An acquisition program office brings together a multitude of professional specialties, each with its own specialized language. It’s the PM’s job to understand, interpret, translate, and unite.
by Col. Joel D. Babbitt
People use many languages in the course of a day. In military families, for example, it is not unusual to hear a smattering of German or Korean picked up from assignments overseas, mixed liberally with a base of English or, for some, Spanish. At work in the office of a program manager (PM), there could be a half dozen or more languages in use, each with its own vocabulary, conceptual framework and rules of usage. They are as varied and incomprehensible to the uninitiated as any other language. The only difference being that all of them are spoken using English.
If these languages are English but also not, what are they? Logistics, program management, engineering, cost estimating, contracting, budgeting, financial forecasting, requirements, cyber, upper management and user-specific tribal languages (e.g., paratroopers, armor or special ops) are some examples, but the list goes on. Like “governmentese” itself, each of these is based in English, and each one is very necessary to the function of a PM office.
As any linguist will attest, translating from one language to another requires first understanding and speaking both languages. And who is the designated translator for your program? It’s the multilingual PM.
BRIDGING THE LANGUAGE GAP
The Product Lead for Wideband Enterprise Satellite Systems (PL WESS) within the Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS) develops satellite controls, installs and maintains building-sized satellite dishes and renovates satellite facilities. However, the language of satellite communications (SATCOM) is not a common one, and the contracting, budget, logistics and other personnel who support WESS did not grow up speaking it.
Along with the “why” of the program, the PM must educate stakeholders on the “what.” Until recently, misunderstandings between SATCOM engineers and the contracting folks who support us were fairly common. Contract specialists and officers often didn’t understand the systems they were helping buy and neither did their legal staff. This caused no end of misunderstandings between satellite engineers and the contracting staff that supported them, resulting in delay after delay.
What changed? To help alleviate this problem, in 2015, WESS set up a three-day SATCOM 101 course in its testing facility. This course—for support personnel and organizations; contracting officers, logisticians, budget personnel, procurement lawyers, etc—focused on the basics of satellite terminals, modems, baseband systems, payload control systems, all wrapped up with live demonstrations of the products and hands-on familiarization with the equipment. This greatly reduced misunderstandings and increased cohesiveness among PL WESS stakeholders, who now speak the same language.
BUILDING COMMON UNDERSTANDING
It is a mistake to assume that everyone should speak only one common language. Diversity of languages is a great benefit when solving complex problems; that’s why the diversity of conceptual frameworks and skill areas exist in acquisition. When the program office for Warfighter Information Network – Tactical Increment 1 developed a modernization schema for upgrading the Army’s truck-based tactical internet, the leadership assembled a team that included engineering, logistics and program management personnel. Out of that came a framework that was executable and supportable, enabling the PM to meet program deadlines.
The lesson learned from this example is that the PM’s job is to connect all the different tribes of experts within the program office. If a PM fails to bring the right specialists to the table because he or she does not understand or value those specialties, or the PM is not skilled enough to translate, then the PM has failed.
It would be a mistake to develop elaborate plans with intricate interdependencies, only to have them completely upended because of a failure to include one of the experts crucial to the success of the plan, such as the engineers, who build to the plan, or logisticians, who support the plan. If you don’t include the right people, then you will have to assume what their input would have been. It is much better to build plans on a solid foundation of facts, with the input of all the necessary experts, rather than on the sands of supposition.
THREE LANGUAGES TO LIVE BY
Every DOD PM lives in a world created and regulated by three languages: the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS), the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process, and the Defense Acquisition System (DAS). These three rule the PM’s world—every dollar received, every effort the PM tackles and every schedule the PM builds. Not only that, the three languages are interconnected, together forming the Army’s strategy to keep acquisition programs on track.
PMs who take the time to understand how the three languages work together to build the Army, gain uncommon wisdom and greater credibility. Following is a brief lexicon:
- JCIDS is the requirements system for DOD. The Army staffs JCIDS with its Training and Doctrine Command capability managers (TCMs), informed by an understanding of the threat. At the pinnacle of the lengthy JCIDS approval process is the Army Requirements Oversight Council (AROC) or, for joint capabilities, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC). Without a valid, approved requirement, the PM has no basis to spend money. Seldom in the world outside of defense acquisition is anyone likely to hear the words JCIDS, TRADOC, AROC or JROC. The PM has to know them and their implications inside and out.
- As a PM, you can dream all you want, but until you get money, it is just a dream. The PPBE process, commonly thought of in terms of its end product, the program objective memorandum (POM), is the process whereby the Army projects expenses and plans what it is going to buy for the next five years.
- DAS is where the requirements and money come together and become reality. This is the realm of the multilingual PM, the PM’s native tongue. Terms such as ACAT (acquisition category), EVM (earned value management) and Nunn-McCurdy breach and countless others all come from here.
The first and most frequent mistake PMs make in learning these languages is working only in their DAS bubble, and not in the parts that overlap with PPBE or JCIDS. Too often PMs say, “It’s the TCM’s job to figure out what the users want,” or, “The money folks need to figure out how to fund that.” Statements like that, while technically true, show a lack of initiative.
Don’t wait for other organizations to come up with the solution. Make the effort to figure out what the right solution should be—whether it be requirements, money, etc—then meld your version of the right solution with your partner organizations’ solutions. If we as acquisition professionals spend the time and effort to figure out what the right answer truly is, then we’ll know the answer for our external stakeholders as well. Most of the time, if you’ve already figured out what the right answer is, your stakeholders will tell you to go ahead and do it.
This mentality applies to the money folks as well. A PM facing unfunded requirements should look inside the program first for the right answer. Most programs have quite a bit of carryover, which can be used to fund unfunded requirements. Funding requirements internally has the added benefit of driving up obligation rates, which positions the PM perfectly to spend other people’s money (say, from elsewhere in the PEO or G-8 portfolio) during the end-of-fiscal-year, use-it-or-lose-it rush. It is a strange reality in DOD that he who spends all his money is usually given more.
The second mistake PMs make is to assume that an opinion from one bubble applies to another bubble. For instance, when asked what, if any, ACAT (a DAS designation) applies to a program, most PMs look at the front of their capability development document or capability production document (JCIDS products). This is akin to asking your engineer what the budget person thinks. If the PM does not have an ACAT determination memo, then the program does not have an ACAT designation—period. Similarly, a PM who builds something (based on the DAS) that does not meet the requirements (based on JCIDS) is likely to have a rude awakening when the time comes to pass the next milestone.
Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” established a framework that hinges on first winning the private victory, then winning the public victory. In other words, look inside first, then go outside and conquer the world. PMs must first learn to speak the various languages of the many experts within a program office, leveraging all of their expertise, and unite the entire program staff through a common understanding to accomplish the mission.
Once PMs have mastered the many languages spoken in the acquisition trenches of a PM shop, they are poised to take on the structures and systems that frame and rule their world. So go forth, multilingual PM, fully armed, and conquer your world.
For an overview of the acquisition “language” go to the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) Guidebook and ACQuipedia. For more information on effective leadership, visit Dr. Stephen Covey’s website at https://www.stephencovey.com/blog/. Contact the author at 703-806-0583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
COL. JOEL BABBITT is the PL WESS at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He previously served as the product manager for Warfighter Information Network – Tactical Increment 1, and before that as the product manager for command, control, communications, computing and intelligence for a unit under the U.S Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He holds a M.S. in computer science from the Naval Postgraduate School and a B.S. in psychology from Brigham Young University, and is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Lee, Virginia, and Austin, Texas. He is Level III certified in program management and Level II certified in engineering and in information technology. He holds the project management professional certification and is a member of the Army Space Cadre and the Army Acquisition Corps.
This article is scheduled to be published in the April – June issue of Army AL&T Magazine.
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