Lessons Learned

Because we have a unique environment as the OTS contractor to the federal government, the perspectives of others in similar organizations are always of interest and can often be of value. The following lessons learned are excerpts from 100 Lessons Learned for Project Managers by Jerry Madden, the former NASA Associate Director of Flight Projects at the Goddard Space Flight Center, a well-respected and admired project manager. While this presents a “government” perspective, the lessons can still apply. Madden admits, “None of these are [sic] original -- It's just that we don't now where they were stolen from!”

  1. A manager who is his own systems engineer or financial manager is one who will probably try to do open heart surgery on himself.
  2. Other than original budget information prior to the President's submittal to Congress, there is probably no secret information on the project -- so don't treat anything like it is secret. Everyone does better if they can see the whole picture.
  3. Remember who the customer is and what his objectives are, i.e., check with him when you go to change anything of significance.
  4. In case of a failure:
    • Make a timeline of events and include everything that is known;
    • Put down known facts -- check every theory against them;
    • Don't beat the data until it confesses, i.e., know when to stop trying to force-fit a scenario;
    • Do not arrive at a conclusion too rapidly. Make sure any deviation from the norm is explained--remember the wrong conclusion is prologue to the next failure;
    • Know when to stop.
  5. People have reasons for doing things the way they do them. Most people want to do a good job, and if they don't, the problem is they probably don't know how or exactly what is expected.
  6. Mistakes are all right, but failure is not. Failure is just a mistake you can't recover from; therefore, try to create contingency plans and alternate approaches for the items or plans that have high risk.
  7. Occasionally things go right… Try to duplicate that which works.
  8. Hide nothing from the reviewers. Their reputation and yours is on the line. Expose all the warts and pimples. Don't offer excuses -- just state facts.
  9. Morale of the contractor's personnel is important to a government manager. Just as you don't want to buy a car built by disgruntled employees, you don't want to buy flight hardware built by them. You should take an active role in motivating all personnel on the project.
  10. Projects require teamwork to succeed.
  11. Gentlemen and ladies can get things done just as well as bastards. What is needed is a strong will and respect -- not "strong arm" tactics.
  12. People tend to ask for what they think they can get and not what they need.
  13. Too many project managers think a spoken agreement carries the same weight as one put in writing. It doesn't. People vanish and change positions. Important decisions must be documented.
  14. Too many people at Headquarters believe the myth that you can reduce the food to the horse every day till you get a horse that requires no food. They try to do the same with projects, which eventually end up as dead as the horse.