Project Management for Government Contractors

Project Management Risk Factor #3: Competing Priorities

Posted by Kabir Mehta on Apr 10, 2018 7:12:00 AM

3 Ways a Lack of Support From Senior Management Can Hurt Your Government Contracting Success

The third article in our series on Project Management Risk Factors.

No matter how good of a program manager you are, some factors will impact your success over which you have little to no control. Perhaps the biggest factor of all comes from within - your contracting culture and company leadership. We're sharing here three ways company culture and even leadership can hurt your program and personal success: 

  1. Communication & Authority: what does senior management do when customer priorities conflict with corporate priorities? 
  2. Bureaucracy: when an opportunity with a deadline appears, how fast does senior management react? 
  3. Responsibility: does senior management take ultimate responsibility?  

Let's look at these one at a time.

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Hello Peter, what's happening? Listen, are you gonna have those TPS reports for us this afternoon?

 

But first, how well-supported is your program by senior management?

Find out, fast - just take our quick assessment:

Take the Program Health & Risk Assessment

1. Communication & Authority

When senior management keeps too much power or does not support the decisions their program managers make (or want to make), it creates project risks. 

As an example of this, read a story from one of our program managers. Scope creep and undocumented changes have a very detrimental effect on a project, and this anecdote illustrates how a lack of decision-making power in the hands of the program manager created serious problems in the project: 

A few years ago, our program manager was working at a different firm on a contract, and his technical program manager Bill was responsible for software development. The contract was a fixed-price agreement (which is a very bad idea for software development in the first place), and while testing it, the customer would regularly reach out to technical program manager Bill and ask, “Can you tweak this here, or add this other functionality there?” 

Bill stood firm and told the customer no – these changes and additions were not laid out in the scope of the contract, after all. Though they could have been good additions to the software, they were outside of the contract, and if followed would result in not reaching the top of the mountain but getting lost on a rabbit trail. 

Unfortunately, when the customer got “no” for an answer, they instead turned to senior management and asked again. Senior management not only said yes to the scope creep request, but because the contract was fixed-price, they were essentially agreeing to do the work for free.  

The technical program manager Bill now had to mitigate a key risk factor with a real change to harm the project – he had to both deliver the contracted software on schedule and on a fixed budget, as well as the extras and last-minute additions. Senior management had ordered him to: 'Follow the white rabbit and summit the mountain, but don't be late!' 

Inevitably the project did come in late, over-budget and didn't meet the requirements. The contractor looked bad and when yearly reviews came around, senior management tried to count this failure against Bill, holding him responsible. Thankfully, the Program Management Officer stepped in and resolved the case, getting Bill's record cleared. But it doesn't always turn out this way.  

This story illustrates how important it is that senior management supports and empowers their program manager, first by communicating with the program manager before answering a client about a project, and second by giving the program manager the power to make decisions, even when the customer doesn't like the decisions made. No one knows the needs of the program and customer better than the program manager, and no one has more stake in a successful program and a delighted customer than the program manager. In general, the more authority a program manager is given, along with personal success and failure tied to the program, the better results that program manager will produce. 

An empowered program manager maximizes delivery & profits at the same time! 

 

 2. Bureaucracy

Most small businesses don't have a significant problem with internal bureaucracy slowing down their effectiveness and speed. But in a big company, corporate culture, silos, bureaucracy, and complicated reporting structures can make a program manager's life extremely difficult, with the result that program success becomes an ice-climb instead of a walk around the block. 

Let's illustrate this with another anecdote from our archive: in the past, one of our employees worked at a different contractor and was talking to their customer about a contract modification (a small add-on solution), just one month from that customer's fiscal year-end. The opportunity was perfect: the customer had extra budget, was interested, and gave them the green light for the contract modification. All that needed to be done was for the contractor to acustomer-expectations-vs-corporate-senior-management-expectations.jpgccept a mod request… essentially signing off on a piece of paper. Well, that request got lost in the contractor's corporate bureaucracy for 45 days. When the contractor finally tried to respond and accept the modification, it was too close to year-end and the customer had already used the remainder of their budget, replying that their shoo-in order was now a no-go. 

While our first story was a showed how senior management needs to support and give a program manager appropriate authority over a project, this example is a reminder that that no matter how big a company becomes, it needs to have a process in place to quickly seize every opportunity.  

Imagine the frustration and loss of morale when senior management fails a program manager (and the company) by missing an easy opportunity – why work so hard to save costs and deliver a project if you are going to ignore business that falls in your lap? 

 

 3. Responsibility

This principle is very simple, but when a lack of support exists in your company’s chain of responsibility, your project's issues are going to go unresolved or spiral out of control. 

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The fact is, a program manager has a significant share of responsibility for a project's success or failure. Nevertheless, the best program managers give credit for success to the people they manage, while taking more than their fair share of responsibility in failure. 

When there is a lack of support from senior management when it comes to responsibility, the opposite occurs: a problem arises that is outside the power of the program manager to resolve, but senior management doesn’t take responsibility to resolve it. 

Senior management’s main task is to support their program managers. If for one reason or another a project fails or doesn't reach a company's goal, the first question a good senior manager will ask is, “How have I failed?” Then senior management will directly address the issue with the directly and take responsibility for it.  

If senior management holds to the principle that the “buck stops here,” issues are naturally and effectively resolved. Meaning, when a problem is bigger than a team member can solve, it will go to the program manager, and when a problem is bigger than the program manager, it will go to senior management, who will then resolve the problem or take responsibility for failure – never pushing problems back down the chain. Problems linger in limbo when senior management pushes issues back down the chain of command, leaving the responsibility on the shoulders of “someone else.” 

 

Your Next Steps 

A constrained (albeit experienced & well-intentioned) program manager is a big risk variable for a project… an empowered, supported program manager makes all the difference.  

No matter how well you perform as a program manager, following Best Practices and staying focused on the mission, it is vital that senior management supports you in the areas of Communication & Authority, Bureaucracy, and Responsibility. A successful project can quickly go astray if senior management fails in one of these areas. 

Do you find yourself or your project facing the same lack of support in one or more of these areas? 

If you find that these concepts hit close to home, take our Program Health & Risk Assessment. After filling out the questionnaire, you'll get a personalized assessment of the health of your Program and Company, as well as steps you can take toward greater success. 

Take the Program Health & Risk Assessment

 

Topics: project management best practices, project management risks, project management risk factors

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