Limp Kites and Unfulfilled Projects

I grew up in Arlington, Va., in a middle-class community built near the end of the bus line from Washington, D.C.

by / June 12, 2006
I grew up in Arlington, Va., in a middle-class community built near the end of the bus line from Washington, D.C. Across the street was my elementary school. On weekends, the building sat empty, an imposing structure rising out of a vast expanse of dusty and grassy fields. It was a perfect place for kite flying.

I tried flying a kite but more often, found myself holding a limp kite in an open field rather than experiencing the freedom of a boundless sky. I was frustrated when I couldn't find the direction of the wind during an obviously windy day. I had faith in my kite. I built it from detailed plans and knew it could fly, but struggled to be successful because a key element was missing -- sustained wind.

Allegorically this describes an environment similar to today's business landscape. The challenges are imposing, and the environment is vast and open with opportunities for success. But like the young kite flyer, chief executives must feel a similar frustration when launching carefully planned and designed initiatives.

They strategize and plan with great confidence. They recruit, select and deploy highly experienced and skilled personnel. They celebrate well executed starts and early project successes. Only later do they conclude their projects are falling short of expectations and sometimes even spiraling out of control. Maybe good plans in the hands of experienced people aren't enough. Maybe successful young kite flyers and chief executives share a common need to understand and manage their environments.

Few government disciplines have matured more than project management (PM). It began as a discipline within early project teams when applying proven, successful and repeatable business processes made a difference in a project's performance and success.

As time progressed, this newly found discipline could be applied more broadly -- to other parts of the organization -- essentially in any area where business processes were performed. Today we find program and project management contributing to an organization's success at the project, program and enterprise levels.

This broader application is especially important when we realize how government tackles problems. No longer do we address them in isolation. We are more aware than ever that we live in a systemic age, where problems and solutions impact the whole enterprise and its individual components.

IT's economies of scale require us to view issues and problems in a much larger context. In the past, a project's success or failure could likely be traced to conduct within the project team. Today the success of government initiatives is much more complex and dependent on a broader landscape of people, processes and technology.

The environment in which business is conducted is important. The top executive officers of an organization -- including the chief information officer, chief financial officer and chief acquisitions officer -- must broaden their involvement beyond their areas of expertise to play a more interactive role with those leading initiatives and driving change.

Let's think holistically and look at principles that involve chief executives and managers. I suggest there are eight critical program management and PM principles that form a basis for good governance.

1. Treat PM as a Requirement With a Constituency
Let's face it: PM is important and has arrived on the business scene. Its constituency is all who have benefited from the application of proven structured business practices, and it is born of lessons learned over many years. PM is no longer a set of textbook theories struggling to be recognized. It is a real-world management discipline with many loyal followers who believe in good government and sound business. I often refer to PM as an "open source" discipline because we all contribute to its growth, maturity and application.

2. Practice "PM 101"
The Project Management Institute's "Project Management Body of Knowledge" is generally accepted as the bible on the subject. It is the foundation for what is done in the project team and the basis for later program management growth. Although it addresses a performance level generally thought of as belonging to the project team, the standard is important to all.

Executives play a key role even at this level. First, they must ensure assigned project managers are trained and qualified in accordance with established standards and competencies. Second, they must understand their roles as sponsoring executives and stakeholders who are there for the long run. Saying an initiative is important and critically linked to an organization's strategic mission isn't enough. Understanding fundamental PM and its role in supporting the initiative's execution is critical.

3.Practice "OMB 101"
The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Federal Chief Information Officers Council have taken many actions to advance PM applications. These actions require assigning full-time, qualified program and project managers; the practice of earned value management techniques to measure progress of initiatives; and integrated baseline reviews to help agencies understand and address inherent risks of performance plans.

These fundamental PM practices requirements are important for what they require and say about the oversight of government. When the OMB, state or municipal oversight office imposes such requirements, they convey commitment to good government practice through the application of sound and proven structured business practices. That is PM.

4. Practice "Real-Time PM"
PM can be many different things. It is risk management and mitigation; awareness of happenings in an organization, programs and projects; and control of business activity and decision-making. The synonym for PM I like the most, however, is "controlled agility," because it describes what PM is all about. PM is not about staying on the project plan. It is about staying on the project path. All projects have plans that are important and should be followed. But project plans rarely predict the future.

The essence and beauty of PM is the discipline's ability to help the project manager respond to the inevitable changes and influences impacting the project. The project manager's objective is not to develop and execute the perfect scenario, but to keep the project on a path that assures its ultimate delivery -- on time, on budget and within performance targets. The great thing about PM is that it provides data that enables you to see when a project is off its path so that you can promptly bring it back on course.

5. Be and Stay Strategically Aligned
Remember, you're not just delivering "goods and services," you are achieving "outcomes and results." The value of your activity is measured when the ultimate customer benefits. All involved in a project should understand its strategic value and mission contribution, and be able to articulate its value to customers and stakeholders.

The project manager is an incessant salesperson responsible for describing the project in its strategic context and "connecting the dots" between the project's objectives and business plans, and the organization's strategic and business objectives. This activity should be done prior to inception and continue throughout the project. Staying strategically aligned means adjusting to the constant changes occurring at all organizational levels and arguing the importance of your project's goals.

6. Be Inclusive
Being strategically aligned means involving the right players. The executive and the project manager should bring all the chief officers, inspectors general, human capital officers, their representatives and others as needed into the initiative as participants, contributors, stakeholders or overseers. We should err on the side of too much, versus too little, inclusiveness because bringing people into the project provides understanding, buy-in and ownership, and contributes to the overall success of the endeavor.

The goal for every sponsoring executive and program or project officer is to have every participant wear the hat and title of "valued business partner." Today, program and projects are born of the enterprise. They impact the whole enterprise and need nurturing from throughout the enterprise to be successful.

7. Manage the "Hen House"
Program management has been described as "having the right information in the hands of the right people at the right time to make correct decisions." Having the right information involves many considerations. Is the information correct? Does it provide the right level of detail? Does it reflect meaningful data? Is it understood? Does it reflect the program's true status and progress?

The information a government executive or program manager relies on is often provided by the very entity that's being held accountable for the program's success. Hence, "the fox is managing the hen house" syndrome. For large and complex initiatives, an independent source -- whether government or an industry third party -- should be responsible for determining meaningful data elements, interpreting gathered data, assessing program progress, and advising the program manager and stakeholders on the project's progress.

8. Practice Full Life Cycle Enterprise Management
This principle reflects that we're in an age where everything is interconnected. Strategic plans reflect business plans. Departmental objectives reflect agency objectives and initiatives. Agency initiatives are built on prepared business cases. The enterprise consists of programs, which consist of projects. Partnerships and collaborations are ways to get work done. Hierarchical relationships give way to horizontal collaborations. Leading influentially from "the side" is as important and effective for getting work done as leading autocratically from "the top."

The point is, when conducting a major initiative, what part of the organization or life cycle can you ignore? Today a program manager must manage across horizontal time and vertical space. The formal and informal management relationships of vertical space are just as important to a program's or project's success as are the traditional milestone schedules of horizontal time.

Limp kites and unfulfilled projects are not pretty sights. Practice environmental management.
Emory Miller Contributing Writer