the process, but the beginning of the process that will lead us to the ends.

The Song Remains the Same (But the Paradigm Is Shifting) — Data Driven Assessment and Better Software in Project Management

Probably the biggest news out of the NDIA IPMD meeting this past week was the unofficial announcement by Frank Kendall, who is the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics USD(AT&L), that thresholds would be raised for mandatory detailed surveillance of programs to $100M from the present requirement of $20M.  While earned value management implementation and reporting will still be required on programs based on dollar value, risk, and other key factors, especially the $20M threshold for R&D-type projects, the raising of the threshold for mandatory surveillance reviews was seen as good news all around for reducing some regulatory burden.  The big proviso in this announcement, however, was that it is to go into effect later this summer and that, if the data in reporting submissions show inconsistencies and other anomalies that call into question the validity of performance management data, then all bets are off and the surveillance regime is once again imposed, though by exception.

The Department of Defense–especially under the leadership of SecDef Ashton Carter and Mr. Kendall–has been looking for ways of providing more flexibility in acquisition to allow for new technology to be more easily leveraged into long-term, complex projects.  This is known as the Better Buying Power 3.0 Initiative.  It is true that surveillance and oversight can be restrictive to the point of inhibiting industry from concentrating on the business of handling risk in project management, causing resources to be devoted to procedural and regulatory issues that do not directly impact whether the project will successfully achieve its goals within a reasonable range of cost and schedule targets.  Furthermore, the enforcement of surveillance has oftentimes been inconsistent and–in the worst cases–contrary to the government’s own guidance due to inconsistent expertise and training.  The change maintains a rigorous regulatory environment for the most expensive and highest risk projects, while reducing unnecessary overhead, and allowing for more process flexibility for those below the threshold, given that industry’s best practices are effective in exercising project control.

So the question that lay beneath the discussion of the new policy coming out of the meeting was: why now?  The answer is that technology has reached the point where the ability to effectively use the kind of Big Data required by DoD and other large organizations to detect patterns in data that suggest systems issues has changed both the regulatory and procedural landscape.

For many years as a techie I have heard the mantra that software is a nice reporting and analysis tool (usually looking in the rear view mirror), but that only good systems and procedures will ensure a credible and valid system.  This mantra has withstood the fact that projects have failed at the usual rate despite having the expected artifacts that define an acceptable project management system.  Project organizations’ systems descriptions have been found to be acceptable, work authorization, change control, and control account plans, PMBs, and IMSs have all passed muster and yet projects still fail, oftentimes with little advance warning of the fatal event or series of events.  More galling, the same consultants and EVM “experts” can be found across organizations without changing the arithmetic of project failure.

It is true that there are specific causes for this failure: the inability of project leadership to note changes in framing assumptions, the inability of our systems and procedures to incorporate technical performance into overall indicators of project performance, and the inability of organizations to implement and enforce their own policies.  But in the last case, it is not clear that the failure to follow controls in all cases had any direct impact on the final result; they were contributors to the failure but not the main cause.  It is also true that successful projects have experienced many of the same discrepancies in their systems and procedures.  This is a good indication that something else is afoot: that there are factors not being registered when we note project performance, that we have a issue in defining “done”.

The time has come for systems and procedural assessment to step aside as the main focus of compliance and oversight.  It is not that systems and procedures are unimportant.  It is that data driver assessment–and only data driver assessment–that is powerful enough to quickly and effectively identify issues within projects that otherwise go unreported.  For example, if we call detailed data from the performance management systems that track project elements of cost, the roll up should, theoretically, match the summarized data at the reporting level.  But this is not always the case.

There are two responses to this condition.  The first is: if the variations are small; that is, within 1% or 2% from the actuals, we must realize that earned value management is a project management system, not a financial management systems, and need not be exact.  This is a strong and valid assertion.  The second, is that the proprietary systems used for reporting have inherent deficiencies in summarizing reporting.  Should the differences once again not be significant, then this too is a valid assertion.  But there is a point at which these assertions fail.  If the variations from the rollups is more significant than (I would suggest) about 2% from the rollup, then there is a systemic issue with the validity of data that undermines the credibility of the project management systems.

Checking off compliance of the EIA 748 criteria will not address such discrepancies, but a robust software solution that has the ability to handle such big data, the analytics to identify such discrepancies, and the flexibility to identify patterns and markers in the data that suggest an early indication of project risk manifestation will address the problem at hand.  The technology is now here to be able to perform this operation and to do so at the level of performance expected in desktop operations.  This type of solution goes far beyond EVM Tools or EVM engines.  The present generation of software possesses both the ability to hardcode solutions out of the box, but also the ability to configure objects, conditional formatting, calculations, and reporting from the same data to introduce leading indicators across a wider array of project management dimensions aside from just cost and schedule.