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.

All Along the Watch Tower — Project Monitoring vs. Project Management

My two month summer blogging hiatus has come to a close. Along the way I have gathered a good bit of practical knowledge related to introducing and implementing process and technological improvements into complex project management environments. More specifically, my experience is in introducing new adaptive technologies that support the integration of essential data across the project environment–integrated project management in short–and do so by focusing on knowledge discovery in databases (KDD).

An issue that arose during these various opportunities reminded me of the commercial where a group of armed bank robbers enter a bank and have everyone lay on the floor. One of the victims whispers to a uniformed security officer, “Hey, do something!” The security officer replies, “Oh, I’m not a security guard, I’m a security monitor. I only notify people if there is a robbery.” He looks to the robbers who have a hostage and then turns back to the victim and says calmly, “There’s a robbery.”

We oftentimes face the same issues in providing project management solutions. New technologies have expanded the depth and breadth of information that is available to project management professionals. Oftentimes the implementation of these solutions get to the heart as to whether people considers themselves project managers or project monitors.

Technology, Information, and Cognitive Dissonance

This perceptual conflict oftentimes plays itself out in resistance to change in automated systems. In today’s world the question of acceptance is a bit different than when I first provided automated solutions into organizations more than 30 years ago. At that time, which represented the first modern wave of digitization, focused on simply automating previously manual functions that supported existing line-and-staff organizations. Software solutions were constructed to fit into the architecture of the social or business systems being served, regardless of whether those systems were inefficient or sub-optimal.

The challenge is a bit different today. Oftentimes new technology is paired with process changes that will transform an organization–and quite often is used as the leading edge in that initiative. The impact on work is transformative, shifting the way that the job and the system itself is perceived given the new information.

Leon Festinger in his work A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957) stated that people seek psychological consistency in order to function in the real world. When faced with information or a situation that is contradictory to consistency, individuals will experience psychological discomfort. The individual can then simply adapt to the new condition by either accepting the change, adding rationalizations to connect their present perceptions to the change, or to challenge the change–either by attacking it as valid, by rejecting its conclusions, or by avoidance.

The most problematic of the reactions that can be encountered in IT project management are the last two. When I have introduced a new technology paired with process change this manifestation has usually been justified by the refrains that:

a. The new solution is too hard to understand;

b. The new solution is too detailed;

c. The new solution is too different from the incumbent technology;

d. The solution is unrelated to “my job of printing out one PowerPoint chart”;

e. “Why can’t I just continue to use my own Excel workbooks/Access database/solution”;

f. “Earned value/schedule/risk management/(add PM methodology here) doesn’t tell me what I don’t already know/looks in the rear view mirror/doesn’t add enough value/is too expensive/etc.”

For someone new to this kind of process the objections often seem daunting. But some perspective always helps. To date, I have introduced and implemented three waves of technology over the course of my career and all initially encountered resistance, only to eventually be embraced. In a paradoxical twist (some would call it divine justice, karma, or universal irony), oftentimes the previous technology I championed, which sits as the incumbent, is used as a defense against the latest innovation.

A reasonable and diligent person involved in the implementation of any technology which, after all, is also project management, must learn to monitor conditions to determine if there is good reason for resistance, or if it is a typical reaction to relatively rapid change in a traditionally static environment. The point, of course, is not only to meet organizational needs, but to achieve a high level of acceptance in software deployment–thus maximizing ROI for the organization and improving organizational effectiveness.

If process improvement is involved, an effective pairing and coordination with stakeholders is important. But such objections, while oftentimes a reaction to people receiving information they prefer not to have, are ignored at one’s own peril. This is where such change processes require both an analytical and leadership-based approach.

Technology and Cultural Change – Spock vs. Kirk

In looking at resistance one must determine whether the issue is one of technology or some reason of culture or management. Testing the intuitiveness of the UI, for example, is best accomplished by beta testing among SMEs. Clock speeds latency, reliability, accuracy, and fidelity in data, and other technological characteristics are easily measured and documented. This is the Mr. Spock side of the equation, where, in an ideal world, rationality and logic should lead one to success. Once these processes are successfully completed, however, the job is still not done.

Every successful deployment still contains within it pockets of resistance. This is the emotional part of technological innovation that oftentimes is either ignored or that managers hope to paper or plow over, usually to their sorrow. It is here that we need to focus our attention. This is the Captain Kirk part of the equation.

The most vulnerable portion of an IT project deployment happens within the initial period of inception. Rolling wave implementations that achieve quick success will often find that there is more resistance over time as each new portion of the organization is brought into the fold. There are many reasons for this.

New personnel may be going by what they observed from the initial embrace of the technology and not like the results. Perhaps buy-in was not obtained by the next group prior to their inclusion, or senior management is not fully on-board. Perhaps there is a perceived or real fear of job loss, or job transformation that was not socialized in advance. It is possible that the implementation focused too heavily on the needs of the initial group of personnel brought under the new technology, which caused the technology to lag in addressing the needs of the next wave. It could also be that the technology is sufficiently different as to represent a “culture shock”, which causes an immediate defensive reaction. If there are outsourced positions, the subcontractor may feel that its interests are threatened by the introduction of the technology. Some SMEs, having created “irreplaceable asset” barriers, may feel that their position would be eroded if they were to have to share expertise and information with other areas of the organization. Lower level employees fear that management will have unfettered access to information prior to vetting. The technology may be oversold as a panacea, rather as a means of addressing organizational or information management deficiencies. All of these reasons, and others, are motivations to explore.

There is an extensive literature on the ways to address the concerns listed above, and others. Good examples can be found here and here.

Adaptive COTS or Business Intelligence technologies, as well as rapid response teams based on Agile, go a long way in addressing and handling barriers to acceptance on the technology side. But additional efforts at socialization and senior management buy-in are essential and will be the difference maker. No amount of argumentation or will persuade people otherwise inclined to defend the status quo, even when benefits are self-evident. Leadership by information consumers–both internal and external–as well as decision-makers will win the day.

Process and Technology – Integrated Project Management and Big(ger) Data

The first wave of automation digitized simple manual efforts (word processing, charts, graphs). This resulted in an incremental increase in productivity but, more importantly, it shifted work so that administrative overhead was eliminated. There are no secretarial pools or positions as there were when I first entered the workforce.

The second and succeeding waves tackled transactional systems based on line and staff organizational structures, and work definitions. Thus, in project management, EVM systems were designed for cost analysts, scheduling apps for planners and schedulers, risk analysis software for systems engineers, and so on.

All of these waves had a focus on functionality of hard-coded software solutions. The software determined what data was important and what information could be processed from it.

The new paradigm shift is a focus on data. We see this through the buzz phrase “Big Data”.  But what does that mean? It means that all of the data that the organization or enterprise collects has information value. Deriving that information value, and then determining its relevance and whether it provides actionable intelligence, is of importance to the organization.

Thus, implementations of data-focused solutions represent not only a shift in the way that work is performed, but also how information is used, and how the health and performance of the organization is assessed. Horizontal information integration across domains provides insights that were not apparent in the past when data was served to satisfy the needs of specialized domains and SMEs. New vulnerabilities and risks are uncovered through integration. This is particularly clear when implementing integrated project management (IPM) solutions.

A pause in providing a definition is in order, especially since IPM is gaining traction, and so large lazy and entrenched incumbents adjust their marketing in the hope of muddying the waters to fit their square peg focused and hard-coded solutions into the round hole of flexible IPM solutions.

Integrated Project Management are the processes and integration of information necessary to derive actionable intelligence from all of the relevant cross-domain information involved in the project organization. This includes cost performance, schedule performance, financial performance and execution, contract implementation, milestone achievement, resource management, and technical performance. Actionable intelligence is that information that is relevant to the project decision-making authority which effectively identifies specific probable qualitative and quantitative risks, risk impact, and risk handling necessary to make project trade-offs, project re-baselining or re-scope, cost-as-an-independent variable (CAIV), or project cancellation decisions. Underlying all of this are feedback loop systems assessments to ensure that there is integrity and fidelity in our business systems–both human and digital.

No doubt, we have a ways to go to get to this condition, but organizations are getting there. What it will take is a change the way leadership views its role, in rewriting traditional project management job descriptions, cross-domain training and mentoring, and in enforcing both for ourselves and in others the dedication to the ethics that are necessary to do the job.

Practice and Ethics in Project Management within Public Administration

The final aspect of implementations of project management systems that is often overlooked, and which oftentimes frames the environment that we are attempting to transform, concerns ethical behavior in project management. It is an aspect of project success as necessary as any performance metric, and it is one for which leadership within an organization sets the tone.

My own expertise in project management has concerned itself in most cases with project management in the field of public administration, though as a businessman I also have experience in the commercial world. Let’s take public administration first since, I think, it is the most straightforward.

When I wore a uniform as a commissioned Naval officer I realized that in my position and duties that I was merely an instrument of the U.S. Navy, and its constitutional and legal underpinnings. My own interests were separate from, and needed to be firewalled from, the execution of my official duties. When I have observed deficiencies in the behavior of others in similar positions, this is the dichotomy that often fails to be inculcated in the individual.

When enlisted personnel salute a commissioned officer they are not saluting the person, they are saluting and showing respect to the rank and position. The officer must earn respect as an individual. Having risen from the enlisted ranks, these were the aspects of leadership that were driven home to me in observing this dynamic: in order to become a good leader, one must first have been a good follower; you must demonstrate trust and respect to earn trust and respect. One must act ethically.

Oftentimes officials in other governmental entities–elected officials (especially), judges, and law enforcement–often fail to understand this point and hence fail this very basic rule of public behavior. The law and their position deserves respect. The behavior and actions of the individuals in their office will determine whether they personally should be shown respect. If an individual abuses their position or the exercise of discretion, they are not worthy of respect, with the danger that they will delegitimize and bring discredit to the office or position.

But earning respect is only one aspect of this understanding in ethical behavior in public administration. It also means that one will make decisions based on the law, ethical principles, and public policy regardless of whether one personally agrees or disagrees with the resulting conclusion of those criteria. That an individual will also apply a similar criteria whether or not the decision will adversely impact their own personal interests or those of associates, friends, or family is also part of weight of ethical behavior.

Finally, in applying the ethical test rule, one must also accept responsibility and accountability in executing one’s duties. This means being diligent, constantly striving for excellence and improvement, leading by example, and to always represent the public interest. Note that ego, personal preference, opinion, or bias, self-interest, or other such concerns have no place in the ethical exercise of public administration.

So what does that mean for project management? The answer goes to the heart of whether one views himself or herself as a project manager or project monitor. In public administration the program manager has a unique set of responsibilities tied to the acquisition of technologies that is rarely replicated in private industry. Oftentimes this involves shepherding a complex effort via contractual agreements that involve large specialized businesses–and often a number of subcontractors–across several years of research and development before a final product is ready for production and deployment.

The primary role in this case is to ensure that the effort is making progress and executing the program toward the goal, ensuring accountability of the funds being expended, which were appropriated for the specific effort by Congress, to ensure that the effort intended by those expenditures through the contractual agreements are in compliance, to identify and handle risks that may manifest to bring the effort into line with the cost, schedule, and technical baselines, all the while staying within the program’s framing assumptions. In addition, the program manager must coordinate with operational managers who are anticipating the deployment of the end item being developed, manage expectations, and determine how best to plan for sustainability once the effort goes to production and deployment. This is, of course, a brief summary of the extensive duties involved.

Meeting these responsibilities requires diligence, information that provides actionable intelligence, and a great deal of subject matter expertise. Finding and handling risks, determining if the baseline is executable, maintaining the integrity of the effort–all require leadership and skill. This is known as project management.

Project monitoring, by contrast, is acceptance of information provided by self-interested parties without verification, of limiting the consumption and processing of essential project performance information, of demurring to any information of a negative nature regarding project performance or risk, of settling for less than an optimal management environment, and using these tactics to, euphemistically, kick the ball down the court to the next project manager in the hope that the impact of negligence falls on someone else’s watch. Project monitoring is unethical behavior in public administration.

Practice and Ethics in Project Management within Private Industry

The focus in private industry is a bit different since self-interest abounds and is rewarded. But there are ethical rules that apply, and which a business person in project management would be well-served to apply.

The responsibility of the executive or officers in a business is to the uphold the interests of the enterprise’s customers, its employees, and its shareholders. Oftentimes business owners will place unequal weighting to these interests, but the best businesses view these responsibilities as being in fine balance.

For example, aside from the legal issues, ethics demands that in making a commitment in providing supplies and services there are a host of obligations that go along with that transaction–honest representation, warranty, and a commitment to provide what was promised. For employees, the commitments made regarding the conditions of employment and to reward employees appropriately for their contribution to the enterprise. For stockholders it is to conduct the business in such as way as to avoid placing its fiduciary position and its ability to act as a going concern in avoidable danger.

For project managers the responsibility within these ethical constraints is to honestly assess and communicate to the enterprise’s officers project performance, whether the effort will achieve the desired qualitative results within budgetary and time constraints, and, from a private industry perspective, handle most of the issues articulated for the project manager in the section on public administration above. The customer is different in this scenario, oftentimes internal, especially when eliminating companies that serve the project management verticals in public administration. Oftentimes the issues and supporting systems are less complex because the scale is, on the whole, smaller.

There are exceptions, of course, to the issue of scaling. Some construction, shipbuilding, and energy projects approach the complexity of some public sector programs. Space X and other efforts are other examples. But the focus there is financial from the perspective of the profit motive–not from the perspective of meeting the goals of some public interest involving health, safety, or welfare, and so the measures of measurement will be different, though the need for accountability and diligence is no less urgent. In may ways such behavior is more urgent given that failure may result in the failure of the entire enterprise.

Yet, the basic issue is the same: are you a project manager or a project monitor? Diligence, leadership, and ethical behavior (which is essential to leadership) are the keys. Project monitoring most often results in failure, and with good reason. It is a failure of both practice and ethics.