The power of the program


Four global managers have little in common, but they see eye to eye when it comes to program management.



  • img Maintaining regular contact with the program's staff, their contractors and their customers is the best way to determine the exact needs of the customer.
  • img Only a hands-on approach will enable program managers to deliver the exact products customers want on time and within cost.
  • img Executives should demand that that their new managers schedule time to fully learn their product.

At a glance, Vivienne Mitchell, PMP, does not have much in common with Dave Gallop.

For starters, they live on opposite sides of the globe—she's in Bangkok, Thailand, and he's just outside Washington, D.C., USA. She works in the private sector while he works in government. And her job requires her to tell people what to do; his demands that he simply do it.

That said, Mitchell, a project and program management coach for Unocal's Thailand office, shares many similarities with Gallop, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who's the product manager for Land Warrior, an elaborate set of new high-tech gear for ground troops.

In fact, both Mitchell and Gallop display commonalties with executive project manager Steven DelGrosso, IBM, Raleigh, N.C., USA, and even with consultant Peggy Cannon, W.W. Mentorprises Inc.

They all possess a wealth of experience overseeing programs with international ties. What binds them is that each independently has drawn the same conclusions about how big-budget business programs are best managed: from the top, with guidance from the bottom.

Continuous Learning

“You need to be learning before, learning during and learning after” the lifespan of a program or project, says Mitchell, the Unocal coach who managed both types of endeavors while working for Clear Communications and Warehouse Ltd., the largest retailer in her native New Zealand. “What is good for one business unit may not be good for another. A good manager is always trying to adapt a particular project or program to specific requirements.”

If you don't learn quickly, you're going to pay for mistakes downstream, according to Gallop, who recently returned from a lengthy fact-finding mission in Iraq, where basic elements of Land Warrior already are in use even though the overall “system of systems” designed to make soldiers more “lethal and survivable” isn't due out until 2007. “The dollars we spend now to avoid problems later become algorithmic,” he says of the Pentagon program that has cost nearly $2 billion since its inception after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “I'd rather spend $1 now than $100 to fix problems later.”

img According to all four managers, learning from the top down is the key to guiding programs that deliver what the customer wants on time. The most efficient way for program managers to learn continuously is to ensure that their teams maintain regular contact with customers through constant communication.

“Team members from every program or project should visit each other and each site,” including those of contractors and customers, says Cannon, who managed international projects and programs for Herman Miller, an office furniture manufacturer based in Zeeland, Mich., USA. “You have to figure out how to talk effectively and efficiently. You have to make it so customers don't have too much trouble ordering products, so they get the product they want on time.”

By tightening scope requirements, program managers manage expectations, according to DelGrosso, a program management community leader for IBM's Business Consulting Services' public sector. DelGrosso currently is overseeing IBM's implementation of a new accounting system for Medicare and Medicaid. The prototype is being examined closely by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“You want to make sure you know exactly what [a customer's] requirements are,” he says. “You want to make sure you know exactly how they want to see [your product or service] and make sure you can get it to them on schedule.”

Deliver on Your Promises

Knowing what your customer wants is essential, but you also must realize your strengths and limitations—and those of your contractors and stakeholders, Gallop says. By helping guide the development of Land Warrior—a 73-pound array of gizmos, gear and weapons that is designed to give individual U.S. soldiers an edge in battle—Gallop espouses a cautious but practical philosophy to minimize mistakes or cost overruns.


Team members from every program or project should visit each other and each site, including those of contractors and customers.

Peggy L. Cannon, PMP,
President and CEO, W.W. Mentorprises Inc.,
Darien, Conn., USA

We're building small quantities [of the new gear], getting them out in the field, embedding engineers and other program people with the unit, getting feedback directly from soldiers and making the fixes. Then we keep repeating the cycle.





In addition to lighter, stronger body armor and smaller, more powerful weaponry, by the time the Land Warrior system is complete, soldiers will be using Global Positioning System-equipped channel-bouncing radios embedded in helmets, computers with helmet-mounted, flip-down monocle screens and chest-based mouse pads, and rifle-mounted thermal and video sights that enable troops to see in the dark, through thin walls and around corners.



“The best business practice is to use a ‘build a little, test a little' approach that delivers some immediate value…but also can be used to address the longer-term needs and requirements,” Gallop says. “A good program manager uses a flexible development approach and makes sure to focus the capabilities [of otherwise limited resources].”

Unlike the other managers, who only risk lost revenue if they foul up, Gallop's Land Warrior program will cost lives if some products do not work properly.

As a result, he and other Land Warrior program members take extra precautions to learn and communicate to ensure that everything works properly. The Army's 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment based at Camp Mercury in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq, 40 miles west of Baghdad, uses many elements of Land Warrior in dangerous, real-life field tests. “We're building small quantities [of the new gear], getting them out in the field, embedding engineers and other program people with the unit, getting feedback directly from soldiers and making the fixes,” Gallop says. “Then we keep repeating the cycle.”

img Utilizing this hands-on development tactic is a tedious, time-consuming effort that requires constant learning and communication at all levels within the program, he stresses. “You have to get in there with the users for a long period of time, collect feedback and suggestions, and bring those back to the developers to make the changes,” Gallop says. “The comments go right from the soldiers' mouths directly to the developer of the products. I'd rather hear the ‘what I don't like' feedback now than in [fiscal year] ‘07.”

Solutions From the Front

Spending time with the soldiers in Iraq provides invaluable insight for program officials, Gallop says, but program manager Col. Ted Johnson insists that his people soak in complaints, comments and suggestions from all troop levels before rushing to any conclusions. “The soldiers are going to have different views of the world—and different views of your product,” Gallop says. “What the platoon leader needs is different from what the squad leaders need and so on. You need to hear what they're saying, but you have to put it in a broader context. The way to normalize all the sets of comments is to have someone from your program office with the users at all times.”

The biggest challenges the Land Warrior managers need to overcome is power management—lightweight, reliable, long-lasting batteries to power all of Land Warrior's technology. Current batteries only allow a few hours of operating time—a major problem if soldiers are unexpectedly pinned down in a lengthy firefight.

Gallop has program and product officials improvising to find ways to conserve energy. They're designing Land Warrior's computers and radios to power only what a soldier needs at a given time—similar to having your laptop computer only run its word-processing program while you write a memo on a plane.

And program officials are about to introduce a General Dynamics designed universal power adapter that enables troops to utilize vehicle power to recharge their equipment, much the way you might plug your cell phone into your car's cigarette lighter. “That solution came straight from the field,” Gallop says. “The soldiers were saying, ‘There's got to be a way to power this off the vehicles,' which use 24-volt engines. And there is.”

Time is a Commodity

Taking time to learn and understand products is the biggest challenge for all program managers, according to Mitchell. Many companies appoint senior executives to be program managers, so a major challenge for her and many other coaches is to raise awareness among such executives, who often do not have the background that enables them to firmly grasp their products or manage a program.

“It's important that they understand a product [because] quite often, they don't,” Mitchell says. “You can't assume that they're going to pick it up on their own, particularly if they don't have a project or program management background. Training is often not the answer due to their status in the company.”

img To combat such drawbacks, Unocal coaches urge managers to schedule research time, she says. They give program and project managers wallet-sized cards filled with prompts to get the executives thinking.

“People who don't have a project management or program management background need to get up to speed,” Mitchell says. “Then they need to keep up with various changes. It's not a lack of understanding, it's just that they don't always have the time to invest.”

The best advice for executives joining a program: Tap your project manager for a quick summary, but stay involved to learn how changes in scope and the business environment affect the deliverable. “We have to overcome the perception that we're creating more work for them,” Mitchell says. “We are, but it's for their benefit in the long run. In some cases we make their workload lighter by helping avoid the pitfalls.” PM

Greg Seigle, a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., USA, has written about government and industry issues for The Washington Post, USA TODAY and the Los Angeles Times, as well as trade publications such as the National Journal, Congressional Quarterly and Jane's Defence Weekly.




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