Dec 31 2009

So You Think You Know Federal IT Project Management?

Federal information technology programs are complex and require a certified manager.

Photo: James Kegley
Too many system owners mistake subject-matter expertise as a qualification for project management, former Interior CIO W. Hord Tipton says.

Federal information technology programs are large, complicated initiatives that involve dozens of stakeholders, agencies and solution providers. The government spends billions of dollars every year on these initiatives, and more often than we would like to admit, they fail. This always causes high levels of frustration among program managers, system owners, steering committees, application developers and integrators, to name just a few. Also included is a huge dose of embarrassment, explanations to superiors and external overseers, and wasted taxpayer dollars. There are many pitfalls that trap well-intended projects, pulling them into the quagmire of failure. Let’s start at the beginning.

You Need a Certified Project Manager.

Note that I didn’t say “qualified” PM. We all know they must be qualified, but how do you judge whether or not they’re qualified? Not that certification automatically qualifies someone either, but you at least have some comfort knowing they understand the academic side of project management.

Reading a book on how to play the piano would prepare you for passing your examination, but I daresay you could not play Hungarian Rhapsody No. 3 without practice. Too many system owners mistake subject matter expertise as a qualification for project management. That also is a huge mistake and sometimes inflicts a built-in conflict of interest. Ideally, you want someone who not only knows the business that will be enabled by the initiative, but also fully understands the art of project management. The need for this combination limits the pool of candidates available for your project.

So Why Are Most IT Projects Large and Complex?

There are two explanations: Most agencies are running the second — and sometimes third — generation of applications and must retool dozens of legacy applications from the previous generation that are far beyond their life cycle. If a project is planned correctly, the actual business process is re-engineered.

Another absolute pitfall is attempting to roll up numerous 25-year-old applications into a single enterprise system without rethinking the business. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” should never be an acceptable starting point. If your “qualified PM” is involved with the system or systems being modernized, he or she is often the first to accept business “as is.”

Photo: James Kegley
“Why would we risk $100 million or more investing in our most sensitive system and then entrust the outcome to a rookie PM?”

— W. Hord Tipton

Now onto development and integration issues. We are now in the enterprise approach to project development. During my years at Interior, I had hundreds of small applications that were developed in the second generation (mainframe was the first) in a widely dispersed field environment. Hundreds of creative people in remote locations embraced easily available technology and then put powerful desktop systems and servers to work on small geographical solutions. And, guess what? They worked well for their needs at the time. Unfortunately, they worked so well that system owners were reluctant to give them up.

Your PMs can’t solve all the cultural resistance issues to eliminating systems in favor of moving to an enterprise solution, but they must work closely with the system owners to assure that the scope of what they are charged with doing is accurate.

How Much Certification Is Necessary?

There are at least three levels of PM certification. A newly certified and qualified PM should never be thrown into a major multimillion-dollar project and be expected to succeed. Every new PM will make a mistake somewhere along the way on his or her first project, so don’t let that mistake be on a highly sensitive financial system. This is where a Level III PM is needed.

To gain a Level III ranking, a PM must first complete some level I and II projects. It takes time to develop these PMs, and it’s expensive if you have to go outside your agency to find one. But it’s shortsighted to do otherwise when you think about it: Why would we risk $100 million or more investing in our most sensitive system and then entrust the outcome to a rookie PM?

Now, Put Yourself in the Shoes of a Rookie PM.

I have a new project and have talked the CIO into grandfathering me as a qualified PM until I get my certification in six months. So, while I’m learning new lingo about work breakout structures, cost-accounting structures and earned value management, I have to spend nine weeks in PM training! I just found out that I have to develop a project plan with cost estimates, milestones and report to the CIO about project control. He wants me to report on capital planning and investment controls quarterly. He also appears to be quite concerned about risk management. I hope they cover that in my training session.

I just received bad news from the budget officer. It seems my project’s funding is cut 10 percent for this year and another 15 percent next year. My PM instructor said I had to have control of the budget for a successful project. Now what do I do? The CIO does not like to ask the Office of Management and Budget to approve a rebaselining of any project. I hope there is something in my training about how one does rebaselining. Now I have no money for risk management, and the system owner won’t let me narrow the scope.

They told me I could count on the contractor for all the things I didn’t understand about project management until I could get up to speed. The contractor PM seems like a nice person and sounds qualified. Still, I wonder where the rest of the project management office is. This seems like a lot of work and responsibility for one person.

It looks like I have a meeting with the project steering committee this afternoon. The system owner wants to add some new requirements to the project’s scope. Our budget was just cut, so I wonder how we can accommodate that. I think I heard the contractor say, “No problem,” but there is a problem: no money. It seems like this new demand would grow the project into something even more complex and throw off my milestones as well as the cost. The contractor also said it wanted us to know that maintenance costs for the hosted operation may rise with the enhancements, but that it’s sure the value added would be well worth the extra cost.

I remember from training that the key to successful project management is solid support from the executive management team. When I do what good PMs must do and instill the discipline necessary, I hope they are behind me all the way.

This is a bad time for the PM and the CIO to find out that the project is already doomed. The PM and the CIO can’t chase problems; they must be out in front of them. Certification won’t solve every problem, but it can go a long way toward keeping a project from careening so far off track that it becomes nearly impossible to get it headed back in the right direction. So take the time and spend the money up front on certified PMs because then you know they have real-world experience dealing with budget roller coasters, scope changes and resistant users. It’s an investment that’s clearly worth the risk.