Project Management for Government Contractors

Project Management Risk Factor #1: Big Challenges

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

3 Kinds of Challenges You Can't Overcome Alone

The first article in our series on Project Management Risks

In this article we're going to look at challenges that are difficult for Program Managers to overcome on their own, without the help of a strong and supportive senior management and strategic planning.


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3 Kinds of Big Challenges

Program Managers face many challenges in their task to deliver successful programs to Government customers. There are however, three categories of challenges that are big enough that PM usually needs more support to overcome them. We have termed these three categories:

  • Technical Challenges
  • Silo Challenges
  • Policy Limitation Challenges

1. Technical Challenges

Too often a project's requirement are communicated by the customer contracting team in one way, but in reality there are unspoken / unknown requirements beneath those written in the contract. They may not be needs that run throughout the life of the project, but they are part of the requirements that the customer did not ask for or did not realize existed.

For example if your project is to migrate your customer from physical servers to FedRAMP, you might discover early on that the customer's servers are twenty years old, and no one on your project team has the qualifications to work with equipment with this sensitivity and age. 


► How to resolve: 

Perhaps it's obvious, but the best way to handle such challenges is ensure senior management is aware of the issue, and to make necessary internal hires for specialist roles, or to ask your customer to issue a task order to hire a specialist who can fulfill the technical requirements. Whatever the technical challenge is, senior management needs to be involved to: 

  • Provide you as the Program Manager with the needed resources you need 
  • Ask the customer to provide requisite the needed resources.  

Another solution to consider is bringing in subcontractors, who can fulfill a specialist role that is lacking on your team but needed for the project.


2. Silo Challenges

Government agencies operate in silos—the vast majority of projects have to deal with challenges inherent to this "siloed" environment. This means that your project has an impact upon, and is influenced by, people outside your customer and your area of influence. Unless you are in the rare situation where you have a relationship with every outside department (aka "interested party") that your project touches, the distance between your customer and these outside interested parties can be quite wide.  

For example, if you are working to complete a step in your project, and need access to an environment managed by another contractor, how should you best handle that? What does a Program Manager do when your company does not have control of an outside environment and moreover, your competitor controls it? (This is especially sensitive in re-compete years.) 

Let's consider another common issue: what if the real challenge isn't obtaining a needed security clearance or complying with an interested party's protocol, but a simple personality issue? If a Program Manager doesn't have a relationship with the outside interested party, and that party can prevent the project from moving forward, how does the Program Manager overcome it? What if your project's impact on an interested party is a problem because it affecting the “baby” of an interested party who has the power to block your project? It could be a desire to protect institutional knowledge, job security, or a whole host of reasons why your project is blocked by an outside interested party, but because of the silo environment, it is a challenge you need to prepare in advance to overcome. 


► How to resolve: 

There are two ways to handle the challenges that come from managing a project that crosses into another silo:  

  • The best way to ensure you can overcome silo challenges is from the very start. During contract creation become well-informed of the knowledge, assets, and clearances needed to deliver your project (especially if your customer does not have them), and understand the impact your program will have both on your customer and any outside interested parties. With this knowledge and understanding you can put into the contract what your teams need to avoid and overcome silo challenges.
  • Ensure you have open lines of communication to your senior management and the customer's senior management, so that when unforeseen issues inevitably arise, you have a channel to engage seniors on both teams who have the power to resolve any issues that are outside of your power as Program Manager to overcome.


3. Policy Limitation Challenges

What do you do when key elements of project management best practices conflict with security requirements? We've run into this problem ourselves. In the past, applications of ours were hosted on secured machines owned by the client. The security was set such that we did not have access to the secured machines and, as a result, could not perform best practices, such as logging performance issues or errors, directly on the machines.  

Because we could not monitor and control the applications, and because our developers could not touch the production machines, we did not have transparency into the performance of our applications. Without this knowledge, we were flying blind and could not debug issues... all the while we were still held responsible for these issues. 


► How to resolve: 

The ideal way to overcome this kind of a challenge is to ask all the right questions before winning a contract, to ensure you understand the policy limitations, and how they interact with: A) The resources required to fulfill the contract, and B) how you can follow best practices to deliver the project. Once you have a complete understanding of the policy limitations, you can write into your proposal the methods by which your company will deliver the project using your project management best practices, while still upholding the security requirements. 

If it’s not possible to head off policy limitation challenges at the pass, then it’s important to engage with policy makers/program stakeholders, in accordance with the project communication plan. Once all stakeholders understand the issues, you should be able to reach agreement on a compliant solution. Inform or escalate to the Project COTR as required. No matter what the challenge is, if the customer is able and willing to provide a solution, it’s usually the best solution and strengthens your relationship to them. Asking them for input demonstrates your willingness to listen to their needs, while providing strategic program value.


In conclusion, we have to admit these issues and solutions to them are well-covered in the project management world, and this article only scratches the surface of effective ways to overcome big challenges. 

Therefore, we encourage you to look at the rest of our series on Project Management Risk Factors that Contribute to Project Failure.

We're digging up issues no one wants to talk about, particularly in Government contracting. We think you'll relate and appreciate what we share!


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

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