Lessons learned

differences between civilian and defense projects



Commercial projects are different from government projects; in the government, civilian projects are different from defense projects. To ensure a successful career, project managers should be able to effortlessly transition from commercial projects to government project; likewise, project managers should be able to lead civilian projects as well as defense projects. The purpose of this paper is to prepare a project manager to cross the great divide and thrive on government contracts. A key success factor for project managers who work on government projects is to understand the unique differences between projects funded by civilian agencies and those funded by defense and military organizations. The lessons learned and presented in this paper are based on years of experience on actual projects. The over-arching lesson learned is to understand the governmental contracting process, the steps needed to qualify to work on a government contract, the competencies that are expected, and the cumulative effect of past performance on future work opportunities.



 This paper focuses on project managers who are civilians and considering employment opportunities as government contractors on civilian and/or defense projects. The categorical differences between civilian and defense projects are presented and discussed and are “flavored” with the author’s personal experiences. These personal experiences shape the lessons learned that are the subjects of this paper. The context of this paper focuses primarily on the United States Federal Government and its contracts in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

What are the Fundamental Aspects of Government Contracts and Projects?

 The first lesson learned is that seeking work on a government contract is much more specialized than a job search in the commercial sector.

The second lesson learned is that your prospect for success is greatly increased if you obtain training in government contracting. This training may be in the form of a workshop or online training. An introductory training period of two to five days is optimal in most cases. It is also helpful to network with professionals who have government contracting experience. I recommend speaking with people who have work experience and skills similar to yours, because these are the people who can provide in-depth advice and guidance. Human resource managers and recruiters have limited time, so prepare your questions in advance and keep your conversation brief and focused. Executives and business development people are generally extremely busy and focused on high-value pursuits, so prepare carefully and be very cautious when reaching out to them.

Following is a quick checklist to self-assess your knowledge of the fundamental aspects of contracts proffered by the U.S. Federal Government:

  • When does the fiscal year (FY) start and stop?
  • What are the key milestones in the annual budgeting process?
  • What is the impact of a “continuing resolution?”
  • Have you ever heard the term “year-end money?”
  • What is an OMB (Office of Management and Budget) Exhibit 53, an OMB Exhibit 300, the CPIC (Capital Planning and Investment Control) process?
  • Are you familiar with the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) and have you read any part of it?
  • What are the roles of the OIG (Office of the Inspector General) and an IG (Inspector General)?
  • What is the role of a FSO (Federal Security Officer)?
  • What is a GWAC (Government-wide Acquisition Contract) or a BPA (Blanket Purchase Agreement)?
  • What is the relationship between a task order, a program, and a project?
  • What is GSA (General Services Administration) Schedule 70?
  • What is FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act)?
  • What does it mean to “work at risk?”
  • Does the government have the right to re-bid on an existing contract?

If you read this checklist, and the acronyms, questions, and terminology are familiar to you, then you most likely have an excellent grasp of the fundamental aspects of U.S. government contracts and projects!

What are the Key Differences between Civilian and Defense Projects?

One day, my manager summoned me into his office. In a smiling, but serious tone, he asked me “Do you thinkyou can work with people in green suits and boots?” No one had ever asked me a question like this. At first, I thought (hoped) that this might be a rhetorical question. By the look on his face, it clearly was not. At that point, I decided that it was neither a simple question nor a trick question. I did some quick calculating in my head and decided that I could respond with a sincere and strong affirmative answer. In those few seconds, I had made a monumental leap in my career, because I was going to work on a defense project and had to prepare for both the known and unknown.

The key differences between civilian and defense projects are: organizational culture and traditions, tolerance for risk, and clearance levels.

Organizational Culture and Traditions

Each government organization has its own culture and traditions. As a government contractor, it is important to study the culture and traditions, because this knowledge is important in the working relationships you will develop. The more you know about an organization’s culture and traditions, the more confidence you will have in responding to the variety of situations you will encounter. Most organizations have a public website as well as an internal website. In addition, many programs and projects have dedicated team portals. Most of the government buildings in which I have worked, feature lobbies and hallways filled with information about the leadership, the mission, the historical milestones, and the vision for the future. Pay careful attention to these artifacts and displays because they can increase the insight into your work environment. You can use this information to initiate conversations, build rapport with members of your workgroup, and deepen the appreciation of your contributions. Examples of organizational culture and traditions include:

  • In the lobby of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) headquarters building, there are stars on the wall, in lieu of names, that represent those persons who died in the line of duty.
  • In a designated Army building, the names of all casualties in current conflicts are listed. When you encounter it for the first time, it is a startling reminder of the sacrifices made by those who serve in the military. Each time you see the list of names, your appreciation deepens and your humility increases.
  • In the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) building, you will learn about the geology of the earth, about a wide variety of maps, including topographic maps and maps of the environment that sustains us. You may attend a retirement party for an arctic scientist who spent an entire winter at the South Pole.
  • In the lobby of a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) building outside New Orleans, classic photographs of the space program, along with detailed accounts and descriptions, are displayed. Through a window, you can see an actual external fuel tank for the space shuttle.
  • The hallways of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) building are filled with displays of agricultural products, pests, soil samples, and an endless display of scientific posters.
  • The Pentagon is well known for its unique shape and history, its architectural rings, and its miles of hallways, but it is also distinguished for its artifacts, photographs, and portraits, which both depict and reinforce its cultural heritage.
  • Lastly, if you assemble in the lobby of a small, non-descript building in northern Virginia at noon, on the anniversary of the Marine Corps, you can observe ex-Marines performing their annual ritual of remembrance through solemn recitations, cutting a cake with a sword, and the mandatory swilling of cold brew. History comes alive as you ponder the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli.

As a government contractor, these encounters with organizational cultures and traditions not only enhance your career, but can be life-changing on a personal level as well.

Tolerance for Risk

Tolerance for risk translates into the potential and probability for loss of human life. In my experience, the projects that had a direct connection to the Warfighter program held the highest level of constant risk awareness for me. In general, the Warfighter serves in a uniform and has a mission that is metaphorically described as the “tip of the spear.” Warfighters are sustained by the support of human resources, supplies, and information systems. When your end-user is a Warfighter or your customer is in a military uniform, your sensitivity to their success is increased. Your appreciation of the visceral nature of their daily risks is elevated.

Catastrophic risks are also integral to civilian projects. The Department of Energy is concerned about energy, the environment, and nuclear accidents. The USDA focuses on food emergencies and protecting the food supply. The Department of Homeland Security protects our borders and monitor those who enter and exit the country by land, sea, and air. The Department of Labor is concerned with massive unemployment due to the current economic crisis. Every civilian agency has a strategic plan to prevent or mitigate worst-case scenarios.

Citizenship and Clearance Levels

If you seek to work on a government contract, your entire life will become an open book! Many U.S. Federal Government projects require U.S. citizenship as a precondition to working on a project, which is why many prospective government contractors include “U.S. citizen” near the top of their resume. If you have a dual citizenship or are a green card holder, share this information early on to determine if you are qualified to work for the government. If you are a U.S. citizen, maintain a valid U. S. passport at all times, because it is a valuable form of government identification. Keep your current passport and any expired passports in a safe place because you may need them during your clearance process. Based on my experience and knowledge, all U.S. government organizations have a process to investigate your background; this process varies by organization and can be confusing. The best approach is to follow the guidance of designated Federal Security Officers (FSO). This is a process in which you are required to submit as much information as the government requests when they request it. The best approach is to be submissive, because you cannot “project manage” the government. The government is fully in charge. If the government seeks your skills, it is at their convenience. The government will inform you if you are qualified to work, when you may start working, and how long you may work. The contracting organization and the government organization will each have a FSO to manage the process. Follow their instructions and ask questions only when you require clarification. This entire process is very similar to a parent–child relationship in which you are the child!

Many people are confused about the clearance process. The baseline clearance is called the NACI (National Agency Check with Inquiries). This is an investigation of your life as a citizen, primarily your credit history and your criminal record. This is first potential elimination round in the clearance process. You may also be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) at this time; beyond this level, your clearance might be referred to as public trust position, secret, or top secret. There is no government standard clearance at the enterprise level. In general, each government entity has its own unique process; some departments will accept credentials from other departments, which can expedite the clearance review. The higher the clearance level, the longer it takes to be cleared to work, and the more valuable the clearance is to both the employer and the clearance holder.

Because clearances are so fundamental and important to the work-permit process, some of the key lessons learned are presented here:

  • As soon as you decide to become a government contractor, organize your personal records by category and by milestone. Categories include bank accounts, credit card accounts, financial records, court proceedings, police records, passport application, record of military service, and travel to foreign countries. Milestones include the dates of birth for you and all members of your immediate family and your spouse’s family, date of marriage or divorce, court judgments, and specific dates when you were out of the country.
  • Create a physical binder and an electronic file to store your clearance applications and related documentation.
  • When you meet with a FSO or badge processor, always have two government-issued photo IDs available to present as proof of your identify.
  • Create an identification packet that contains a copy of your driver’s license, a valid passport, your social security card, your birth certificate, your voter registration card, and a recent utility bill that shows the address where you reside.
  • Dress in business attire when you are photographed for your government badge. You want to look your best at all times, even in the photograph on your badge.
  • Even though you have rights as a citizen, a clearance to serve the government on a contract is a privilege granted for a specific period of time and may be revoked at any time.

Advice for Project Managers with Only Commercial Project Experience

My worldview of the working world—beginning with my very first job through mid-career—has involved commercial organizations. Service companies and educational institutions always provided the career path I sought. Government agencies provided me with the services I needed as a citizen, but I did not seek them for my livelihood. One day, while coasting along in my career, I decided that “from this point on, I am going to focus on being a senior project manager in the telecommunications industry.” This seemed like a very logical step to take; however, shortly thereafter, the telecommunications industry in the United States imploded. The competitive telecommunications bubble burst: our clients suddenly ran out of cash and closed their doors and our entire national practice disappeared within one year. Clearly, it was time to cross the great divide and enter the world of government consulting.

If you have only commercial project experience but wish to pursue governmental contracting opportunities, then this checklist may be useful:

  • Understand the organizational structure of the government.
    • For example, the United States of America has three branches of government.
  • Identify organizations that interest you:
    • Departments and agencies that are well known
    • Independent agencies such as the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)
    • Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) conduct research for the United States Government. There are 36 recognized FFRDCs that are sponsored by the U.S. government.
    • Multi-agency military commands such as AFRICOM (The United States Africa Command).
    • NGOs (non-governmental organizations)
  • Research, study, and understand the laws that pertain to your chosen field
  • Develop a clear understanding of the budgeting process
    • What is the fiscal year?
    • What are the key milestones in funding for each fiscal year?
    • What is the impact of a contingency resolution?
    • Is there a period of time when organizations seek to spend year-end money?
  • Understand the contracting and acquisition process
  • Understand the information that you are required to provide to qualify for the position
  • Understand the criteria that must be met before you are able to report to work

Civilian Projects

Strategic Planning for Opportunities

The strategic planning process to gaining contracts on civilian projects is similar to commercial projects. This type of pursuit generally does not require resources with extensive military backgrounds. The strategic planning team and the pursuit teams will have an appropriate mix of subject matter expertise (SME), but most participants will be civilians without military service or defense contract experience.

The key lessons learned for strategic planning for civilian projects include:

  • The strategic planning team for each agency or account should be seven people or less. This team should include an account manager, a business developer, a strategic planner/project manager, a proposal writer, and at least one dealing directly with the customer.
  • The strategic planning team is supported by an executive sponsor.
  • The first team output is a one-page strategic plan that is approved by all team members and the sponsor.
  • The strategic plan at the account level should be upwardly compatible with the organization’s enterprise strategic plan.
  • The strategic plan should be initially reviewed on a quarterly basis.

Business Development

Business Development (BD) activities for government civilian projects are conducted in business attire. The tools of the BD person are the strategic plan, an account plan, a pipeline, a quota, and the Rolodex. The “Rolodex” is the file of contacts and leads that result from the BD networking process. The best BD performers are constantly out of the office attending events that occur during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The process used to identify opportunities involves calling, meeting, and tracking. I have met and worked with many BD people and they are hard workers. They process massive amounts of information and excel at sifting through leads and connecting the dots. Here are some useful lessons learned:

  • In the civilian BD sector, one of the top organizations is ACT/IAC (The American Council for Technology–Industry Advisory Council). This non-profit organization includes government employees (ACT members) who work cooperatively with government contractors (IAC) and has subcommittees that work on projects outside of contractual relationships. This unique organization employs some of the top people on both sides and provides an excellent means to networking and building meaningful professional relationships, while contributing the time and talent for the benefit of the government.
  • It is important to identify productive networking events and know how to “work the room.” Use Bluetooth® to share information or swap standard business cards. Make notes on the backs of the cards. Some BD people save only the cards that are most relevant. Take the time to make social media connections while the introductions are still fresh.
  • Test out different venues and types of events. I tried a speed networking event sponsored by a local LinkedIn group; not only did the event sell out in advance, but the design broke down under the crush of people. This was a high-energy event that was effective before and after it started. Before the event, I checked out the website listed for each attendee, and after the event, I followed up with my most promising prospects. The attendees for this event were civilian government contractors and commercial vendors. There were absolutely no military personnel or government employees present, although some people had government experience in their prior work histories.
  • SWOT analysis is very effective for small to medium-sized civilian opportunities in the BD phase as well as throughout the delivery phase.


 Contracting for civilian government opportunities is more similar to commercial contracts than defense contracts. The primary reason is that defense/military contracts can contain references to inter-dependent military standards that have prerequisites and dependencies, countless acronyms, and esoteric knowledge. The key success factors for civilian government opportunities include:

  • A comprehensive analysis of the opportunity and its potential gross and net profit margins.
  • Ensure that the opportunity matches your core competencies. If you are awarded a contract that does not match your capabilities, you are still responsible to deliver. This can become your worst nightmare, so do whatever you can to keep these projects out of your portfolio.
  • Put your energy into your “must win” competitions.
  • Use caution in your pursuit of marginal opportunities that have a high degree of uncertainty. Even a modest proposal requires a massive amount of coordination and quality checking. I once served as a capture manager for a proposal that was estimated to be worth millions of dollars. Midway through this painful process, the executive team decided to no bid and forced a hard stop, which was a good thing, because the winning award was only 10% of our estimated valuation. We never would have won the award in any scenario, nor would we have been satisfied if we had won.
  • Keep in mind that the government can delay or stop the contracting process at any time, without any explanation or recourse. In my experience, this is more prevalent in civilian pursuits than in the defense industry.
  • Many civilian opportunities feature a “BAFO” step. This situation occurs when the contracting officer requests a “best and final offer” from the one making the offer, which is usually the last step in the process when making a decision among the final two or three competitors.

Service Delivery

 Because service delivery is conducted primarily with civilians in casual business attire, civilian engagements can appear on the surface to be very similar to commercial engagements. However, sometimes the wheels turn very slowly on the civilian side; when this happens, it can be agonizing and frustrating to the project manager contractor. This scenario is less an issue on a Time and Materials (T&M) contract. On a Firm Fixed Price (FFP) contract, the contractor must carefully monitor and manage delays due to the client because schedule slippage can quickly increase costs. The list below contains a few highlights based on my experience with service delivery on civilian projects:

  • The project charter and kick-off meeting are especially important in civilian projects.
  • Micromanage your project team members to arrive early for the kickoff meeting on the first day of the project. I once had an out-of-town consultant go missing on the morning of the first day; he finally showed up two hours late, inappropriately dressed, and unprepared.
  • Be prepared to work in any environment. On one of my projects, we had to work in offices and meeting rooms in a converted sanatorium; in fact, the hand rails and various hospital wall attachments were still in place. As it turned out, this office space was in the same complex where Angelina Jolie filmed “Girl, Interrupted” (1999).
  • Be prepared for any remark, even disparaging comments, while on the customer’s location. One day I was talking with my client about the COOP (Continuity of Operations) plan that needed to be completed. He said that his personal COOP plan was to send the consultants out of the building first and, if they survived he would follow. Amazingly, other than these random revelations, he turned out to be a cooperative, interesting, and competent client.
  • Be aware that the civilian agency clients can issue a stop work order. Do everything in your power to avoid this circumstance.
  • Be aware that the civilian agency can inform you, without warning, that project funding has been reduced or eliminated, which can happen when the budget process is stuck under a Continuing Resolution. This can also happen when a partner agency suddenly announces that the funding for the current Fiscal Year is tapped out, and additional funding will not be available until after the new Fiscal Year begins.

Past Performance

 Past performance is as essential in civilian projects as it is in defense projects. It seems likely and reasonable that project performance problems are tolerated for a longer period of time in civilian engagements. Executive management in contracting companies must create and support a culture in which service delivery standards are met or exceeded each day. Past performance issues will plague a company and place it into contracting purgatory. The lessons learned are:

  • Past performance is earned with every billable hour, every day. The entire organization must be obsessed with and passionate about its performance. A firm’s entire value proposition is at risk. The best mental model is “deliver or die!”
  • Proposals for civilian government opportunities may include past performance on defense projects. This is generally acceptable as long as the Statement of Work (SOW) in the proposal is similar to the SOW used to support evidence of past performance.

Defense Projects

Strategic Planning for Opportunities

The strategic planning process to winning defense project contracts requires the recruitment of career military personnel with leadership experience in their background. The military experience should be tailored to the specific service branch offering the opportunity. If the contract is with the U.S. Navy, then at least one former naval officer or enlisted person should be represented. The nature of the service can also be important. Experience on a surface ship is different from that on a submarine, which is different from experience in a supply depot or port duty.

Business Development

Business Development (BD) activities for government defense projects typically revolve around a career military officer in uniform and a former military officer. As in civilian opportunities, the tools of the BD person are the strategic plan, an account plan, a pipeline, a quota, and the Rolodex. The Rolodex is more likely to include uniformed officers and enlisted personnel, depending on the nature of the project. The BD for defense projects is likely to work with a team consisting of uniformed officers and defense civilian personnel. The military officers will take recommendations but will make the final decision in terms of the contracting vehicle and the mission. The BD person must be an expert in the military mission(s) and the terminology used to describe it (them).


 Defense contracts tend to be more technically detailed than civilian contracts, due to the global application of military standards and the cleared personnel that are required to perform them. In addition, defense contracts are created and sponsored by military officers, so the chain of command and hierarchical reporting structure are much more disciplined. The roles of security officer, quality assurance manager, and auditor are more strictly performed on these engagements. Here are the key points:

  • Contract vehicles for defense contracts tend to be much different than those for civilian contracts.
  • Sources of funds may be different. Certain defense budgets are dedicated to support vital operations and are managed much differently than congressional budgets.
  • All personnel must be U.S. citizens and have the appropriate clearances. In some cases, an “interim” status for a clearance will be acceptable to report to work. In worst cases, contractors wait months for their clearance in order to report to work.
  • Some contracts define restrictions that apply to work environments.

Service Delivery

 For a project manager without prior military service, serving on a defense contract can be a uniquely rewarding experience, as the following key points illustrate:

  • Memorize the mission of the command that you are serving.
  • Review and become familiar with the insignia and ranks on the uniforms of your service branch.
  • If you are on a military base or designated facility, strictly obey all signs at guard gates, on the roads, at building entrances, and in hallways and meeting rooms. As a guest worker, your complete compliance is expected.
  • Know the color-coded terminology: Army is green, Air Force is blue, and purple designates an integrated team with members from different branches.
  • Understand the protocol for addressing uniformed officers. In general, each member of the contracting team will match up with a peer-level person in the defense organization.
  • Do not ever do skip-level reporting. Before you communicate information to someone, carefully consider the possible interpretations of your communication, whether it is verbal or written. In one case, a contractor shared information with a peer in the defense client’s organization. Unfortunately, the information reached the commanding officer before it was officially communicated laterally by the peer of the commanding officer. The result was immediate removal of the contractor from the program by the commanding officer.
  • Most defense projects have IPR (In-Program Review) meetings with the entire team. The IPR is the most likely time and place in which the contracting team members will interact with the uniformed officers. During these and similar interactions, look the officer in the eyes, smile if you are smiled at, maintain a polite and professional posture, but remain deferential. In some cases, you may stand until the commanding officer enters and sits down. Follow the lead of the more experienced team members. In general, speak thoughtfully when spoken to. If in doubt, seek the advice of your manager or mentor. Do not leave before the commanding officer leaves the room unless you have been granted permission to do so.
  • The commanding officer is addressed as “Sir.”

Past Performance

Past performance examples are the same in defense proposals as those in civilian proposals, with the exception that only examples of past performance on defense projects are submitted on defense proposals. Based on my experience, past performance carries more weight on defense proposals as long as the mission is similar.

Concluding Remarks about Lessons Learned

Civilian projects have been compared with defense projects. A comprehensive and exhaustive analysis would probably result in hundreds of differences between the two types. For the purposes of this paper, the categorical differences and lessons learned are based on personal experiences and observations. The bottom line is that professionalism is expected in either type of contract. As a project manager, you are able to work on a government contract solely at the request and convenience of the government. If you learn the relevant law, the lingo, and the work culture, you will eventually master government contracting. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken this path at one time or another. It is a privilege and great honor to work for your government. Ultimately, it is all about gaining public trust and protecting our way of life.

©2010 Roger D. Beatty, PhD, PMP
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2010 – Washington D.C.



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