When Failure Is Not an Option: Project Management
By Kathleen B. Hass, PMP
At the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), where projects are vital to national security, project managers must simply deliver. These managers handle projects ranging from short, urgent, schedule-driven initiatives to large, long, and complex programs. The nature of projects underway at any given time ranges from development of collection and operational support systems to information technology initiatives supporting a worldwide communications network.
For years, the agency had a project management training program in place that was providing good results, but agency executives knew it was time to take it to the next level. Accordingly, the agency implemented a Professional Project Manager Certification (PPMC) program that complied with international standards of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the International Council on System Engineering (INCOSE).
Four Levels of Expertise
“We had observed the nature of our project mix had changed over time,” says Michael O’Brochta, PPMC Program Manager. “Now, we are engaged in many small, low-tech, non-development types of projects in addition to our traditional high-tech projects. This change necessitated a shift in our approach to practicing and teaching project management.”
Since the curriculum had to be highly relevant to the agency’s unique environment, customization was a paramount consideration. The agency enlisted two contractors, Management Concepts and CSM (Center for Systems Management) to develop and deliver a four-tiered program.
Levels 1 and 2 build skills in key project management disciplines, such as risk, change, cost and time management; project integration and scope management; project communication management; and project team management. Level 3 teaches project managers how to manage and control systems engineering projects, with particular emphasis on requirements definition and management, architecture development, system integration, requirements development, verification, and validation. Level 4 teaches leadership and project portfolio management skills.
“Level 4 is aimed at practitioners who need to work beyond the traditional bounds of project management to affect organizational change,” O’Brochta explains. “Initially, we identified an excellent set of topics to cover with our most experienced project managers, but we soon realized that we were not engaging them at a high enough intellectual level. We are currently redesigning Level 4 to raise the classroom interaction to a much higher level of analysis and synthesis, so that students can apply the information to their very complex projects back in the office.”
Program graduates demonstrate mastery through rigorous tests. “While the PPMC program is an internal certification unique to the CIA, we built it to be compatible with the standards of PMI and INCOSE,” O’Brochta says. “We obtained accreditation from both PMI and the American Council on Education (ACE), so students can receive PMI certification and college credit. In addition, since one of the knowledge areas of project management is acquisitions/procurement, we adjusted our Contracting Officer Technical Representative (COTR) certification program to dovetail with the PPMC program.”
Design and development of the program began in July 2003 and included a rigorous pilot process. The first courses were launched in October 2004. “It is a bottom-up program built by project managers for project managers,” O’Brochta says. “It is not a mandated top-down program, but rather addresses the desire of our project managers to be treated like disciplined professionals. As a result, it has been tremendously popular, and we are getting over 2,500 students a year. Students take great pride in passing the extremely rigorous tests and gaining certification.”
Aligning Learning and Action
Practical application of course material to the workplace has been emphasized throughout the program.
“We made a strategic decision early on that we not only wanted the students to acquire knowledge and skill, but to take it to the next level and actually apply it,” O’Brochta explains.
The agency used three techniques to ensure this relevancy:
1. More than half of the content is addressed through experiential learning, such as case studies based on real projects in the agency.
2. Half of the test questions are application based. Students analyze a situation and decide on an appropriate course of action.
3. Students fill out learning implementation plans that state how they will apply their newly gained knowledge in the workplace. “We also check up on them on an irregular basis to see how well they are applying what they learned in class,” O’Brochta adds.
After the first year, the PPMC team gathered for a one-week offsite meeting themed, “transference of learning from the classroom to the workplace.” PPMC program managers, developers, administrators, and instructors met to review lessons learned and identify best practices to overcome implementation barriers in the workplace.
The meeting led to new content and techniques for the following year’s curriculum, as well as extra-curricular components such as:
Consulting and mentoring.
Facilitated project kick-off workshops to launch new projects effectively and provide the foundation for project success.
Project assessment and recovery workshops to salvage projects.
A Project Management Standards Working Group that drives monthly Project Management Forums as communities of practice.
Offsite conferences will continue as the program evolves. In addition, evaluation data from students, instructors, and CIA course directors form the basis for continuous improvements in the courseware.
Due to the overwhelming demand, class sizes were increased from 24 to 28. In addition, some of the lower-level courses are now available through CBT (computer-based training), although an in-person final examination is required.
All course material is also available on the agency’s internal Web site, allowing experienced senior personnel to review it and test out of courses. A one-day test preparation course for Level 1 provides additional help in passing the exam.
The program takes three to five years to complete, including time between courses to apply the newly learned practices at the workplace. Overall, the curriculum promotes career growth by enabling project managers to assume increasing levels of responsibility through a well-defined career advancement system.
“This program is not a training program,’ O’Brochta states. “It is designed to mature the CIA’s project management practices. We understand there is much beyond training that we can do to assist project managers and treat them like professionals.”
To ensure that practitioners keep up-to-date with the industry, certification is valid only for three years. Requirements for re-certification include a series of activities ranging from additional courses to speaking at conferences or participating in agency groups that advance the profession of project management.
The agency considers the program a critical strategic initiative to enhance its management and leadership practices. In this effort, any investment in educational resources and instructional support can pay immeasurable dividends.
About the Author
Kathleen Hass, PMP, is a Project Management Practice Leader for Management Concepts. Headquartered in Vienna, VA, and founded in 1973, Management Concepts is a global provider of training, consulting, and publications in Project Management, as well as critical leadership and management skills. For additional information, visit www.govinfo.bz/5973-140.