Imagine being the program manager leading development of the International Space Station or overseeing the evolution of the Super Hornet jet fighter. Recognizing the complexity inherent in each of these programs, what could you do to ensure your success?

Based on a five-year exploration of these and other major programs, the Project Management Institute, MIT’s Consortium for Engineering Program Management and the International Council on Systems Engineering found that highly aligned teams supported by strong management and technical leaders have a significant impact on engineering program performance.

What makes engineering programs challenging is that those programs create technology systems, not just individual technology components. With the ISS and Super Hornet programs, interconnected technologies deliver the capabilities enabling the programs to work properly.

These systems connect like your computer does. The main operating system allows you to run different types of software. Each software program is its own system but must interface with your operating system to function properly. You may also need to perform other tasks with your computer. All these added capabilities require different technologies that must interface effectively with your computer’s operating system.

Apply that same logic to the Super Hornet with sophisticated radar, enemy detection, weapons and communications systems, and the scale of complexity in government engineering programs becomes clearer.

Integrate to be great

PMI’s “2018 Pulse of the Profession: Success in Disruptive Times: Expanding the Value Delivery Landscape to Address the High Cost of Low Performance” showed that government agencies worldwide are wasting 8.3 percent of every dollar due to poor project performance — that’s $83 million for every $1 billion invested.

“Pulse” also highlighted that technology and software-enabled capabilities are impacting businesses and governments worldwide. For government, this “digital disruption” can enable citizen engagement, support efficient operations and deliver completely new capabilities. However, it also highlights one of the key challenges with projects and programs — as poor requirements are the leading cause of failures, wasted resources and schedule delays.

On major programs and projects, like defense systems or integration of multiple IT systems, requirements are very complex. Not only must the individual technologies be developed to function correctly, the program team must also develop interfaces that integrate those technologies, transfer information between them, provide back-ups for failures, etc.

Effectively managing these challenges requires strong collaboration between the program manager and the chief systems engineer. Chief systems engineers are the technical experts who manage and deliver technical requirements and interfaces for the whole system, not just independent technologies. These systems engineers are specifically trained to ensure all requirements, including interfaces, are properly documented and that all components are designed and tested so they work as intended.

The program manager/chief systems engineer partnership and the program culture they create can have a significant impact on engineering program performance, as detailed in the book “Integrating Program Management and Systems Engineering: Methods, Tools, and Organizational Systems for Improving Performance.” Some examples from this book illustrate the importance of this leadership collaboration:

The International Space Station

The ISS involves teams from multiple countries, cultures and disciplines who must solve complex technical issues to support the Station’s ongoing research mission. To maintain a “one team” mindset, NASA functions as a “managing partner,” helping the international team turn different perspectives on program management, designs, operational risk and safety into a common solution framework everyone understands and supports.

The ISS program team agreed that because so many different countries and companies were contributing hardware and software, the interfaces must be extremely simple to avoid the possibility of system failures on the Station.

The Super Hornet

The U.S. Navy’s FA-18 E/F Super Hornet provides another example in strong leadership and collaborative teams. The failure of the Navy’s A-12 program prompted then-Senator John Glenn to state, “The Navy’s ability to manage such a program is atrocious.”

With the FA-18 E/F program, the Navy had to get it right. Admiral Joe Dyer, the program manager, and his counterpart within the prime contractor, McDonnell Douglas, established a culture based on open communications, decision-making based on objective data, and collaboration across management and technical disciplines on the program. There were no boundaries between management and technical functions, or between contractor and government.

Integrated project teams developed the plane’s components while program leadership ensured all the pieces would work as planned. When one of the GE engines failed during testing, GE disclosed the failure, and the program team rallied to find a solution.

According to Admiral Dyer, “In just six weeks, we went full cycle from having the problem surface to diagnosing it and to installing new parts.” The collaboration resulted in the plane being delivered within budget, ahead of schedule and it had greater capacity, range and reliability than its original specifications.

Alignment adjustments

The leaders of both projects removed silos between contract and government staff by ensuring the program’s project teams effectively integrated assigned personnel. Most importantly, the leaders took accountability and held others accountable not only for results, but for behaviors that re-enforced collaboration, open communication and creativity.

These cases, and others documented in the book, showed that programs with highly aligned and collaborative teams have up to a 17 percent stronger performance related to cost, schedule, customer satisfaction and meeting requirements. As the federal government faces increasingly complex challenges resulting from a rapidly changing digital environment, it’s imperative that all departments create an environment that allows for highly aligned teams supported by strong management principles.

Mike Morgan is the manager of government relations for the Project Management Institute. He manages PMI’s Washington, D.C., team, leads strategic engagement with federal and state government agencies and advances relationships with regional development banks headquartered in Washington, D.C.