When the Canada First Defence Strategy hits full stride, this country will be spending $3 billion a year to acquire aircraft, ships and vehicles in a 20-year program to re-equip the military. Project managers are responsible for bringing those programs in on time and on budget, but people who can manage large, complex projects are in short supply, particularly in Canada.

During the same bleak years that witnessed the deterioration of Canadian Forces equipment fleets, procurement specialists were systematically and deliberately removed. Because it has been 15 years since the last major acquisition – the Canadian Patrol Frigate program – even the reliable cadre of qualified and experienced retired military officers with complex project management experience may no longer be in the market. That may not have been important when there were no major procurements underway, but the Canada First plan demands qualified people and plenty of them.

But down doesn’t mean out. In 2005, the Department of National Defence stood up the first of two new divisions to concentrate project management resources. Today, RAdm (Ret’d) Ian Mack runs one of them, as director general for major project delivery (Land and Sea).

“That was six years ago, a couple of years before CFDS was ‘official’, but that jump start on the whole approach was very useful. It gave us a couple of years to incubate projects, to learn lessons, to say there is a better way and to start that entire machinery of government,” he said. “I hate to use the term de-rusting but we hadn’t done a lot for a while and that was very valuable in allowing us all to start to get the machine running, to get the fluid in there.”

Mack points out that the majority of CFDS projects are already underway: Joint Support Ship, Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship, Next Generation Fighter, C130J, TAPV, LAV Upgrade, Chinooks and MSVS, to name some of the largest.

As well, he notes, the project management resources were in place to provide immediate operational requirements for Afghanistan: “From entire truck fleets like the Armoured Heavy Support Vehicle System of which some 70 heavies are over there; putting in place a Chinook contract to get Chinooks over there literally in less than a year; the tank project, which went from flash to bang in about nine months to put the first tank in place – these were not done with a bunch of folks that don’t have project management capability. So, yes, we have the resources.”

Mack is overseeing the creation of centralized project management resource pools that can be shared across different acquisitions. The Close Combat Vehicle and the Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicle share many C4ISR issues, for example, and there is not a lot of expertise, “so we’ll bring this one resource in place to be shared amongst the projects to make sure that the people who really know this business are engaged…[and] we get the most out of our resources.”

Project Management Offices (PMO) are going to be leaner, Mack said, and not just because of limited resources. At its height, the Canadian Patrol Frigate PMO had more than 400 people. “Not only can we not afford them anymore, there just isn’t an appetite to see us add up all the salaries for 20 years for 400 people and apply that to a lot of projects,” he said. “Now, have we got to the stage of implementation of a Canadian Surface Combatant? Not yet and we may very well get well above the 40 people in that project office, but we are not going back, I don’t think – we’ll use a centralized focus to the best of our abilities.”

Speaking at a time of revived discussion about a single defence procurement agency, Mack made it clear that all government departments are working together to make CFDS acquisitions successful. “The CFDS is a huge procurement activity. Whereas in the past we might have done two or three [projects] over a decade, we’re trying to move 12 to 15. When you’re moving that much, senior officials recognize that you’re going to hit unusual barriers that you cannot get around using normal staff processes; there are going to be little explosions going off left, right and centre in many projects at the same time,” he said. “So there are new interdepartmental mechanisms specifically set up for ongoing dialogues to facilitate getting through and around real challenges which emerge as projects develop.”

CFDS will benefit from the introduction of a project complexity and risk assessment system that allows managers to define projects on a scale from level one – uncomplicated – to level four – transformational. “What that has done is allow a lot of the interdepartmental focus on all projects to zero in on the really complex ones. That has been useful in freeing up senior people in various departments,” Mack said.

Within his own organization, he is working to put senior project management practitioner advice back into the system to learn lessons and build capability. “We did create – it sounds small – two project management co-champions in the group, myself and Eric Bramwell, who is leading my project management support office as we stand it up.”

Mack’s organization is also working on project management competency development. “In the next year, we will work our way through the system by which we are going to evaluate competencies and assess people who will be awarded those competencies.”

Will there be a career path for project managers? “Perhaps. But at this point it is not something that we are focused on. These are skill sets that we’re offering a broad range of people, and some more than others.”

Mack said large, complex projects boil down to good systems thinking skills and good leadership. “From a military perspective, we’ve got a rich organization to draw from for leadership. It is largely those leaders and the teams they depend upon who have to be really good systems thinkers when they’re working in a complex environment.”

His organization spends a lot of time trying to share what he called “significant individual project observations,” Mack said, “because a lot of them are just that. ‘I don’t know what to do about it, but something strange just happened.’ That allows people like me to go back to the source and find out if it’s just somebody who isn’t in the know, or has a narrow vision, or if there is something new happening – a problem.”

He explained that after two decades of knowledge management he is a firm believer in passing on knowledge by word of mouth. “We look for opportunities all the time to tell the story and put the lesson in context, because everybody remembers the story. Nobody remembers 25 pages of lessons learned.”