How the U. S. defense department trains its top project managers

Owen C. Gadeken, D.Sc., MBA, PMP

Senior Faculty, Defense Acquisition University (DAU)

The Defense Systems Management College (DSMC) has been training Department of Defense (DoD) project managers for over 40 years. During that time, the training requirements have changed considerably. Most basic courses are now done online while intermediate courses feature a combination of online prerequisites followed by classroom training. Advanced project management courses use teams of students to analyze and prepare case studies, share lessons from their experience, and provide feedback to their colleagues with the goal of preparing them to take on the most critical, expensive, and high visibility projects in the DoD.

Anchor points for this training approach are enhancing the project managers’ critical thinking and decision making skills, developing their portfolio of leadership skills, and embedding the habits of reflection, feedback and continuous learning. This paper summarizes the learning processes and tools used to achieve these learning objectives.


Since its inception in 1971, the Defense Systems Management College (DSMC), now part of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), has been the source for advanced project management training in the Department of Defense. The college was founded by David Packard who, toward the end of his career as the co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard (HP) company, served as the Deputy Secretary of Defense for two years during the Nixon administration. After observing the Department's practice of rotating combat officers in to become project managers (PMs) with no prior training or project management experience, he established the DSMC to conduct advanced courses of study to prepare select military officers and civilians for key project management assignments. At the opening ceremony in August 1971, Packard spoke about DSMC becoming an academy of management of “high distinction” where the best management practices would be taught (Layton, 2007).

To support his belief that project managers required in-depth knowledge of a broad set of topics, the initial course was set up as a five-month graduate-level program covering the full spectrum of project management functional disciplines and processes. Subsequently, Congressional legislation required managers of major defense projects to complete this course. In November 1990, the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act established the Defense Acquisition University and expanded its charter to include a broader set of project management business and technical professions which included contracting, financial management, information technology, logistics, and systems engineering. Each of these career fields was set up based on three levels of certification with training, education, and experience requirements specified for each level (Layton, 2007).

Project Management Training

Over the years, the duration and content of DoD project management training has evolved from the initial five-month course to a series of shorter courses taken along a project manager's career path. The current project management training framework is shown in Exhibit 1 (please note that the term program management is used here and can be considered as equivalent to project management). To reach Level III certification requires 346 hours of online instruction and 27.5 classroom days. For major project managers, an additional 70 classroom days of specialized training (PMT-401 & 402) is required. As you can see, the higher levels of certification require a significant amount of training along with relevant education and work experience (DAU, 2015).


Exhibit 1 – DoD program management certification requirements.

This paper will concentrate on the executive-level courses (PMT-401 & 402) that are used to train the project managers who will lead the most expensive, critical, and high visibility projects in the Department of Defense. These training programs are conceived, developed, and taught by DSMC faculty with only infrequent use of vendors or outside resources.

Designed to improve DoD acquisition outcomes, the ten-week Program Manager’s Course (PMT-401) seeks to: (1) Enhance critical thinking and decision making skills, (2) Develop the capability to lead cross-functional project teams in an acquisition environment, and (3) Embed the habits of reflection, feedback, and continuous learning. The PMT-402 Executive PM Course is an assignment specific course for those students being assigned to major (high dollar value and highly visible) defense projects. The crux of this course is for each student to present an analysis of their new project and then work with a team of students and faculty to develop their action plan once they are assigned. With this in mind, the remainder of this paper will concentrate on how DSMC implements the three PMT-401 core themes of critical thinking and decision making, leadership skills, and habits of learning (DSMC, 2011).

Critical Thinking Skills

Managing complex defense projects requires both subject matter expertise and disciplined thinking. As stated by our current Defense Acquisition Executive, Mr. Frank Kendall:

The first responsibility of key leaders in the acquisition workforce is to think. One of the many reasons that our key leaders have to be true professionals who are fully prepared to do their jobs by virtue of their education, training, and experience is that creative, informed thought is necessary to optimize the structure of a program. (Kendall, 2012)

DSMC embeds principles of critical thinking in each of our project management training courses, and the executive courses use critical thinking elements, standards, and intellectual traits from Paul and Elder's Guide to Critical Thinking. As an example, standards of critical thinking include clarity, accuracy, significance, completeness and fairness (Paul & Elder, 2009).

Applying the proven doctrine of “train as you fight,” the PMT-401 curriculum uses project management case studies to develop critical thinking and decision making skills. These case studies are prepared by faculty and students and are based on real defense projects. The ten-week PMT-401 course includes over 80 case studies that cover a broad spectrum of project life cycle development and sustainment issues. Each case provides the background on a project and then presents the students with a dilemma (or problem) that the project manager needs to address. For an example of a typical case, you are referred to the other DAU paper being presenting at the Congress: “Rapid Development of the U.S. Military's Transport Isolation System: The ‘Ebola Carrier’ ” (A Project Management Case Study).

A very significant part of the case learning process is the four-stage learning model shown in Exhibit 2. Following this sequential process is quite important to achieve the most learning from each case. The first step of individual preparation occurs when students read the case, normally the evening before class. Second, small groups of 5–7 students meet in the morning before class starts to briefly discuss each case along with a faculty facilitator. Third, all students convene in the classroom for a facilitated discussion led by the faculty sponsor for the case, who is often the case author as well. After class, students have an opportunity to reflect on what they learned and are given a learning journal to record their reflections. Faculty small group advisors prompt students to share their reflections as the course proceeds (DSMC, 2015).

Faculty members are encouraged to “not teach” but facilitate their cases. Case studies normally have no right answer so the emphasis is on the analysis and critical thinking skills demonstrated by the students. The case studies are also used to apply a variety of management tools and frameworks such as stakeholder analysis, interest-based negotiations, polarity thinking, appreciative inquiry, and action learning.

Near the end of the course, each student team prepares their own case study based on one of their member's real-world dilemmas and then facilitates their case with the rest of the class. This is not only a very popular part of the course but has become our leading approach for new case development.


Exhibit 2 – Case study four-stage learning process.

Leadership Skills

If case studies are the heart of the Program Manager's Course, leadership is the soul of the course. Students arrive in class with a portfolio of technical and management skills, so it is often their leadership skills that are most in need of development. This is illustrated in the career development timeline in Exhibit 3. Technical and management skills are still required for these project managers, but it is the leadership skills that will most influence their ultimate success.

In a recent study of successful Army acquisition programs, the authors found that “the first characteristic that separates the really successful PMs is their leadership. They set the tone, they should be decisive, and have a vision” (Grauel, 2012).

The leadership theme was also echoed by the DoD Acquisition Exective, Mr. Frank Kendall:

Nothing matters more in terms of success of program management than the quality of the leadership. Nothing matters more than that. If you look at all the good case studies out there of programs that have been delivered where people have executed and brought things in on time and schedule and met the requirements, what runs across them is strong leadership. (Kendall, 2013)


Exhibit 3 – Career development for project managers.

At DSMC, an assessment-based approach is used to foster leadership development. That is, instead of focusing on teaching leadership skills, the course is focused on assessing these skills so our students can work on their own development, both while they are with us and after they return to the workplace. A variety of assessment tools and team exercises are employed to highlight students’ strengths as well as their leadership development needs.

The assessment starts before students arrive by having them complete online personality type, emotional intelligence, and workplace (360 degree) assessments. The reports are then provided to students early in the course with opportunity to share and discuss them with both peers and selected faculty. The key is to integrate these assessments into a framework to encourage further skill development.

The assessment continues with observation of students in small and large group case discussions. How effective are students in communicating their thoughts, building on others’ comments, and helping the group reach consensus on a course of action to address each case dilemma? In addition to facilitating, faculty members must observe student performance and provide feedback to students both individually and in scheduled small group feedback sessions.

Team exercises and simulations are used to place students in a team environment where they get additional feedback. One example of this is “Looking Glass,” an organizational simulation that DSMC licenses from the Center for Creative Leadership. Here, class members take the key leadership positions in a commerical glass manufacturing company and are given the challenge of running the company for an entire day. After the simulation, there is a second day dedicated to feedback on how each team and individual performed in the exercise and how the feedback supports their personal leadership development goals (Gadeken, 2004). There is also a media workshop where each student is given a project manager role and must explain and defend his or her project to members of the press (played by faculty members). These media interviews are video taped and analyzed for learning points by groups of students.

The crux of the leadership development approach is that before students can lead a project or a project team, they must be able to both understand and lead themselves.

Reflection, Feedback, and Continuous Learning

Effective project management training is more than a series of course modules filled with content. There are key learning processes that literally make or break a training event or program. The first of these is establishing a positive learning climate both in and outside of the classroom. Nothing can be more counterproductive to learning than students who don't want to be there or are constantly distracted by outside events. At DSMC, a variety of approaches are used to create a collegial atmosphere and keep the focus on learning. These include icebreaker exercises, class lunches and socials, and even cookouts and competitive games during weeknights. The goal is to have students enjoy being together as well as learning together while at the same time developing personal and professional relationships to draw on for the remainder of their careers (DSMC, 2014).

The second key learning process is team learning. Defense projects are managed with cross-functional teams, so the learning approach also features cross-functional teams. Students work all of their case studies in teams (called small groups), and these teams are re-mixed half-way through the course so students can work with new peers and faculty. Experience has shown the teamwork approach to be very beneficial during the course. Students frequently add these peers to their professional network and often consult with them on project issues back in the workplace (DSMC, 2014).

The third key learning process is peer feedback. In the senior project management courses at DSMC, there are no tests, no term papers, and no grades. The key process for student evaluation is feedback given to each student by both peers and faculty using a simple process developed by the Center for Creative Leadership called Situation-Behavior-Impact or SBI. It seeks to overcome conversational feedback, which is often vague or judgemental. Instead of feedback like “great job on that report,” one might say, “the project status report you submitted yesterday (Situation) contained all the requested data and your analysis was so thorough (Behavior) that the boss has cited it as an example for others to follow (Impact)” (Weitzel, 2014).

To implement the feedback process, students share their personal learning goals with their small group and have fellow students hold each other accoutable for working on their goals. After explaining the SBI process early in the couse, peer feedback sessions are scheduled every few weeks to provide students feedback on their development goals while at the same time allowing them to practice giving feedback to others. This increases the likelihood they will use the SBI feedback process with their real project teams when they return to work.

For project management training to have the greatest impact, its benefits must continue after students return to the workplace. Over the years, DSMC has expanded its focus from being just a training provider to becoming a broad-based performance support organization. This is reflected in DAU's Acquisiton Learning Model illustrated in Exhibit 4 (DAU, 2015).


Exhibit 4 – DAU acquisition learning model.

Today, attending a training program is just the starting point in developing an ongoing relationship with DAU. After graduates return to the workplace, they have a network of faculty they can call on to assist them with emerging project issues. DAU also has a large set of online references, tools and learning modules, which are available to its graduates. For larger problems, a faculty team can be assembled to provide on-site team training or mission assistance.

Executive coaching is also in DAU's repitoire of support tools. With over 50 faculty who have been formally trained as executive coaches, DAU recently won a national award for the outcomes achieved by its enterprise-wide DAU executive coaching program. What this means for the project managers is that once they complete an executive PM course, they can request an executive coach to help them with their newly assigned project. The coach provides the ideal “sounding board” to help the new PM think through a variety of project issues including developing a project plan, reorganizing, or dealing with difficult project stakeholders. Comments from PMs who have used DAU executive coaches include, “A catalyst for change. My coach challenged me to think creatively and systematically. I couldn't lead the way I was used to leading. My coach helped my me adapt and try on new behaviors,” and “A strategic thinking partner. Helped me go to the strategic perspective. At my level, I really appreciated having someone who knew the ropes and path, but didn't tell me what to do.” Customer demand for the coaching program continues to grow (Harper, 2010).


With the return of troops from overseas deployments, the defense budget is shrinking and will likely be lower in future years. None the less, defense projects continue to demand highly talented project managers who can deliver needed products and services to our military customers. The challenge for DSMC and the DAU enterprise is to make its training and project support tools even more effective in this resource constrained environment. In evolving to meet the demand for effective training, DAU and DSMC must continue to adapt and change so it can develop top performing project managers who will meet their customers’ even more stingent demands to keep our nation safe and secure.

Defense Acquisition University. (2015). DAU classroom orientation briefing. Retrieved from

Defense Systems Management College. (2015). Introduction to case study analysis. Fort Belvoir VA: DSMC presentation.

Defense Systems Management College. (2014). PMT-401 overview briefing. Fort Belvoir VA: DSMC presentation.

Defense Systems Management College. (2011). PMT-401: the program manager's course. Fort Belvoir VA: DAU Press.

Gadeken, O. (2004). Through the looking glass. Defense AT&L, September-October 2004, 16–19.

Grauel, D., Malone, V., & Wygal, W. (2012). Marching an army acquisiton program toward success. Defense AT&L, November-December 2012, 20–23.

Harper, L. (2010) Becoming an executive coach: Executive coaching of a major defense acquisition program leader. Defense AT&L, November-December 2010, 42–46.

Kendall, F. (2012). The optimal program structure. Defense AT&L, July-August 2012, 2–3.

Kendall, F. (2013, March 14). USAF modestly affected by lack of acquisition leadership. Inside Defense.

Leyton, E. (2007). The defense acquisition university: training professionals for the acquisiton workforce 1992–2003. Fort Belvoir, VA: DAU Press.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2009). Guide to critical thinking. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Weitzel, S. (2009). Feedback that works: How to build and deliver your message. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

© 2015, Owen C. Gadeken
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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