We need Elders in the acquisition community. No just “blue hairs” or “gray beards” but Elders in the…almost…spiritual sense or maybe the anthropological sense.
Keepers of the history, not repeaters of it. Human archives. Those who lived our story and are willing and able to explain to the next generation how we got to where we are. Not as a lecture or as direction, but as a history of our people, the mistakes and triumphs, and what we learned so the next generation of acquisition leaders can be better and do better.
This is certainly not to say that there’s anything wrong with how our millennials approach innovation. Anything but. It’s not to say that either generation’s view point is better than the other’s, but that there are things to be noted from one to the other to avoid certain histories from being repeated.
To repeat: we need Elders to guide the next generation, to know not only the history but why and how certain mistakes were made, the mindset that caused those mistakes, why certain effective and innovative tools were taken away or how we got them back. We need Elders to make sure the next generation doesn’t repeat our mistakes that we haven’t told them about or in some cases haven’t owned up to.
There’s importance in knowing our acquisition genealogy. By understanding the past, we are better prepared for our future.
Acquisition is beginning a new epoch, one of disruption and innovation like we’ve not seen in my lifetime.
A couple of months ago, in preparation for my federal retirement in the next epoch of my own life, I sought the counsel of several close friends and mentors. One is an honest-to-goodness shaman whose insights might seem unconventional to most people I know, and yet they have been powerful tools in my life for better shaping where I’m going. One of her suggestions to me in leaving behind three decades with one employer and preparing to move from Eglin Air Force Base to Huntsville, Alabama, was to think of what my predecessors, my literal ancestors, my Elders went through as they migrated from an area where all that filled their needs had been depleted and transitioned to a new place, a new home, where they had to learn a new way of life. Not that the results of that transition were bad, but it did take some learning and some getting used to. Her counsel made me think in terms of community Elders, guides on our path. People who could tell us what happened before, maybe in a less modern place or less technological place in the Universe or on the timeline, but those who have been there and have lived it. I sought out my own elderly family for stories of how my ancestors made those difficult moves when they were no longer supported by the land they’d lived on and tended for decades. It was strangely useful for understanding my migratory options as well as where acquisition goes as we move from the past to a strange and different new way of life.
This isn’t a matter of an Elder saying, “Do this!” or “Do that!” or “Don’t do this!” or “Don’t do that!” or–Heaven forbid–“But we’ve always done it this way!” Elders are not barriers to overcome. Elders are guides. Guides who want you to succeed and can give you the pitfalls that they endured personally. They can tell you the personality dynamics and even the generational dynamics over the years. They’ve seen the pendulum swing back-and-forth several times and maybe even swing all the way around once or twice.
You see, the cool thing about getting older (see what I did there?) is that you begin to see patterns, cycles.
If you worked for the Federal government for only five years, you may have seen some very short cycles. Work for the government for 10, 15, 20, 30 years or more, and you see the long cycles, almost like a graph with wavelengths. I myself look back to the ’90s and see a period of acquisition reform and innovative tools. That was a fun time for me, a powerful time that hit an ethics snag, but the streamlining and innovation of the ’90s is nothing compared to what I’m seeing now. We are still low on the rising curve, but the last big phase of innovative thinking pales compared to what’s before us now. Last time, what I saw could be compared to mere thunderbolts–or Lightning Bolts, if you remember those from the last ’90s under Darleen Druyun.
Whoa. Stop. Oh, seriously, folks: you don’t think this is the first time we’ve realized Acquisition is bogged down and tried to do something about it, do you? Pendulum alert! If you’ve read the history of what happened with Darleen Druyun after she launched acquisition reform initiatives, aka Lightning Bolts in the mid-to-late 90’s–or if you lived through the consequences at the time, then you know that we must not let history repeat itself with anything that might be considered unethical, and this is something we will need to watch for and protect against…but without slowing down good new tools, either. I’m not saying that that’s happened, only that because that was a lesson from our history, we need to be aware now. That episode cost us big in terms progress with reforms, in my opinion, and we must not, this time around, allow problems with transparency, fairness, perceived ethics or legalities cause that pendulum to swing around and hit us in the head. There are too many naysayers just waiting for us heretics to screw up. We can’t let this history repeat itself, and…hey, is it really that hard to just be open about what we’re doing?
Anyway, what we’re looking at now is a complete disruption of the acquisition process. Not lightning bolts, but far more destructive and regenerative. More like a volcanic meltdown of acquisition processes, rising up from deep within, than a bolt out of the blue. What we’re doing now will change Acquisition as we know it for then next couple of generations, if we can show continued success.
The purpose of an Elder isn’t to lead the next generation but to guide it. Not to demand that things be done a certain way, especially not the way it’s always been done, but to be available for counsel, for mentoring, for the history of lessons learned so that the same mistakes are not repeated.
As we move into this new epoch, I worry that our bright, enthusiastic, brilliant, young up-and-coming leaders have only a little knowledge about innovative methods like Other Transactions and 2373’s. Just enough to get into trouble sometimes, without having someone they can fall back on to show them where the land mines are. I’ve seen too much conflict between my generation and the millennial generation and younger in recent years. Too many of my generation are stodgy and directing use of a future technology when they’ve never sent a text message in their lives–no joke–and it’s far too easy for them to denigrate the next generation’s lifestyle or thought process.
These generations do not have to be at odds. They can work together. What we old-timers have to remember is that our time to make a difference is passing quickly or has already passed, and the best way we can make a difference now is to help those who come after us make good choices and to arm them with all the tools and information we can. After all, they’ll be living in this world with choices we’ve made far after this world no longer has a hold on us.
And so I advocate for more Elders in the acquisition community to assist with this transition in a positive way, to pass the torch, to leave a legacy through their guidance of a new generation rather than the restriction of it.
ADDED: I may have misjudged how others understand the term elders, based on some of the conversations I’ve had since this post. I personally don’t equate elder and Elder. The former, to me, means older, maybe even aged. It may mean experience or expertise is a part of it. Well, I would hope, anyway. But Elder, with a capital E, to me means a mentor, guide, advisor. In pop culture, I think more of the Jedi Council–experience and wisdom with an intention to teach and guide the less experienced. In religion, I think of an Elder as maybe a deacon or minister or someone in that type of leadership position. Like a Wise Council or those who founded the spiritual group and have stepped out of the spotlight into more of an advisory mode but still have a leadership and decision-making role. Sure, there are plenty of Baby Boomers in the church, but they’re not all Elders. Or let’s look at tribes of all sorts, throughout history, where women are divided up in to maiden, mother, and wise woman and men into warrior, father, and wise man as phases of life. It’s wise men and women we need, that Elder role. It’s far more of an esoteric term than a literal one.
c 2018 Lorna Tedder
- Rapid Acquisition Consultant
- Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
- Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
- Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
- Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
- Expert in developing junior and mid-level personnel to become innovators in Government acquisition
- 3 decades of first-hand experience and success with Other Transactions, Oral Proposals, 10 USC 2373, Broad Agency Announcements, unique pricing arrangements, Price Based Acquisition, Award Without Discussion, streamlined source selections, multiple award IDIQs, UCAs, waivers, omnibus tool creation, Quick Reaction Capability teams, and strategic sourcing
- Do you need help? Would you like me to spend a couple of days teaching your Government team how to use innovative contracting methods? Message me on LinkedIn or my contact page.