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Good to Great

What does it take to ensure that your agency's systems project managers have the skills they need to succeed?

A good project manager is hard to find—just ask the FBI, which used 10 different PMs between November 2001 and February 2005 for its troubled Trilogy systems modernization project. And that doesn't count the five different CIOs who worked on the agencywide systems upgrade effort.

The notoriety drawn by the FBI, detailed in painfully frank congressional testimony and reports by the Justice Department inspector general, highlights the struggle agencies face in recruiting, training and retaining qualified managers to run information technology projects. The need has become more acute now that the Office of Management and Budget requires all agencies to disclose in their budget submissions the level of training each of their IT project managers has received—the goal being to make sure that agencies emphasize the role that good project management plays in performance and results.

OMB for fiscal 2006 directed agencies for the first time to use a matrix created by the CIO Council to rate the complexity of each project, define the needed skill set for the project manager and then assure that the chosen PM had the requisite skills. If a rating exercise found a project manager lacking, an agency had to detail in its budget submission the steps it was taking to fill the training gap.

In a memo detailing the requirement, OMB Administrator for E-Government and IT Karen Evans notes, "Qualified federal IT project managers are our first line of defense against the cost overruns, schedule slips and poor performance that threaten agencies' ability to deliver efficient and effective services to citizens."

What does it take to be a good project manager? General guidance offered by the Office of Personnel Management stresses that good project managers should have broad business abilities, including decision-making, team-building and leadership skills. Additionally, the CIO Council and OMB recommend that, at the very least, management candidates should hold Project Management Professional (PMP) or similar degrees.

Finally, experts say that the government needs to encourage traits that make good project managers great, such as being able to motivate teams and inspire creativity—traits that are alluded to in most training certification work but aren't as easily replicated as teaching someone how to measure costs and benefits, for example.

The Fundamentals

In its guidance on IT project management, which received its own job designation in 2003, OPM makes a point of defining the difference between project and program management. It's pretty simple—a project is an effort with a set timeframe; a program is ongoing—but this definition is crucial in terms of management, the agency emphasizes.

A chief reason that this difference is fundamental in selecting a manager is that projects are "constrained by the relationships among scope, resources and time," OPM notes. Ultimately, a good project leader must be able to balance these items—which are sometimes competing or even at odds—and deliver an IT project that fits within the broader parameters of a program that is aimed at meeting an agency's vision and mission.

In the outline of basic requirements for project leaders, the OPM skills list includes nothing surprising and reads like a course curriculum for a master's in business administration, identifying decision-making and leadership skills along with strong oral communication and problem-solving as strengths. But when it comes to IT project management, the skill set more than doubles and OPM details a lengthy additional list of items that good managers need to have in their toolkit.

But it's during the selection process that OPM tries to guide agencies in making sure they get the best managers. For the screening process, an agency must develop a list of what are called "selective factors," a series of requirements that a candidate must meet to be considered eligible for a specific project management job. If the applicant fails to meet any one of these factors, OPM says an agency must view the candidate ineligible for further consideration.

These factors must be targeted to the project in question. "Selective factors are essential for successful performance on the job, are almost always geared toward a specific technical competency, require extensive training or experience to develop, and cannot be learned on the job in a reasonable amount of time," OPM says in its IT project management guidelines.

Back to the Classroom

OMB and OPM officials—as well as most management training organizations—recommend that agencies hire project managers who have some training and that current managers receive training refreshers and renewed certification.

Typically, this means getting a PMP certificate. PMP training covers the traditional building blocks of project management, such as cost-benefit analysis and capital asset planning, as well as such emerging practices as earned value management to monitor how a project is faring.

There's just one problem: PMP degrees, which were first conferred 21 years ago, have suddenly become relatively common. And some government consultants, even those that offer PMP test preparation, are concerned that too much emphasis is being placed on certification and not enough on experience. In 2003, there were nearly 76,500 PMPs worldwide, according to the Project Management Institute of Newtown Square, Pa., the country's largest nonprofit project management training agency. Approximately 23,000 people received PMP degrees last year, according to PMI, which trained many of them.

"What I'm seeing is what I would call a repetitive pattern in the IT industry where we are always turning people issues into a binary numbers game," says Bill Hagerup, senior consultant with Ouellette & Associates Consulting of Bedford, N.H. "The somewhat recent trend to certify project managers is just the latest example. It's an attempt to take the human factor out of the equation." Ouellette & Associates instead issues its own certification and offers two- and three-day workshops on topics such as the politics of IT project management and leading change across an enterprise.

That Extra Something

Bill Stewart, founder of the Project Management Leadership Group, a consultancy in Atlanta that offers PMP test prep, tends to agree: "To get someone certified is a great way to narrow the field to interview. But it's not a great way to decide whether a person will make a great project manager. They need to be motivated to be a great leader, not motivated just to take the test."

Stewart, a former Army Ranger and company commander in the 101st Airborne Division, says great project managers have three characteristics: excellent discipline, team-building ability and integrity.

"They need the discipline to apply the tools and techniques they learned. There are a lot of lesser project managers who wing it," Stewart says. "Great project managers are also great leaders who can motivate team members by painting the higher level picture of what the project will ultimately mean. And they need integrity to say what will work and not work."

All three characteristics are developed through hands-on experience, not simply through certification, he says.

To be fair, leadership, interpersonal communications and other business skills are offered as part of PMP certification. It's just that they have not been as institutionalized as cost-benefit analysis and similar skills, says Jeff T.H. Pon, deputy director of the Human Resources Line of Business for OPM and project manager of the E-Training Initiative. But give them time, he says. "Just like the evolution of dentistry and medicine, project management is one of the evolving practices," Pon says. The five project managers working for OPM and another 20 or so working with them from other agencies have gone through project management training and have solid experience. But not all of them, including Pon, have PMP certification.

Fred Thompson, vice president for management and technology issues at the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington, agrees with Pon that progress is being made in raising standards for IT project managers. "I think what's been done so far is pretty promising," Thompson says. "A few years ago, the only thing necessary to hire a project manager was to submit a name to OMB." Now, agencies have better tools to assess a potential project manager, he says.

These tools include:

The last of these, created by the CIO Council, defines three levels of complexity for IT projects; identifies appropriate competencies and experience; suggests education and training sources; and serves as a tool for validating an IT project manager's credentials. It recommends, for example, that prospective project managers of a project ranked at Level 3—essentially one that will have governmentwide impact—have "two to four years combined previous, successful project management and technical experience, with prior experience in managing a Level 2 IT project," typically a departmentwide initiative.

Such requirements might seem obvious. But Thompson says they could have helped the FBI avoid cost and schedule overruns on its Trilogy project. "The kinds of questions they're asking now would have identified the concerns earlier," Thompson says.

Dec 31 2009

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