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Project Managment Spotlight in Government Defense

by Dimitri Nazarenko, PMP

(reprinted with permission)


DefenseContractingDimitri Nazarenko is a Senior Program Manager working for a Defense Contractor supporting the US Department of Defense.  The Q&A format provides an excellent view of Project Management in this industry. 

Question:    Summarize project management in this industry and in your organization

The defense industry helped to develop the project management discipline over several decades.  Originally started during World War II to track progress on airplane and ship projects, it was adopted by the Department of Defense as a standardized way to discuss and evaluate projects.  Over time, these concepts were applied to all programs in the DoD.   Today, the methodology has been standardized to such an extent that the concepts are used in the procurement of defense articles through reviews between the government and contractors.  Terms such as ETC, EAC, SPI, CPI, schedule critical path, schedule float, and other metrics are routinely presented at internal company reviews and at external reviews with the government.  Furthermore, other companies have developed their internal reporting software to automate the generation, reporting and control of these project management metrics.


Project Management was originally started during World War II to track progress on airplane and ship projects. Eventually the DoD applied Project Management concepts to all programs as a standardized way to evaluate them.

Question:    What types of projects do you typically work on?

I have worked on projects involved in the entire product lifecycle.  I have led project capture activities, created and submitted proposals; led contract negotiations which resulted in program awards; and led teams to develop and test products including radars, sonars, communication systems, countermeasure systems and night vision equipment.  These contracts involved all branches of the US military (US Air Force, US Navy, US Army, US Marine Corps and associated government laboratories. 

I have also worked international programs and have traveled Israel, South Korea, United Kingdom and Ireland. 

Question:    What phases of the Project Management Process are you most involved in?

Early in my career, I worked exclusively on brand new development projects.  Then I became involved with several new business capture activities that led to new development projects.  During the last five years, I have been fortunate to work with international customers supplying them with new products and post installation support.  Today, I am involved with four relatively mature production products and three new technology initiatives in my organization

Question:    How do you interact with people based on your role?

My leadership style has changed during my career.  Early on, I would give direction and make sure the team understood the approach.  As I became involved with larger projects with more people with diverse backgrounds, I changed to a more collaborative approach to receive the best information and buy-in from all team members. Today, during a team meeting, I establish the near-term goal, then propose how to achieve the goal.  Continuing, I will ask if there are better ways to achieve the goal.  Frequently I am surprised at the information that flows through the team and we usually modify the plan to reduce risk, cost or schedule to achieve the primary goal. 

I also use collaborative communication to advise my senior management informally and more often than waiting for a formal review.  It allows the senior management to ask me questions to better understand the program, its challenges and successes.  Formal reviews have their place; however, they have time constraints and presentation format constraints that don’t allow for free-form discussions with the team.

With a collaborative leadership style, the team provides input that often reduces risk, cost, or time and still achieves the project’s primary goals.

Question:    What are some of the challenges you face?

Early in my career, I worked at large companies that spent considerable resources on integrated project planning and execution software.  I learned project management using well developed company procedures and mature software.  

Recently, I have worked at two smaller companies that do not have integrated software tools.  In fact, I have had to change my project management approach to one that is exclusively schedule driven.  Cost capture tools are not robust enough to perform Earned Value Management with fidelity.  Also, Risk management tools are not available, and my current organization uses spreadsheets to communicate project status.

Question:    Can you share a lesson learned story?

After taking a job at a small company, I was transitioned onto an ongoing project.  During the initial team meeting, several team members reacted negatively to my comments about instituting new project metrics including schedule, cost and technical performance.  It took several one-on-one discussions to realize that the previous project manager was removed because he spent too much time developing metrics and not enough time on achieving results. 

I switched gears and developed metrics to assist the project while the team continued making technical progress.  After three months, I demonstrated to the team how we had been performing, our strengths and shortcomings, along with a new risk analysis.  Surprisingly, the team started to accept the metrics, agreeing with their status and allowing me to project forward in time how long it would take to complete the final series of testing.  The team appreciated that the schedule showed accomplishments and the areas of difficulty. 

Toward the end of the project, the team supported the metrics and voiced their support in a senior management meeting.  I explained that we needed to articulate the project end requirements and subsequent steps to achieve the project end.  The team started by rejecting the company’s established project management tools and methodology and after a year, adopted the new processes.

New processes were adopted only after new metrics enabled accurate forecasting by identifying strengths, shortcomings, and risks.


Question:    Five years ago, what would you tell yourself about how to be more successful today?

To be more successful today, I would say that the project manager must be more open to differing opinions and allow for divergent paths to success.  Project team members today need to participate and be heard in the project team meetings.  Involvement and higher levels of motivation are important to keeping the team together and in meeting project objectives.  Top down management doesn’t work well in today’s environment.

Question:    Where do you see the challenges for you in 5 years?

In my current position, the biggest challenge is to add better project management tools to my organization, especially in the labor, material, cost planning and execution.  These tools need to be linked with a scheduling tool and risk tool.  It will be a challenge to obtain funding resources and add this capability to the organization.  Development of integrated software packages, useful to Project Management, will continue in the Defense industry.

Question:    What advice would you give other Project Managers in your industry?

As noted earlier, some organizations have well developed project management tools while others are using tools as needed.  If an organization doesn’t have mature tools, the project manager still must lead the project to a successful conclusion.  The project manager must be flexible and utilize spreadsheets, top level labor runs, schedules, work with the internal team to be successful.  If a tool is missing, the project manager must improvise to perform the planning and successful execution of the project.

Also, employee attitudes change over time.  Today, employees entering the workforce, want flexibility in hours and work locations.  New tools will need to be developed to allow employees to work on travel, in the office and at home to continue work.  Today, work will need to adapt to the employees.

Project Managers need to be flexible and use whatever tools are available to lead the project to successful conclusion.