Commuting to War – Project Management in Military Defense Contracting

The United States Military now employs more contractors doing the work of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines than it does uniformed personnel. War has become a permanent state for America and deployment of military units is business as usual. Despite the fact that the American military already dwarfs the armies of all the major countries in the world combined, the new American president is stumping for pouring even more money into the Department of Defense.

Inefficiency – The Big Problem

Waste at the Pentagon is legendary. Incalculable, in fact. A recent external audit uncovered $125 billion in known waste. But the truth is, the unknown waste is, well, unknown. Since Congress began mandating yearly internal audits in 1996, the Department of Defense has not completed a single one.

Getting a handle on managing its resources is daunting because of the military’s authoritarian organization and its rigid structure. It attracts and promotes the kind of minds who like order and are suspicious of imagination and creativity. It is a business as usual culture.


But when it really counts, there are brilliant examples of breaking out of that mindset and achieving great things. Between 1941 and 1945, America went from the smallest, least prepared, least experienced, and most poorly equipped military in the conflict to the exact opposite. In less than three years, it transformed itself into the most formidable military the world has ever seen. How did America do it?

One of the reasons was the brilliance of George Marshall, the Chief of Staff. At the outset of the war, he understood the peril and knew exactly what to do. He fired hundreds of career officers who were stuck in the “business as usual” mindset and brought in the best minds from all parts of American society and industry. He said, basically, thanks for your service, but now we need people who can really get the job done.

The American citizen soldier proved independent and imaginative in combat. When the carefully prepared plans of D-Day collapsed within the first hours, American paratroopers – scattered all over the countryside instead of where they were supposed to be – improvised and accomplished their missions. Indeed, the chaos made it difficult for the Germans to make sense of the invasion and mount an effective defense. Had things gone according to plan, they might have discerned the strategy of the Allies and reacted with effective defensive measures.

Project Management – The Solution

Planning as you go is now the dominant business strategy. It is also used in elite military units like Special Forces and SEALs. Late in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, General Stanley McChrystal, leader of Joint Special Operations Command, developed the capability of special ops teams performing raids, collecting intelligence at the raid site, and then continuing the raid based on the new intelligence. Such missions require the skill set found in modern civilian project managers.

A little background is in order. A project manager, by definition, is the person accountable for accomplishing the stated project objectives. Core project management responsibilities include defining clear and attainable project objectives, assessing the project requirements, and managing constraints. Note the contrast with the traditional management model that is performed four stages plus control: initiation, planning and design, execution and construction, monitoring and controlling systems, and completion or closing.

Project management comes in several flavors. Critical chain project management (CCPM) is planning and managing project execution so as to deal with uncertainties inherent in managing projects, while simultaneously dealing with the limited availability of resources needed to execute projects. Process-based management is based on maturity models such as OPM3 which outlines how to manage successfully, consistently and predictably. Lean project management uses the tenants of lean manufacturing to focus on value while reducing material and time waste. Project Production Management uses principles from industrial engineering and queuing theory to organize work in major projects to optimize delivery.Benefits realization management, which focuses on outcomes rather than processes can help to reduce the risk of failure by accomplishing the on-going mission but failing to deliver the benefits of the stated mission.

If you work for a company that does business with the US military, you are going to have to interface with the military way of doing things while doing them better and cheaper than they can. That’s the whole justification for using contractors in the first place. Military management is often not well suited for the multi-project company environment of today.

Although modern thinking in the military is not ignorant of the principles of modern project management, it has not been very successful in implementing them service-wide. Some management principles are taught at the academies and the Command and General Staff school. Education and CAPM certification through private online courses is encouraged and even financed by the military through the education centers on every post or base. Indeed, the Army Learning Model 2015 has been an attempt to transform the way the Army learns and trains. It recommends on-going learning using technology, distant learning and collaborative, student-centered learning techniques at their training centers.

The Weak Link

The weak point in contractor work with the military is that, no matter how successful, or how much better the contractors can do the work and accomplish the mission compared to the military, they are still under military management. That management often consists of mid-level NCOs with barely a high school education or junior staff officers with no preparation for utilization of the principles of modern project management. The military is well capable of defeating itself even with the largest budget and best equipment in the world.

Patience is required when managing a contract with the military. The uniformed project managers will often not understand the limits of the Statement of Work and think they can manage contractors the same way they do their uniformed service people. Part of your job is to balance the requirements of the mission with the constraints of the law. And that takes great patience and creativity to keep he customer happy.