Analysis: The buck stops with program managers

Reining in costs and schedules takes more than technical knowlege, it also requires cross-functional leadership.

"Program managers who view themselves as mere agents for the execution of program costs, schedule and performance may be self-limiting. Rather, every PM should assume the role of chief executive officer of his or her entrepreneurial 'corporation' and use the tools of upper-echelon leaders to manage programs with greater accountability and empowerment." -- Roy L. Wood, Defense Acquisition University

Time and again, reports from the Government Accountability Office point to federal capital investments that flounder because of inadequate controls over cost, schedule and technical performance. Why do so many programs fail to stay on time and on budget? The answer has more to do with leadership than with technological capacity.

Process improvements such as earned value management and firm-fixed price contracting help, but those alone do not address the root causes of program failures. As we peel the onion, we see program offices, and the management systems that support them, are stovepiped. There often are separate teams, processes and meetings for disciplines such as risk management, cost assessment and engineering. Typically, the most proficient technologist from one field is promoted to program manager, and that person must interpret information from multiple disciplines in real time. Most agencies recognize that linking these disciplines is important, but few actually have networks of policy, standards and procedures that generate usable input for program management decisions.

Government should prepare acquisition leaders to make better decisions based on linked multidisciplinary information. One would never dream of giving a pilot the keys to the cockpit of a high-performance aircraft after he completed only handful of online courses. Yet that is what's happening for acquisition program managers and the functional leaders who support them.

A July 2009 Defense Department study of major acquisition programs noted program managers had significant gaps in practical training and experience needed to deal with daily engineering, business analysis and decision-making challenges. In a June study by Meritalk, an online community of government information technology specialists, interviews with more than 200 acquisition officials indicated that more than half lacked adequate training. Program managers need leadership competencies, as well as knowledge across functional areas, to ensure integrated teams of technical experts can meet benchmarks, create coalitions within and outside their organizations, and provide the best value to their customers.

Beyond solving technical problems, program managers must be able to create and sustain cross-functional teams. They must spot patterns and trends that are likely to affect their organization, think systemically, design a holistic system that fits the mission, and motivate collaborators to set up processes to achieve that vision. Those tasks also require emotional intelligence.

These skills cannot be taught in a set of brief online courses. Integration of leadership and technical competencies must be addressed through a comprehensive agency-sponsored program in which managers can learn to link functional skills with the decision-making support system unique to their organization.

This personal evolution requires a safe learning environment where participants can challenge themselves and their peers to change the way they do business. It should include executive coaching, which encourages intensive, candid dialogue. Executive coaching also is an excellent antidote for managerial myopia, helping program leaders to think more effectively.

Steeping program managers in a leadership development program focused on both intellectual and emotional development is the only way to prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead. And it would go a long way toward eliminating the stovepipes, fixing flawed processes and boosting program performance.

Robert M. Tobias is director of public sector executive education at American University, John Driessnack is senior director of the project solutions group at MCR LLC, and Patrick K. Barker is chief practitioner of program assessment at MCR LLC.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.