Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management. Follow him on Google+. He publishes on and aNewDomain and volunteers with the Alexandria Film Festival. He is also on Linkedin. To subscribe to emailed updates about additions to this web site click here.

When Federal Government Project Management Collides with the "New Normal"

When Federal Government Project Management Collides with the "New Normal"

By Dennis D. McDonald

We're getting used to it:

  • Shutdowns. Furloughs. Sequesters. Red tape. Delays, Retirements that remove experienced staff.

Last but not least:

  • Meetings. Meetings. Meetings.

Welcome to the New Normal of the Federal Government project manager. It’s not an easy task managing Federal IT projects these days. Not that it ever was. But now the problems are severe:

  • If you’re a regular employee you have to put up with interminable meetings, office politics, and procurement rules that keep you patching old systems with spit, string and chewing gum. Furloughs and retirements take experienced staff away and delay important decisions.
  • If you’re a contractor, budgets get squeezed as agencies stretch out schedules and demand more experience for less money. You look elsewhere for business.
  • If you’re an independent consultant, your subcontracting opportunities are being reduced as small and medium prime contractors get squeezed out of the market.

What to do?

First, you clearly need to have a plan that shows what you and your project team are doing over time and why you’re doing it. And you have to have communicated and engaged this plan with your customer and your stakeholders. If you haven’t done so go to do it now. Without a  plan you can’t manage and your stakeholders sure as hell won’t support you when the going gets tough — as it probably will. Remember, we’re talking about the New Normal.

Second, assume the worst can happen. Clients will change. Key staff will resign or won’t be available. Expected supplies or intermediate deliverables won’t come in on time. Automated processes or experiments will spoil or go off track as furloughs keep workers from working. One approach: have a risk management plan handy (see Addendum below). Keep it updated. Imagine the unthinkable and be prepared to respond. Think through, for each unforeseen event, what an ideal change management process might look like. Then, assume you may not be able to afford the time of a formalized change management process and will have to “bootleg” a solution under management’s nose without going the usual meeting route.

Third,chunk” your project as much as possible. Maximize the number of discrete work units and deliverables your project is composed of while minimizing interdependencies of these chunks. That way the impact of delays on each work stream can be compartmentalized and controlled. In other words, organize projects so damage can be contained when something bad happens

I already hear the experienced project managers saying, “Hey, all that is how you’re supposed to manage projects anyway — tell me something new!”

I can’t argue with that. I admit that approaching a project fully expecting that the worst will happen is not something I have always done. For me that changed on September 11, 2001 while running a big system consolidation project in Brooklyn. Besides altering my personal priorities events across the river in Manhattan definitely changed how I view managing projects.

Sadly, as I look at the challenges Federal Government project managers and contractors now have to face in the New Normal, many such challenges are inflicted not by terrorists but by our own government.

Ironically, adjusting how we manage projects will, in all likelihood — at least in the short term — make projects cost more especially when compared with bare-bones “seat of the pants” methods.

Welcome to the New Normal.

Copyright © 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald

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