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Program Management Office helping AEDC meet its mission

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --

One of the goals of the Department of Defense National Defense Strategy is to “Reform the Department for Greater Performance and Affordability.”  Part of this goal includes adapting organizational structures to best meet evolving mission needs, by consolidating, eliminating or restructuring as needed.  Arnold Engineering Development Complex contributed to this goal through the establishment of its Program Management Office, an organization that will have its first birthday at the end of May 2020.  The PMO was stood up in response to the operational model that AEDC began to put in place in 2015, and today provides program management oversight for AEDC major service contracts.

But what does program management mean exactly?  And how does it differ from project management?  I have had the opportunity to be part of the Air Force acquisition community for 21 years, so it is easy to assume that the difference is universally understood.  The Project Management Institute defines program management as “the grouping of projects for the sake of managing them together for increased benefit realization.”  In the DOD’s case, the benefit realization comes in the form of aligning the overall program with organizational strategic goals, while keeping an ever-present eye on risks to cost, schedule and performance.  From the onset, a Program Manager (PM) works with key stakeholders to define program requirements that align with the strategic roadmap.  Execution of the individual projects requires the PM’s focus to not only ensure requirements are being met, but also to coordinate interdependencies that exist between projects.  At the same time, the PM must constantly evaluate how the overall program is poised to achieve the strategic objectives of the organization. 

But still, this is a rather academic answer to the questions posed above.  My grandmother, who has heard the term program management but had never given much consideration to it, asked me what it meant when I told her I was hired into the new PMO.  I tried a few different variations of answers before she asked me if it were like overseeing a house being built, from start to finish.  Using the construction analogy, a house would be more like a project:  a set of tasks with a defined budget, scope and timeframe to be completed.  The overall program might be a new residential community.  Before even thinking about the individual houses, the PM must work with the stakeholders to determine the strategic plan for the development.  The stakeholders may have a targeted resident demographic in mind that will lead to requirements for lot sizes, home values and community attractions, such as walking/bike trails or playgrounds.  The surrounding area will drive requirements as well.  If it is in a suburb of a city with a steadily growing population, the PM will likely need to consider expansion possibilities while determining the overall site plan.  These and so many more decisions have to be made before beginning the construction phase.  Once construction begins, the PM will have to monitor the projects as they occur to ensure requirements are being met within the allocated budget and within schedule constraints.  If the work on one project is going to impact another, the PM will have to take action to mitigate risk to the overall program.  Most of all, the PM is responsible for ensuring the program continues to execute in line with the strategic goals.

While the PMO is not managing work related to building residential developments, the same concepts apply.  AEDC relies on each of the major service contracts to meet its mission:  to prove the superiority of systems required to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy.  Stakeholders work with the PMO to define the requirements that have to be met in order to align with AEDC’s strategic roadmap.  These requirements set the foundation for the initial stage of the program, the acquisition of the service contract, and the PM is responsible for ensuring the requirements are being met throughout execution.  Like the residential development example, each of the major service contracts can be broken down into separate projects that contribute to the whole.  The PM monitors progress by managing risks, resources and interdependencies occurring at the project level to promote success at the program level.  And by having all of the PMs for the major service contracts assigned to one dedicated organization, the interdependencies between the programs themselves can be managed more effectively and efficiently.

The National Defense Strategy demands that we adjust our organizational model as necessary to break down any barriers to performance.  The establishment of the PMO, as a means to provide program management across the acquisition lifecycle of our major service contracts, represents a substantial change that the Complex has made to respond to today’s operational reality.  The PMO is charged with assuring that AEDC has the right resources, for the right reasons, at the right time for the Complex to meet its mission, and ultimately, meet the goals of the National Defense Strategy.  While the results of this work may not be as easy to recognize as a new housing development, this PM finds the work incredibly fulfilling.