When it comes to government agencies implementing program management, the Department of Defense often leads the way. The DoD unquestionably establishes robust and comprehensive PM frameworks. However, with increasing competition and accelerating disruptions from new technology, market shifts, and social change, it is essential for organizations worldwide to perpetually adapt — and the DoD is no different.

Enter the Section 809 Panel, an 18-person panel tasked with finding ways to streamline and improve defense acquisition. Created in section 809 of the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act and amended by section 863(d) of the NDAA for FY 2017, the panel has two years to develop recommendations for changes in the regulation and associated statutes to achieve those ends.

While the department has been a model for acquisition, it is commonly agreed that the DoD acquisition cycle must continue to seek improvement in its speed from inception of need to utilization in operations. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in his Senate Armed Services Committee Nomination Statement: “Currently, the emergence of peer competitor, mid-tier regional adversaries, and non-state actors capable of threatening U.S. interests and lives has created an unstable geopolitical landscape.” DoD faces a greater concentration of higher-stakes scenarios beyond what is typically expected of PM capability in terms of market advantage, efficiency upticks on a balance sheet, or keeping pace with industry disruptors when DoD’s Acquisition Complex takes in requirements and generates a new capability or service to be put into action by a warfighter.

The Section 809 Panel’s interim report for the two-year analysis cycle reaffirms the need to change. The report specifically states that the “United States’ ability to maintain technological, military, and economic superiority is being challenged because its adversaries are rapidly modernizing their militaries with an eye toward exploiting U.S. vulnerabilities and negating traditional U.S. advantages.” The report later conveys that both the strategy and marketplace realities require a degree of agility that the DoD is not currently able to deliver.

Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, reinforced this concept during recent public discussions by stating, as quoted by NDIA, “It’s all about velocity.” She was laying out her plans to speed up the system during an interview at the Association for the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. She continued: “We’re trying to experiment. We are trying to prototype. We are trying to iterate and get stuff downrange quickly.”

While it is evident that agility is key for the department, questions remain as to how the DoD will develop and implement new strategy at a rapid pace while keeping the nation secure. Project Management Institute (PMI) recently developed and delivered an Acquisition Point Paper (APP) to the Section 809 Panel — “Winning in the 21st Century: Command by Negation with a Portfolio, Program, Project Structure” — that provides actionable recommendations for the DoD to improve its effectiveness, efficiency and increase its organizational agility level.

The APP contains several organizational project management considerations that would assist the DoD as it works to improve its adaptability levels internally and increase performance. The changes are based on the American National Standards for portfolio, program and project management as robust frameworks, but they represent the simplified end of the bookcase when compared to the complexity found in DoD regulations for program management. Additionally, some of the regulatory structure established must evolve to enable a change in culture and mindset to enable “greater velocity.” Some of these considerations include:

  • Use American National Standards for portfolio, program and project management with emphasis on the use of the portfolio and project standards.
  • Adopt a portfolio management organizational structure that is capability focused, but is diverse enough to link all DoD enterprise strategies for specific weapon and management systems.
  • Expand use of disciplined project management below the program level, allowing project management empowerment for project teams, or Integrated Product Teams. These teams are at the working level of weapon and management systems programs.
  • Unify authority across support systems at the portfolio level with the portfolio leaders, which can be called Systems Capability Executive Officers. The current Program Executive Officers would become the initial set of Systems Capability Executive Officers who would be empowered to become what DoD calls the Milestone Decision Authority for their programs.
  • Create a DoD level Executive Review Committee, not only to comply with OMB Circular A-11 but to address enterprise strategies, including overall portfolio structure, cross portfolio strategies and uniform alignment of resource allocation across decision support systems. In part, this allows the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Service Acquisition leads to focus more on strategy and empower the portfolios to execute rapidly, perhaps shaving years from inception to deployment durations.

These recommendations, along with others presented in the APP, have serious potential to streamline acquisition and empower the DoD as it seeks to modernize its military offerings. The robust focus at the program level leaves an abundance of opportunity to improve at the project level where the department meets industry — and at the portfolio level to not only ensure the right initiatives are underway, but the right ones are being done at the right time across the department and services. The panel’s interim report should act as a lesson for organizations worldwide. Today’s rapidly changing climate has forced agencies known as project management leaders to adjust their tactics. Is it time for yours to as well?

Charles R. Mahon is a government relations manager for the Project Management Institute working in PMI’s Washington DC Office. He is former naval surface warfare officer and was qualified in naval nuclear propulsion. He served on board the nuclear powered guided missile cruiser, the USS Virginia (CGN 38) and the aircraft carrier the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).