Project Management – When the Government is Your Customer

According to USA Spending, our federal government spent $523,849,632,233 on contracts for materials and services in 2009. That tells me there are thousands of project managers out there whose customer is the government. Reflecting on what is unique in managing a contract with a government client, I believe there are some key differences that directly affect the job of the project manager when compared to private sector clients.

First, let me say unequivocally that departments of the Federal government employ some of the hardest working and most competent individuals I have worked with and for. Theirs is not an easy row to hoe, either. All organizations have political intrigue and power battles. However, some debilitating ones can happen within government organizations with contractors caught in the crossfire. 

As a project manager on a government contract, you may have many bosses or at least a large number of stakeholders. One situation that impacts project management best practices with some frequency is when the user and the contracting organization are different. Best case, there is another layer of translation. Worst case, the contracting organization does not understand or even endorse the business-as-usual of the end user.

Another challenge is accommodating rapid changes in project management theology being developed within the private sector. Some government organizations have lead efforts for best practices and agile development. However, others still believe in classical software development methodology with mountains of requirements documents and step-by-step execution. These folks resist efforts to change because they have established monitoring systems based on older methods of software development.

The competitive, elaborate bidding process for government contracts moves so slowly sometimes that technology eclipses plans and derails efforts for successful development of cost-effective solutions.  For example, new and better hardware or software becomes available to meet the goals of the contract. Or, requirements are evolving and additional prototypes should be created and assessed. However, changing the planned execution is difficult because it can mean changing the contract.

A final thought on the challenge of working on government contracts. Many times events outside the project manager’s control or the control of your government counterpart end up sidetracking project execution. Like what? The appropriations bill has not been signed and there is a continuing resolution that does not include new contracts. Or, your government department must sacrifice some projects to free-up funds for a higher priority project. Or, a new administration places appointed persons into influential positions that change the general or specific course of the department.

With so much money involved, what is the right way to accept and even embrace work for the Federal government?

Help from the Professional Community
We have talked about PMBOK (Project Management Book of Knowledge) before in this blog in terms of its role in defining project management best practices. PMI offers and extension to the PMBOK that addresses the “complexities and unique characteristics of government projects make the need for a practice standard specific to the unique characteristics of public sector projects all the more apparent. The Government Extension to the PMBOK® Guide-Third Edition, extends the baseline information included in the PMBOK® Guide-Third Edition to provide an overview of the key project governance processes used in most public sectors, define key terms, describe atmospheres where government projects operate and review the management life-cycle of government programs.”

Proposal Writer’s offers a large number of government URLs that provide guidance on doing business with the government. It make take some time to navigate through to information that is directly relevant to your current situation, but worth a look-see.

Help from the Government
NASA offers several well-thought-out publications on their knowledge-sharing site that cover project management publications, lessons-learned, and case studies. 

Earned Value Management is a project management technique used by some government organizations to measure project progress in an objective manner including defining project scope, preventing scope creep, communicating progress to stakeholders, and keeping the project team focused on achieving progress. Here is the Department of Defense explanation of Earned Value Management from 2006.

If you have worked on government contracts, please share your experience and recommendations to help education us all.

Tips for engaging and keeping the interest of project sponsors

The project manager’s job of selling a concept or product does not end with the kick-off party. Throughout the life of a project, it is essential to keep the flames of interest and commitment burning in the minds project sponsors. And, that’s a challenge.

Software, in its development stage, is ethereal and vague.  Hours of work are performed to create designs, write code, and build use cases. However, much of that effort is not tangible. The sponsor cannot see or touch the software and must take it on faith that something worthwhile is being done with his money. Building that trust is the job of the project manager.

In the current technology and software industry there are several new “methodologies” that have been introduced to help with the “buy-in” from sponsors and clients.  You should have heard of agile, extreme and Scrum techniques and if you have been around for a while (like certain unnamed people), you have utilized spiral engineering, rapid prototyping, and rapid application development (RAD).  All of these methods and techniques have a common goal of either reducing the scope and/or the timeframe for the individual project or cycle.  While these approaches have proven to make it easier to get the sponsor/ client to participate, they will not do the job all by themselves.  There are still basic techniques and tactics that should be employed by the PM to assure sponsor, stakeholder, or client commitment and buy-in.

So to ensure project sponsors remain interested and committed the project manager needs to do more than provide weekly or monthly progress reports. They need to keep the end result—the vision—alive. Here are a few of the techniques I have found to be helpful in maintaining sponsor’s interest:

  • Context: in status meetings and progress reports show how accomplishments tie back to a function or capability required of the end product. For example don’t just say, “We completed the algorithm for buffer allocation”.  Explain that buffering impacts how quickly processing moves through the system, what trade-offs needed to be made to optimize buffering, and the advantages to the client of the approach taken.
  • Involvement: offer opportunities and encourage participation in team meetings. Give the client or his representative the experience of watching the team wrestle with options and make decisions.  If the sponsor’s representative is technically knowledgeable, ask for their feedback and encourage their participation.
  • Acknowledge expertise: the client or his/her representative has expertise about the effect of the end product on their business. Solicit that feedback and then show how the input from the customer is reflected in the resulting design and product. “You requested the ability to edit the output before it is incorporated into the report, here is how we are providing that capability.”
  • No surprises: there are many good reasons that as the detailed design emerges from top level design, there are changes. You may add a feature, delay a capability, or implement the movement of data in a different way. A task may take longer to complete than initially estimated or the world itself changes. The golden rule for keeping sponsors from losing interest or “going ballistic” is No Surprises! Tell the client as changes are being considered and why. Do not force the customer to find it out for themselves.
  • Communicate often: you do not have to wait for the weekly or monthly report to communicate with the customer. Use informal conversations or email to share (briefly) relevant information about the project or the team.
  • Show – don’t just tell: there are enormous advantages to showing the customer or sponsor the project as it matures. Design your schedule and your modules so that there are many opportunities to demonstrate— such as showing the user interface in pictures, prototypes or use cases; providing example or test cases using input and output of various modules, or showing the integration of the output of one function into the processing of another.

Gaining and maintaining sponsor interest and buy-in is essential to a successful project – no matter which software development method or life cycle is used. I have seen projects that corporate management was ready to slash until the sponsor came in to support the effort. I have also worked with follow-on projects that resulted because the sponsor / customer felt like part of the team and was personally invested in the outcome. And, I have seen projects die a slow and painful death because the sponsor lost interest and everyone involved was going through the motions of fulfilling the minimal contract requirements with no joy or anticipation of the resulting software.

So what is your experience?  Are you now being asked to use agile or Scrum in order to get better sponsor / client engagement?  Is that all it takes? Or do you think the PM needs to do some of thebasic techniques I have described in addition to one of these new methods?

Please leave your comments….

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