| It was my first big briefing
as a program manager, a program status briefing to some
senior "big-wigs." I was pretty comfortable because things
were going well with the program's technical progress
and schedule. However, I was concerned about the amount
of money we were spending.
Even though we were only about 20% of the way through
the program, we had already spent about 30% of the money
and there were some significant technical hurdles ahead
of us. I debated what to say about this and finally
concluded that I would just be candid about what I saw
as an impending problem with having enough money to
complete the program.
As my boss reviewed the briefing, it was evident that
he was quite pleased with what I had to say until we
got to the slide on the money problem. He looked at
it for a moment and then turned to me and said, "You
can't tell them that!"
"Why not?" I replied. "It's the truth."
"I know it's the truth," he declared, "but you have
to be careful how you phrase it. First, you need to
tell them that having enough money to finish is a 'challenge'
rather than a 'problem.' Don't tell them how big the
problem is. Then you need to tell them that you and
the contractor are 'working aggressively' to get the
costs in line with the work. If you don't do that then
your program will either become a problem that they
will feel compelled to help you fix. Cancellation is
not out of the realm of possibility. Neither one of
us wants that to happen! And besides, we don't know
for sure that there really will be a money problem."
I acquiesced to the changes my boss suggested. I gave
the briefing and everyone was happy with how well the
program was progressing. My boss congratulated me on
the briefing and pointed out that the money slide had
barely raised an eyebrow.
Two years later the money problem became obvious.
But, by then, we had accomplished enough and readily
got the additional money we needed to finish the program.
Reflecting on what I had done, I wondered if the ends
had justified the means. I hadn't lied (or at least
I rationalized that I hadn't), but I had deliberately
miscommunicated so that my audience wouldn't comprehend
the import of what I was saying. I had "fuzzed-up" the
This happened many years ago. I have subsequently
observed that what I had done is a practice that is
all too common. Whether it's because of lack of confidence
in senior management, an aversion to conflict, an example
of the "bandwagon effect," or fear of being blamed...
I don't know. What I do know is that I was wrong.
I let down the senior leadership who had entrusted
me with my position. I had compromised my integrity
by not making sure that my audience clearly understood
the true message. Luckily for my career, no one but
me ever figured that out!
Editor's Note: Years later now, Mr. Little has become
one of the most accomplished acquisition managers in
the DoD and is currently a member of the Senior Executive
Little is in the civil service with the Department
of the Air Force, where he has been a program manager
for five major defense acquisition efforts. He entered
the Air Force in 1967 and served on active duty
until 1975. As a civilian employee, Mr. Little has
been an operations research analyst, a program director
for a classified program, a deputy program director
for both a large, multiple-program office and a
Navy-led joint program office, and a weapons development