Retaining Agility When You Work in a Waterfall



By Jim A. Suits, MA, PMP

Program Operations
Foreign Agricultural Service
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

Washington, DC, USA


Federal agencies undertake projects (however named) large and small on a daily basis, but often feel constrained by exceedingly rigid frameworks, such as in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), the unpredictability of the appropriations process, shifting strategic priorities, and bureaucratic internal processes. These limitations can handicap the ability of programs to adapt to fast-changing realities, something which is exacerbated in an international environment. This paper illustrates how USDA/FAS has built an operating environment in which it employs a full suite of tools to react quickly to emerging opportunities, respond to unanticipated needs, and adapt to an ever-changing global context – all while staying true to the laws, bureaucracy and rigidity that defines the federal space.


The federal government, an organization not known for its agility, has increasingly promoted the use of project management practices within its portfolio of activities. At the same time, government bureaucracy does not acknowledge project management as a standalone technical proficiency, instead classifying project management as a supplemental knowledge area under existing technical umbrellas. This has a variety of impacts – mostly negative – on mission success and PM integration into agency operations.

The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) has embraced project management for decades, in volatile environments with unpredictable funding and variable political commitment. FAS has developed a culture of project management practices without worrying about whether they are “standard” across the government, and as a result, has been able to advance its mission by utilizing the full legal framework of the federal enterprise. The resources and practices to do so are mostly available to any federal agency that has the will and patience to build such a culture, however, bureaucratic resistance cannot be underestimated. For that reason, the costs and benefits of this approach need to be fully understood in order for agencies to determine whether it is useful or appropriate to attempt to build such an environment.


The Foreign Agricultural Service is an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, responsible (inter alia) for acting as a liaison between the U.S. agriculture sector and foreign markets, collecting global market data, and providing technical assistance to foreign states.[1] As with any government agency, it has been reformulated many times over the last century, but its more or less current incarnation dates to 1993, with the merger of several previously separate units.

This history is important, in that each of those units brought with them their own independently-developed processes, procedures, history, and culture – of which they were fiercely protective against harmonization. The legacy of this merger left a cultural cleft in the agency, in which the successor units of the predecessor organizations operated largely independently of each other – no more clearly illustrated than that the two were, as late as 2020, physically located in different parts of USDA’s enormous headquarters complex.

These offices are responsible for implementing three broad portfolios of programming, with an aggregate annual budget of over $700 million,[2] authorization pulling from 5 different parts of the U.S. Code,[3] and categorized into somewhere over two dozen programs – the precise number dependent on how one counts a “program.”[4]

Without burdening the reader with excruciating details, these programs (broadly speaking) support agricultural trade, improve food security, and make agricultural markets operate more efficiently. Each program has its own specific legal mandate; some are more focused on improving scientific capacity, others on nutrition and education, others on trade barriers. As a collective, however, they work together to support the world’s most efficient agricultural system to feed the world.


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Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright.  This paper was originally presented at the University of Maryland 2021 Virtual Project Management Symposium in April.  It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers.

How to cite this paper: Suits, J.A. (2021). Retaining Agility When You Work in a Waterfall; presented at the University of Maryland 2021 Virtual Project Management Symposium, College Park, Maryland, USA in April 2021; republished in the PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue VIII, August. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/pmwj108-Aug2021-Suits-retaining-agility-when-you-work-in-a-waterfall.pdf

About the Author

Jim A. Suits

Washington, DC, USA


Jim Suits is a Project Management Officer in USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). In his role, he supports USDA’s trade capacity building programs by advising on and enabling best practices of project management; and acts as a senior advisor to an annual programming portfolio of several hundred million dollars, including streamlining procedures, and figuring out how best to employ the entire toolbox to fulfill a constantly-shifting mandate. He previously worked as a front-line project manager on a variety of initiatives relating to agricultural statistics, and monitoring and evaluation of program activities in emerging market countries. Originally from a small town in Upper Michigan, 98 miles from the nearest Starbucks, he has degrees from the University of Michigan, Colorado State University, and George Mason University, is certified in project management, contracts management, and grants management, speaks four languages, and has conducted fieldwork in 23 states and 17 foreign countries.


[1] 5 USC § 5693
[2] as of FY2020; for several reasons, FAS’ total annual budget is ambiguous until after the fact
[3] Includes Chapters 41, 64, and 87 of Title 7; Chapter 15 of Title 15; and Chapter 22 of Title 22
[4] The Government Performance Modernization Act of 2010 required, inter alia, that this be standardized and catalogued across the government. As of this writing, there is no indication that this effort has made any material progress.