A LESSON IN Program Management

Navy-Marine Corps Project Offers Some Direction<@VM>Geographic Separation<@VM>No Surprises<@VM>People Skills

Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s now-famous cat-herding commercial, featuring real cowboys rounding up thousands of cats, was intended to illustrate that the company is capable of managing the seemingly unmanageable.

That claim is being put to the test now as EDS of Plano, Texas, manages the $6.9 billion Navy-Marine Corps Intranet contract. The massive project will provide secure, integrated voice, video and data communications to sailors and Marines, linking more than 360,000 desktops at 300 sites across the United States, in Puerto Rico, Iceland and Cuba.

More than that, NMCI will be one for the lesson books in how to ? or how not to ? conduct program management.

Dozens of other big and small companies are working on the NMCI team, which calls itself the Information Strike Force. For example, Raytheon Co. of Lexington, Mass., is responsible for information assurance; WorldCom Inc. of Clinton, Miss., is responsible for the wide-area network; Robbins-Gioia LLC of Alexandria, Va., is helping with project scheduling; and WAM!NET Inc. of Eagan, Minn., is in charge of the base, local and metropolitan area networks.

Like cats, the various companies involved in the project, not to mention the numerous Navy and Marine Corps bases, could each go in different directions or nowhere at all, resulting in chaos.

It's Rick Rosenburg's job as EDS' program executive to keep everyone on the same track and not let the project fall apart.

As they work on problems and questions, NMCI team members "cannot come up with their answer without coordinating with the team," said Rosenburg, who had been senior vice president and chief operating officer of EDS Federal Government. "It's all interdependent."

Joseph Cipriano, the Navy's program executive officer for information technology, said his role requires him to know when to stay out of the way and when to intervene.

"Sometimes that means I am actively involved in problem resolution, sometimes I am a mentor, sometimes I have to get resources, and sometimes cheerleading is called for," Cipriano said.

Constant communication is the glue that holds the far-ranging project together, Rosenburg said.

The Information Strike Force technical team has an all-day conference call every Monday to go over any changes from the previous week and discuss whether the project is on schedule. Twenty-five to 30 people from across the country participate, including several of Rosenburg's program managers.

In addition, the Navy's program management office and the team's program management team have daily, two-hour conference calls.

And finally, a weekly videoconference is held among the Navy's program executive office for information technology, the Navy's program management office and the EDS team. This is an executive-level review of what needs to be done and a check on the status of milestones.

Of course, leaders also are in touch via e-mail and telephone and by traveling.

"The schedule keeps us focused," Rosenburg said.

So far, about 42,000 seats have been converted, with the EDS team assuming control from the government. The transition should be complete by early 2003.

The NMCI team and government partners also rely on a unique contract to stay on task. NMCI is being carried out under a contract that has been described by EDS as a "living document" and a "work in progress."

It is only about three inches thick. If a traditional contract had been used, it would be about 10 feet high and still not finalized, Rosenburg said.

Only about 80 percent of the solution has been defined in the contract, providing a framework. The remaining 20 percent is being defined as the team goes along.

Another factor that helps is a program plan spelling out all the activities that must be completed and by whom during the transition, much like a to-do list with start and end dates.The NMCI team is facing a challenge that has become increasingly common today in all markets. The work to be done is spread out over vast geographical distances, 300 locations in this case.

The entire team will never physically be together at one time, though the technical side is somewhat co-located in San Diego. Most of the rest might meet face-to-face only quarterly, Rosenburg said.

The challenge of geographic separation can be effectively overcome by technology, said Capers Jones, chief scientist for Artemis Management Systems Inc., an international project management software company based in Boulder, Colo. Artemis is not on the EDS team for NMCI.

Project management software can be used with the Internet to provide access to data from multiple locations and to facilitate online collaboration. Authorized users can view and update information no matter where they are.

Jones said projects conducted in numerous cities can be managed as efficiently now as single-site projects. But that was not always the case.

Until about 10 years ago, productivity for multisite projects was from 5 percent to 50 percent less, depending on the number of additional cities, he said. Program management tools are better now, plus e-mail, intranets and wireless technology speed the process.

Modern technology cannot solve all issues that crop up in geographically diverse projects. Managers must be sensitive to cultural differences, especially when working on international projects, Jones said. Europeans tend to take longer vacations, for example, and laws governing business may differ.

John Snoderly, an adjunct professor of program management at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said virtual teams that stay connected through video links, the Internet and telephone still need occasional face-to-face contact.

"Sitting down across from someone, you get the body language as well as the spoken," he said. It is easier to discern what is not being said.Program management experts say the underlying tenet in the field is that there should be no surprises.

Good managers using the right software will eliminate or minimize uncertainty. But the best software won't help if the project does not have people with the necessary skills.

"No one likes surprises," Snoderly said. That's why reporting all along the way, including missteps such as failed testing, is necessary, he said.

"The biggest and most common mistake is to deny a problem that exists until it is too late to fix it," Cipriano said.

The test of a competent program manager is how he or she develops solutions to problems.

"When something goes wrong, as it inevitably does, that's when you begin to see how skillful the program manager is," said Snoderly, who also teaches systems engineering management at the Defense Systems Management College at Fort Belvoir, Va.

That's when project management software can help. Managers use software to estimate costs, allocate resources and plan a schedule.

But it can also help them figure out how to get a wayward project back under control, or at least to accurately predict overruns to funding authorities, said Jones, who has developed a knowledge base and methodology for estimation software that guides users through "what-if" analysis.

To reduce problems in the first place, more and more businesses are turning to integrated product teams, which have worked well for many Fortune 500 companies, especially in the design phase, Snoderly said.

Team members from multiple disciplines work simultaneously with users on a project. Groups are kept small to ease decision-making.

Snoderly said the trend away from the matrix management structure, in which ideas and plans must work their way up the chain of command, will continue because integrated product teams tend to work faster. Speed can help companies stay competitive.

The Defense Department has adopted the approach for use in management, Snoderly said. Budget people, planners, cost analysts, logisticians and others all work together to monitor and report on a project's progress. As a result, the department is seeing some improvement over past performance, he said.

Federal downsizing and budget constraints also have forced the Defense Department to turn to integrated product teams of generalists and to contract technical specialists, Snoderly said.

While managers can and should draw on both their own and others' previous experience, every project has unique problems to tackle.

For NMCI, the major challenges are not so much related to technical changes as to cultural change. For example, some federal workers will answer to new bosses, and both employees and customers will seek help from different sources than they do now. Also, all Navy and Marine Corps personnel must be trained to use the new system as part of the contract.

An unspecified number of federal workers will be affected by the outsourcing. They will be reassigned within the government or, in some cases, offered employment with EDS.

"Organizational change management is a big part of this," Rosenburg said.

From a program management point of view, the EDS team addresses people's fears by keeping them informed on a dedicated Web site, conducting question and answer sessions and having a client advocate responsible for customer satisfaction and outreach.Snoderly said a program manager on a big project must be like an orchestra conductor, ensuring everyone is playing the same tune. He or she must have the training and experience to shepherd the job to completion, coordinating risk management, strategic planning, quality control, interoperability and other aspects.

But most likely, deputies are responsible for the day-to-day work on their own part of the project.

Cipriano said he delegates so he can be free to delve into difficult situations when necessary.

"Every authority necessary for success has been delegated, so there is nothing I have to do every day for things to run," he said. "If you get too intimately involved in execution, people will stop and wait for you to make decisions. On a big project, that can be deadly."

Cipriano has one rule of thumb for spotting trouble and knowing when to step in.

"When people stop having fun, you are in trouble," he said. "That usually happens when they become frustrated because there is an obstacle they cannot remove on the path they want to take."

When the schedule is tight, he uses a five-day rule. "If progress is stopped for five days because consensus cannot be reached on the way ahead, the issue comes to me for a decision. The threat of the boss making the decision usually breaks things loose, and rarely am I brought any bad alternatives," he said.

So it boils down to program managers having good people skills, which means keeping team members motivated or at least not turning them off, Snoderly said. It also means knowing how to draw out the strengths in staff and make them understand the importance of limitations outside their realm.

"Program managers need to be results-oriented people with high personal integrity," Cipriano said. "They must lead people as well as manage resources, look for solutions instead of blame, be optimistic and yet stay realistic and never let anyone see them sweat."

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