| Firm fixed price (FFP)
contracting is a sporty proposition. An FFP program that
is significantly overrunning will bring a company to its
knees. Conversely, when successful, profits can be substantial.
At Starsys, we execute many FFP programs for the development
of mechanical systems for spacecraft. Contracting this
way presupposes that we have the ability to establish
and hold scope for a system that has yet to be defined.
To do FFP, it is critical that we have program managers
who are masters at cost control.
Fortunately, we have some "masters" in our company.
They just seem to have a knack for driving to a financial
target. Doesn't matter if the program has contingency
or not. Doesn't seem to matter if they use MS Project,
Excel spreadsheets, or the back of an envelope. Doesn't
even seem to matter whether the program is set up as
a financial challenge or a winner. Yes, they have systems
and the mechanisms for converging on a cost target,
but so do the good -- but not master -- program managers.
As I looked back over the last five years, it was
clear that some of our program managers consistently
generated great results and others did not. This got
me to thinking, if I could only figure out their formula,
could it be turned into a recipe for success? I started
talking to some of the managers about this, and one
of their comments struck a chord, "You just do it --
it's natural, it's where the fun is." That got me thinking:
Maybe this isn't as much of a skills issue as I had
It's accepted practice that good engineers are created
not born. That's what engineering degrees are all about.
But this is not always the case for other disciplines.
Take marketing: These folks seem natural at it. They
love meeting people, they love developing relationships,
they love explaining things, and they love enrolling
people in their ideas. Could it be that master program
mangers are born not made?
Maybe Myers-Briggs would have the key. I had a group
of fifteen folks take the Myers-Briggs personality test.
The group included good program managers, the ones I
regarded as masters, and others who had demonstrated
that their strengths lie elsewhere. And the result was...
no correlation! Yes, I could see some patterns that
explained the individual's styles, but clearly Myers-Briggs
was not an indicator of who was a master program manager.
I spent a lot of time talking to these masters. What
I found were shared values. The things that they found
fun, interesting, and worthy had some common threads.
For instance, they all loved business and the game of
leveraging what you know to make money. And that interest
went way back. These were the folks with the lemonade
stands, the newspaper routes. I was surprised by this.
Values are the beliefs that develop as a person is growing
up, from the primary influencers in your life through
grade school and high school.
Their similarities carried on into college.The masters
were those who had wanted their MBAs. It wasn't so much
what they had learned from their MBA as it was their passion
about getting one. To a person, they had all thought about
starting their own business, but for whatever reason had
chosen to take a less risky path.
wins were the things that made them smile, high-five,
and carry on about how much they loved what they
The most interesting thing was what really made for
a "great day" for these people. It wasn't limited to
finding a great design, or converging on a technical
solution. Business wins were the things that made them
smile, high-five, and carry on about how much they loved
what they did -- finding the technical solution that
would save $50,000 or that resulted in the favorable
negotiation of a contract element. Try to get a great
designer excited about a favorable negotiation of a
Now, whenever I interview a project manager there
are a couple of things I know to ask to gain insight
into their values. For instance, I'll ask, "So, did
you ever run a lemonade stand?"
Some folks look dumbfounded. You may as well be asking
them to talk about their root canal. But masters "light
up" at this point and respond with something like, "Oh
yeah, ever since I was a kid I loved making money."
Masters tend to think in terms of leveraging what they
know to create an enterprise that makes money. I don't
just ask them about their lemonade stands, but it's
not such a bad place to start. This is values-based
interviewing, and it is actually an easy way to get
at what makes people tick.
Yes, we need to give our project managers the right
resources -- the tools, the qualified technical expertise,
and the training -- but it's a mistake to assume that
we can "grow" any given engineer into an effective project
manager. We put our projects at risk if we do so. The
lesson here is that we must seek out PMs with a passion
for the business of projects. This is something to consider,
too, as we recruit and groom tomorrow's project leaders.
Business wins were the things that made them smile,
high-five, and carry on about how much they loved what
Search by lesson to find more on:
president of Starsys Research in Boulder, Colorado,
Scott Tibbetts has overseen the production
of more than 2,000 mechanisms flown on more than
Tibbitts' first ASK feature, "Fly
Away," appeared in Issue16.