These federal program managers know how to get things done
- By Florence Olsen
- Nov 14, 2005
Given the demands of the job, it's hard to imagine how any one person could fill the shoes of a federal program manager. It's even harder to imagine how anyone could have everything it takes to rescue troubled programs.
Government officials frequently use the terms "program manager" and "project manager" interchangeably, but Dave McClure, government research director at Gartner, said they mean different things. He said a project has a beginning and an end, whereas a program is often a permanent activity of an agency.
In this report, Federal Computer Week focuses on program and project managers, while acknowledging that others put a finer point on the differences. The report answers the question that FCW asked experts: Which managers rescue information technology programs that are over budget, behind schedule or technically deficient -- and how do they do it?
To be a successful program or project manager, you need to have a thick skin, said Susan Snedaker, principal consultant at VirtualTeam Consulting and author of "How to Cheat at IT Project Management," recently released by Syngress Publishing.
"A turnaround person has to be willing to say at just about every stage in the project, 'Should this project be cancelled?' Nobody ever wants to hear that," she said. But project managers must raise that question because circumstances or technology can change and make projects obsolete, she added.
In addition to being mentally tough, the five turnaround managers featured in this report are good at diagnosing and solving problems. They are adept at selecting and focusing on the important issues to the exclusion of less important ones. They are good at dealing with people and effective at managing contractors. They use communications and information well. Some of them are certified by the Project Management Institute (PMI), a nonprofit organization that certifies project managers.
Some project managers say they learn on the job by serving under someone with more experience. In all cases, successful turnaround managers share a trait that makes them invaluable: They can get things done.
"There are always going to be problems on a project, so you want to have a project manager who knows how to get things done," said Gene Procknow, regional managing director of Deloitte and Touche's federal practice. "It really comes down to something as simple as that."
The spectacular failures in federal project management, such as the FBI's Virtual Case File management system, are lessons for all agencies. In a June research report on the cancelled $170 million project, Gartner analysts gave three blunt reasons for that failure. They blamed "an inexperienced and revolving government project management team pressured by terrorism and the pace of technology, a cost-plus contract and a desire to act before defining system specifications."
Fewer people hear about federal IT projects that go well and the capable project managers behind those successes, Procknow said. "We have seen some very good people who know how to manage projects, know how to motivate staff and know how to get things done," he said.
Procknow said the federal government should find a way to continually challenge project managers so their expertise won't be lost when they advance to other positions. "It is important to develop a career path for project managers who can run the biggest projects," he said.
To be successful, chief information officers and senior agency leaders depend on capable project managers, he added. Project managers work on the front lines where they must get people to change, he said, and "that's the hardest thing."
For project managers, experience counts. "I have seen some hotshot people be effective as project managers in their 20s and 30s," Procknow said. But what every federal agency looks for in a project manager is a track record, he added. "If I'm going to run a $100 million project, I'm going to look for someone who has done it before and has a track record of success," he said.
Good turnaround managers share other traits, such as superior problem-solving skills and an ability to prioritize and focus on the tasks most important to the agency's and project's success, Snedaker said. "I often think of the quote by Albert Einstein, who said that we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that we used when we created them," she said. "There's a related quote that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."
In addition to solving problems, effective turnaround managers set priorities. Snedaker said the point at which most projects begin sliding toward failure occurs at the first and most difficult step, when the project team sets priorities and decides what results people should expect from the project.
Effective turnaround managers focus on a few initiatives and concentrate an organization's resources on them, said Dave Flanigan, a partner at Signet Consulting Group. "There's no substitute for making the tough calls and getting a lot of the less important things off the table," he added.
Other experts emphasize the importance of personal leadership skills, especially in working with contractors. Managing contractors is different from managing federal employees and is much more difficult, McClure said. "It's different because those people don't report directly to you," he said.
Some project managers make the mistake of defining contractor relationships by the contract's legal terms instead of actual results, McClure said. But if the initial project results are not what the agency expected, good project managers know how to work with the contractor to achieve them, he said. "That is what the performance-based acquisition movement is about," he added.
In reviewing the failure of the FBI's electronic case file system, Gartner found that the bureau's project managers had not effectively managed the contractor, Science Applications International Corp.
"The FBI began to realize it had underestimated the project management effort necessary to ensure success," Gartner's review states, "but [it] expected that SAIC could manage itself and devote the same level of attention to the FBI's interests."
Good project and program managers avoid that mistake. They also know how to communicate with everyone who is affected by the program, said Ellen Glover, executive vice president of ICF Consulting. They have a communications strategy that often includes a Web site to keep people up-to-date on what they are doing. It is an area in which the best program managers can be innovative, she said.
Other experts cite systems thinking and organizational learning as tools of successful program managers. Systems thinking is a discipline that evolved from research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. It can help program managers understand the complexity of the problems they deal with on a daily basis, Flanigan said.
But organizational learning, in which program managers immediately assess mistakes and successes and adjust their game plan accordingly, is the secret sauce in most successful IT programs, Flanigan said. "Organizational learning is probably the greatest turnaround tool that a program manager can have," he added.
The approach is comparable to a football team reviewing previous plays on the sideline, Flanigan said. "The players have a game plan, but each time they run off the field, they strap on those headsets," he said. "They're talking to their coaches and constantly modifying their game plan."
Certification is also important for demonstrating that a program manager has knowledge and experience, Glover said. PMI certification is necessary but not sufficient for a turnaround manager, she added.
Gregory Balestrero, PMI's chief executive officer, said the institute is weighing the feasibility of certifying program managers by creating a new track separate from its global certification program for project managers. Each involves two distinct bodies of knowledge, Balestrero said. "We'll be able to give you more information about that in about 60 days," he added.
PMI recently modified its certification program for project managers to include greater emphasis on earned value management (EVM), a project management discipline that federal agencies and their contractors must now use.
Some experts say that more than EVM is needed to prepare managers for the challenges of rescuing major IT projects or programs. Training courses for IT managers must do a better job of helping them understand how to integrate IT projects and programs into an agency's culture, said Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University.
Apprenticeships are sometimes an alternative to formal training and certification programs for project managers. Young project managers rising through the federal ranks should work on teams on which they can observe successful project managers, Procknow said.
"I'm not pooh-poohing the PMI certification," he said. "You need that background. But you also have to watch someone who's good at it."