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Ask OCE — February 24, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 5


What are the best practices in program and project management? Most of the time project managers learn through on-the-job observation and experience. They assimilate the techniques that seem to work best and discard the rest, and there’s plenty of trial and error involved. As a result, a junior project team member’s preparation for management is profoundly shaped by the quality of his or her on-the-job experiences. Those who work on high-functioning project teams are likely to develop good practices, while those assigned to poorly run teams have to figure out how not to practice project management and search out other opportunities for mentors and professional development.

In addition to the school of hard knocks, there is also a growing body of empirical research about what works best. The academic study of project management adds a high degree of methodological rigor to the subject. The challenge, as is the case with many academic disciplines, is in bringing the best of that research into the hands of practitioners who are doing project management on a daily basis.

The Center for Project Management Research (CPMR) is an attempt to bridge that divide. CPMR, a partnership between NASA’s Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL) and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), engages universities in world-class research that addresses significant problems in the discipline of program and project management.

CPMR was formed in 2003 as part of the Academy’s response to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Report, which noted that NASA did not perform optimally as a learning organization. At the time, NASA had no systematic approach to integrating the latest developments in academia into its program and project management training and development. NASA’s relationship with USRA, which was founded in the Apollo era to provide a means for enhancing cooperation among academic institutions and the space program, made it a natural choice for a partnership that could remedy that situation.

CPMR identified the following six objectives:

  • Exercise leadership to significantly advance the state of knowledge of program and project management.
  • Develop a cadre of professionals to conduct world-class research and serve as a major resource for project management knowledge.
  • Improve collaboration and data exchange between project management professionals.
  • Facilitate hands-on project management training and developmental opportunities.
  • Provide an atmosphere for open examination of innovative program and project management concepts.
  • Promote the direct application of CPMR research to real NASA program and project management challenges.

With its objectives clearly established, CPMR began its first research effort. In 2004 it solicited proposals from USRA’s ninety-seven member universities with an Announcement of Opportunity that listed its five top priorities for research:

  • Validating and implementing needed changes to the risk assessment and safety review culture within NASA. This end result rests on the need for improvement in our understanding of the major elements and/or variables that determine and shape an organizational culture.
  • Developing the careers of program/project managers at NASA — recruiting, selection, training, coaching, and offering the right incentives.
  • Developing a highly effective knowledge sharing system; e.g., a linked lessons learned/best practices (LL/BP) process, within NASA to ensure good Agency-wide communication and, of equal or greater importance, the systems adoption, implementation and usage by successive generations of program/project managers.
  • Identifying NASA-specific strategic project types with supporting rationale as a means for development of baseline templates to guide but not constrain project and program managers.
  • Improving program/project manager review, interaction, team-building, leadership, decision-making, human capital planning, and communication processes — particularly within the NASA environment.

CPMR received 54 proposals in response to its announcement. It then undertook a rigorous peer review process, in which three or four experts read every proposal, followed by a smaller review panel. After briefing APPEL on its findings, CPMR notified ten Principal Investigators in April 2004 that they would receive six-month grants of $75,000 each to conduct pilot programs.

At the end of the six months, the Principal Investigators presented their results. The top three, whose work had the highest relevance to NASA’s Exploration projects, were then offered larger two-year grants to continue their work. The three finalist PIs, Nancy Leveson of MIT, Karlene Roberts of UC/Berkeley, and Tim Kotnour of University of Central Florida, will be featured in upcoming issues of ASK OCE.

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