Driving out “the Stupid” Leveraging IT Lessons Learned from DOD and Industry

By January 25, 2018Acquisition, Army ALT Magazine
Col. Richard Haggerty
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By Col. Richard Haggerty

Imagine yourself as the Project Manager (PM) of an Acquisition Category (ACAT) III basket portfolio who has just been tapped to lead an ACAT I Special Interest cyber-Information Technology (IT) program with direction from Congress to immediately deliver capability to all Cyber Mission Forces (CMF) across the Department of Defense (DoD). Additionally, your first task as the PM is to brief Congressional members and staffers on your plan to execute this program, despite a lack of personnel, a defined requirement document, or an acquisition strategy.

What do you do?

A good place to start is an assessment of applicable Lessons Learned. Unfortunately, these lessons all point to a spotty track record of government-managed information technology (IT) programs:

  • “Large projects not only fail more often, they deliver less… 50% of IT projects with budgets over $15 million dollars run 45% over budget, are 7% behind schedule, and deliver 58% less functionality than predicted.” 1
  • “The government has wasted billions on botched IT projects that fail to deliver promised – or any – functionality and have been mothballed.” 2
    Even Gall’s Law clearly warns us that a complex system that works evolves from a simple system that worked. Conversely, a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.

Now what do you do?

Perhaps an application of industry lessons learned is the answer. As PC computing started to proliferate the enterprise in the 1990’s, the average lag between a requirement and software application delivery was three years. DoD’s answer to decrease development time was new software development standards and minimal tailoring of acquisition standards. Industry leaders instead sought to keep pace with the market and accelerating technology, but often cancelled projects and/or delivered partial capability in frustration as the gap continually expanded. Out of necessity for corporate survival, Agile was born in industry.

Agile Software Development describes a set of values and principles for software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through collaborative efforts of small self-organizing cross-functional teams.

As Agile evolved over the decades, it found its way into DoD weapons system programs. Yet countless reports and case studies of large-scale IT programs highlight the incongruity between agile development methodologies in industry and the cumbersome bureaucratic governmental processes unable to take full advantage of them.

FIGURE 1 Agile Software Development Manifesto

FIGURE 1 – Agile Software Development Manifesto 6


These government and industry lessons learned drove three core principles for building the Persistent Cyber Training Environment (PCTE) program of record:

  • Maximum use of acquisition tailoring
  • Iterative capability drops
  • Organizational culture
  • Acquisition Tailoring

PMs often complain that there are too many restrictions in place to streamline programs, or they require special authorities similar to the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force or U.S. Special Operations Command’s ability to rapidly deliver capability. I respectfully disagree.

  • DoD 5000.01: “MDAs and PMs shall tailor program strategies and oversight, including documentation of program information, acquisition phases, the timing and scope of decision reviews, and decision levels, to fit the particular conditions of that program, consistent with applicable laws and regulations and the time-sensitivity of the capability need.”
  • Better Buying Power: “Unnecessary and low-value added processes and document requirements are a significant drag on acquisition productivity and must be aggressively identified and eliminated,”
  • FAR Part 1.102-4: “The absence of direction should be interpreted as permitting the team to innovate and use sound business judgement that is otherwise consistent with law and within the limits of their authority.”

There are countless other references encouraging, if not directing, acquisition professionals to tailor programs based on sound business decisions. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with acquisition tailoring insinuates cutting corners, incomplete staffing, and/or excessive levels of risk. It additionally levies demands on a system that was not built for streamlined operations. Program tailoring often requires accelerated staffing, flat decision-making constructs, and requires acquisition leaders to accept some elements of risk that would otherwise be deferred during long and cumbersome staffing processes. It’s this organizational discomfort, not restrictive policy that often dissuades acquisition tailoring.

The PCTE Acquisition Strategy outlines a tailored approach to conduct pre-milestone risk reduction activities, then formally enter the acquisition system at Milestone B. During staffing a senior member of an organization tried to convince us to insert a Milestone A into the strategy so the program “looked more traditional and acceptable to the establishment”, despite the non value-added time and effort it would bring to the program. This discussion is more representative of the obstacles to acquisition tailoring than the actual policy.

Iterative Capability Drops

Poorly performing projects “have often used a ‘big bang’ approach­—that is, projects are broadly scoped and aim to deliver functionality several years after initiation. This has too often resulted in overdue, ineffective projects that fail to keep up with the rapid pace of technological innovation.” 3

This theme of IT projects collapsing under their own schedule as technology and requirements eclipsed the clumsy acquisition processes was prevalent in numerous reports and case study lessons learned. The solution was best articulated in a 2014 MITRE report that translated the principles of the Agile manifesto into four core elements. 4 These became the driving vision for not only the PCTE acquisition strategy, but the organizational culture.

  • Focusing on small, frequent capability releases
  • Valuing working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Responding rapidly to changes in operations, technology, and budgets
  • Actively involving users throughout the development to ensure high operational value

Using these as a guide, the team kicked off the PCTE program less than seven days after being formally designated by the Army to manage this program of record with an Industry Day that brought in more than 100 companies, organizations, and members of academia. During that same event we also initiated a Cyber Innovation Challenge (CIC) targeting a niche capability within the PCTE requirement; the CIC down-selected paper proposals to seven selected vendors who participated in a week-long demonstration to Cyber Mission Force evaluator. One vendor with considerable experience in the cyber community remarked that “this was the first cyber fly-off we’ve ever participated in.”

The CIC results in Other Transactional Authority (OTA) contract awards to industry. Coupled with efforts under other existing cyber contracts, these CIC efforts feed the first of several pre-Milestone B iterative PCTE capability drops to keep pace with technology, threat, and training requirements while also reducing programmatic risk. The first PCTE CIC OTA awards are scheduled for October 2017, with a second CIC event kicking off in Spring 2018. The programmatics, however, are only one element of success.

Organizational Culture

Managing an ACAT I program without people is challenging, especially during a federal civilian hiring freeze. But it is also a golden opportunity to assemble a team that has the right organizational culture to make a large DoD IT project successful.

A valuable lesson learned articulated in the Defense Acquisition Guide observed that “experience indicates that cultural changes must occur if programs are to implement Agile effectively, and that institutional resistance to these changes can prove especially hard to overcome. However, we believe that with strong leadership, a well-informed program office, and a cohesive and committed government and contractor team, Agile could enable the DoD to deliver IT capabilities faster and more effectively than traditional incremental approaches.” 5

It’s simple to publish a command philosophy or a new policy, but those documents do very little in shaping organizational culture. The PCTE team continues to use the Agile Manifesto to not only guide the program’s strategy, but also the organization’s culture. At the risk of using trite colloquialisms, every member of the team is brought into a flat organization where personal responsibility, initiative, and creativity are not only rewarded, but mandated. In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins expressed it best: “Any exceptional enterprise depends first and foremost upon having self-managed and self-motivated people, the #1 ingredient for a culture of discipline. While you might think that such a culture would be characterized by rules, rigidity, and bureaucracy, I’m suggesting quite the opposite.”

In June 2017, while performing the duties of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, Mr. James MacStravic vowed to drive out what he called “the stupid” from DoD’s IT buying practices. Specifically, the department’s tendency to apply processes that were designed for complex weapons systems – including massive, slow delivery increments and exhaustive testing procedures. Coincidentally, Mr. MacStravic was the Milestone Decision Authority for PCTE at that time and had just approved the innovative and unconventional PCTE Acquisition Strategy 30 days prior. Without question, he helped shape the organizational culture, as well as the program’s strategy.

Driving Out “The Stupid”

Poring over lessons learned and case studies on acquisition programs, most professionals will think to themselves, “how could this have ever happened?” It’s only after some time in the seat that PMs realize how easy it is to be the topic of a case study.

As we pored over the lessons learned on large DoD IT efforts, it became clear that the Persistent Cyber Training Environment program had to take an unconventional approach to be successful. We needed to heavily tailor the acquisition process, commit to an Agile-like strategy for iterative capability drops, and shape focus on an organizational culture that could not only think outside the box, but manage a program outside of it.

PCTE has clearly embraced Agile development and is embracing leading edge methods for streamlining this complex program. These efforts are driven by necessity as well as a pure desire to deliver this key capability to Warfighter’s.


1 – Bloch, Michael, Blumberg, Sven and Laartz, Jürgen. Delivering Large-Scale IT Projects on Time, On Budget, and On Value.” McKinsey, October 2012, http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/delivering-large-scale-it-projects-on-time-on-budget-and-on-value. Accessed on 10 September 2017.

2 – GAO-15-290 Report to Congressional Committees, “High Risk Series, An Update.” February 2015, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668415.pdf. Accessed on 11 September 2017.

3 – GAO-15-290 Report to Congressional Committees, “High Risk Series, An Update.” February 2015, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668415.pdf. Accessed on 11 September 2017.

4 – Modigliani, Peter J and Chang, Su. “Defense Agile Acquisition Guide: Tailoring DoD IT Acquisition Program Structures and Processes to Rapidly Deliver Capabilities.” March 2014, https://www.mitre.org/publications/technical-papers/defense-agile-acquisition-guide-tailoring-dod-it-acquisition-program. Accessed on 6 September 2017.

5 – Modigliani, Peter J and Chang, Su. “Defense Agile Acquisition Guide: Tailoring DoD IT Acquisition Program Structures and Processes to Rapidly Deliver Capabilities.” March 2014, https://www.mitre.org/publications/technical-papers/defense-agile-acquisition-guide-tailoring-dod-it-acquisition-program. Accessed on 6 September 2017.

6 – Figure 1. Schiller, Fabian. “Agile Planet. A Travel Guide to the Agile Universe.” learnpub.com, 2 November 2014, https://leanpub.com/agileplanet. Accessed on 7 September 2017.

Col. Richard Haggerty grew up in San Diego, California and enlisted in the United States Army as a senior in high school. After four years he accepted a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1993. Over his 30 year career, Col. Haggerty has flown attack helicopters and served in various command and staff positions in the conventional Army and Special Operations Forces. He currently leads a project office supporting test and evaluation, joint training, special operations and cyber.

Col. Haggerty has operational and combat deployments to Kuwait, Bosnia, Thailand, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is married to the former Kimberly Way of New Jersey, and they have two sons: Nicholas and Maverick.

This article is a winner in the 2017 Maj. Gen. Harold J. “Harry” Green Awards for Acquisition Writing competition. A special supplement featuring the winning entries is online now, and will accompany the print version of the April – June 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine. If you wish to be added to the magazine’s mailing list, subscribe online; if you’d like multiple subscriptions, please send an email to armyalt@gmail.com.