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Create Synergy to Bridge the Gap Between Contract and Program Managers

synergyHave you ever wondered why you cannot seem to get the right team together in order to complete your major project?  Does it seem that you are going in one direction and the other teaming partner, whether it’s the Contracting Officer or the Program Manager, seems to be going in a different direction or has another agenda?  Perhaps it’s because there is not a connection between the two managers that leads them to the same conclusion with regard to how the major project should be run and what needs to be done in order to ultimately deliver a successful result.

I would like to discuss how to create synergy and bridge the gap between the Contracting Officer and the Program Manager.  I’ll focus on the necessity for flexibility, how to listen to the other’s constructs, and how to find a solution that will enable each leader to achieve their ultimate goal in terms of time, budget, and best value.

Responsibility for developing the implementation plan

We know when pulling together a major acquisition there are numerous stakeholders you will need to work and communicate with.  However, I’d like to focus on two major players; the Program Manager (PM), who represents the operational mission of the agency, organization, etc., and the Contracting Officer (CO), who is tasked with enabling the mission in the most effective way by following the policies, rules and regulations that guide the acquisition process.  These two individuals are responsible for orchestrating the implementation plan for the success of the project and may not always agree on the same path for success.  These two individuals are vested with a tremendous amount of authority.  For example, one (i.e., the PM) controls the budget, resources and is often supported strongly by their (operational) upper management.  The other (i.e., CO) controls the regulatory authority vested in them by OFPP, Congress, and the White House.  Consequently, both of their approval is critical for enabling mission execution.

How do we bridge the gap that sometimes occurs between the two? 

Let’s look at the responsibilities and attributes of both:

Program Manager (PM)

  • The voice of the Program Office
  • Singularly responsible for all aspects of the acquisition (development, delivery schedule, performance), keeping their eye on the “big picture”.
  • Must have strong leadership and management skills
  • Must be an effective communicator and problem solver
  • Must be skilled in effectively managing the project budget and allocation of appropriate resources

The Contracting Officer (CO)

  • Plans the acquisition based on the requirements and interfaces defined by the PM
  • Must work within the statutory rules, regulations, and policies from the pre-solicitation stage to contract award
  • Uses assigned resources to complete the acquisition process
  • Must deliver product/service in accordance with defined standards
  • Must satisfy customer in terms of cost, quality and timeliness
  • Must conduct business with integrity, fairness, and openness and fulfill public policy objectives

So how do you bridge any gap between what the Program Manager needs and wants and what the Contracting Officer must do under the auspices of her authority?

Based on my experience navigating these challenges, I’ve found these best practices and guidelines helpful:

  • Find common goals, mutual objectives, and pragmatic solutions. For example, integrate these common goals within the organization’s performance management system.
  • Understand that the roles can be at odds and don’t necessarily complement each other.
  • CO’s are etched in regulatory controls and responsibility. PMs are not necessarily concerned with regulations, and, therefore, this can sometimes create a source of tension.
  • Discuss those goals, letting each other know “Why” each is required to do what they are doing.
  • Don’t be so rigid. The CO must speak to the law and regulatory responsibility, however there are alternative solutions that may get you to the same outcome – explore those alternatives.
  • NEVER be stuck in the “Do as I say” mode. In the long run, it never works, and can have negative ramifications on the organization.

Once both parties understand each other, they can then work together towards a common goal and the gap begins to lessen and the synergy of the team begins to form.  After the gap has been closed between these two powerful individuals, they can then form their teams, synergize those individuals, and move forward to produce a product or service that will meet the needs of the Agency and be a success story for both the CO and the PM.

What are your experiences with attempting to navigate the challenges of a difficult relationship between the Program Office and Contracting Officer that caused disruptions in the project?  How did you rectify the issue(s)?