Maybe not the answer to everything, but the answer to enough to increase your efficiency and effectiveness significantly. If you’re successful, it may feel like the answer to everything. This isn’t any secret, but it’s what I did for years as Chief of the Rapid Acquisition Cell for the Air Force and what I’m helping others do now as a consultant. Hopefully, you’ll find a few tidbits in this post that you can use to improve your acquisition strategies and use of limited resources.
Admit it: we’re supposed to solve all sorts of Acquisition problems at our level, when the real power is with Congress to make changes to our Acquisition system. You know, the same folks who don’t seem to get how detrimental it is for the Acquisition community to prep for another Government shutdown every few months while they practice brinksmanship as standard negotiation fare. I’ll try not to get into politics here–I’m hard on politicians of every ilk because I always expect better and more of our representatives and leaders. Still, we in the trenches do what we can with what we have. It’s nothing new for innovators to fight the system, and yes, we are still fighting the same system we were in 1987 when I stepped into Contracting for the first time–but with computers now. Hopefully this time there will be enough of us to push the mountain.
Meanwhile, what do you do when you’re a Contracting Chief or a Program Manager with more work coming in than you can shake a stick at, not enough people to do it, demanding customers with a repeated urgent need, and no end in sight?
First, you step back, take a bunch of deep breaths, and peer into the future.
You don’t need tea leaves and Tarot cards to see the most probable future based on the past and present, and imagine the most desired future. Not that you’ll see everything and not that surprises won’t happen. Life turns in a single moment, and so do the needs that flow from real-world situations. Expect change and unknowns and leave some space for them–they’re not a sign of failure if they happen unless you’re the Best Psychic to Ever Live. You need big picture vision. You need strategy. You need a repertoire of tools and techniques, a portfolio of “contracting weapons” to respond to a need quickly. You need to know the end state, as they say in Air War College, and once you have that clearly in your mind, maybe even sketched on a white board somewhere, then you can work toward bringing that vision into physical reality.
Yes, it can be done. But planning and squinting into the future are both necessary. If you can’t see it in your head, how will you know what it looks like when you’ve arrived…or when you haven’t?
You MUST look ahead to where you want to be in 6-12 months, or 2 years, or 90 days, or whatever timeline you need depending on where you are and what you’re buying. Somehow, for the bulk of my career, I ended up buying things needed yesterday, and I actually loved doing that. I loved strategizing to prevent “crunch time” by looking into the distance and knowing how I wanted life to look for my customers and my employees, as well as my contractors. I loved taking a writhing mass of chaos into my hands and putting some structure on it, which is ironic because I don’t like anyone putting structure on me. I hate boxes, but I do like to know where the boundaries are so I don’t run off a cliff somewhere before I can grow wings. And I like creating those structures–the right ones–for people who need them.
If you want to figure out how to make things look in the future–say, fast turns, efficient buys, smoothly getting that product or service out the door to the folks that need it NOW–then you must look at where you are and where you’ve been. Listen up, because I’m telling you how.
You don’t start with “How can I get around the FAR?” or “How can we wiggle into an Other Transaction to get this done?” Once you look harder at your requirement(s), the question becomes “What’s the right tool to make this happen on time?” and if it’s an OT, fine. I love great, big toolkits to choose from and that makes a huge difference in what you can do. If the right tool is something you’ve already put in place that’s flexible, that’s fine, too. OTs tend to pop up fast and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of upfront planning, just a push to go fast, and I see people new to OTs struggle with them and maybe not plan as well as they could for longer-term success. You can put structures in place that will get you what you need just as fast if you look ahead, even if you choose to set up an OT as part of a structure you’ll need later.
You start by looking at repetition, because that’s an easy one. It’s not cherry-picking either, but rather a focus on long-term success. We can all get great selfies for our current wins where we may be sacrificing future success or burning bridges we may need again, but it says something when what you put in place is still vital and effective in 5 years. That’s the real test. We may “need it now” but we cannot afford to think of acquisition just for the short-term. It’s not about glorious immediate gratification, but it is about being able to make things happen…on time…for both now and the next generation or two.
Ask yourself, “What do we buy the same of, year after year, and somehow it seems to be a freaking surprise every single year and we, our bosses, and our team stress ourselves out over it…every single year as if it’s the first time?” I’d love to say it’s not rocket science, but sometimes, it literally is.
So take a look at the products and services you buy repeatedly. Do you write a separate contract for each one? Do you go through a new sole source justification every year that is a cut and paste of the last one but with different amounts, dates, and signatures? Is your contract file 95% the same as the last buy…or worse, the same content but in a different format because you have new procurement staff who want it to look their way vs their predecessors’ way and it takes just as long or longer than the last time…for a 5% change since the last time you put yourself and your team through hell making it happen (or not) on time. In other words, are you wasting resources doing the same action every year (or less) when you could be working more efficiently?
It reminds me of a card game or kid’s board game of some sort. Look across every acquisition effort you “own.” Pick up all the pieces that look the same in some way and sort them as such. Spades in this stack, hearts in that one. Purples here, greens there.
Sort. Classify. Analyze what it is you actually buy, then start building vehicles (contracts, grants, other transactions, etc) that fit your need. Maybe the answer is a big IDIQ contract. Maybe it’s a contract with options you can exercise repeatedly or a certain number of times whenever a particular real-world situation arises. Maybe it’s a 10-year contract with on-ramps instead of a 3-year contract that over-stresses small businesses trying to put together proposals more often than they have resources for, not to mention having your Government team in source selection one third of their work lives.
Make those actions more efficient by using the same vehicle and tools. Make the contract broader in scope to give you more flexibility. Write a class J&A that covers problems you know will arise but can’t shape yet into anything recognizable. None of these are necessarily the right answer for you–just examples of how I’ve put a broad, easy, vehicle in place that could answer an emergency call when it came. They were right for what I needed, but may not be right for your situation–that’s why you need to be thinking through this yourself and not just copy what other successful teams create, including me.
Maybe it’s not the products or services you’re buying repeatedly, but legit sole source actions to the same contractor or restricted competition (for whatever reason) to the same 2-3 sources. I have worked briefly to set up an acquisition strategy for a Program Office that had only two sole source contractors for all their contracts. Not a chance of a competitive action. The products varied but only two major contractors could produce them, and they weren’t competing against each other. The workload was absolutely grueling. Best plan to stop the insanity within 6 months and give the Program Managers and Contracting Officers some relief? Two big IDIQ’s, one for each contractor and each IDIQ covering broadly the products each made. This meant 2 contracts with pre-established delivery order prices for all items, delivery orders that could be turned in a couple of days vs a dozen contracts that had to be separately processed with new proposals to be negotiated every time a new need had to be filled. This isn’t something that can be set up overnight, but with planning, it can be set up in six months (provided timely proposals are received) and last the next 5 or 10 years. Lead-times for the contracts could also be shortened using Price Based Acquisition tools, which is rare but should be used much more often.
I didn’t look at one program or one contract or one problem when I made my assessment. I looked across their entire portfolio to find a creative solution to lessen the workload AND make awards faster. To come up with a similar approach, you need an overall, possibly multi-pronged strategy for your entire organization so you can leverage your best tools as well as the manpower you have.
When I first launched the Rapid Acquisition Cell (RAC) in early 2012, I had a vision for it and the full support of my Colonel and his boss. Much of it was designed to reflect my own mindset, and the employees who worked for me became my fractals, a term I first used at the Inaugural RATPAC meeting in April 2014 where I taught a session on Innovative Contracting and it caught on, to my delight. As my fractals left the RAC, they took that mindset with them to push innovations in new territory. Back home in my own territory, my vision from Day 1 began with assessing my customers and their workloads and how to create broad and flexible Contracting vehicles that any of them could use. Here’s what my plan was, in detail, so you can see how I did it and why I built my portfolio of Contracting vehicles:
- Various customers needed studies. Lots of studies. Hard not to notice how this need repeated itself and how much effort went into each repeat, which was the first hint that I needed a better solution. I set up an Omnibus Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) that I revised yearly and put a big ceiling on it. The intricacies of how I set this up is a post for a different day, but I typically had these studies on contract within 60 days from first hearing about it until award, without heroics, and that included proposal time and negotiation. With heroics, I had a 9-day Miracle, from the time I heard of it until it was awarded, and that was with funding being misrouted for two days. These were all FAR-based procurement contracts, not Other Transactions, and I could typically reduce lead-times by 4-6 months over what they had been, just by building a repeatable process. This was a grand success for me for six years until new leadership made changes that rendered it ineffective for my customers, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work wonders for you! (Let’s pause here to acknowledge that no matter what great innovation you use, things can happen so that you lose it–a different philosophy by new leadership, abuse or bastardization of the process by people trying to use the tool unethically, new regs or statutes that outlaw use, sudden risk aversion from leadership because someone somewhere else screwed up publicly, a reorganization that puts your programs under a different authority that doesn’t allow your innovations, etc. Take a deep breath and try something different.)
- Warning: slightly crude story. I was getting a lot of requests from other funding sources to put fall-out money on contract to support tech areas we were already working on–a huge boon for my Program Managers–but only if I had an “existing contract.” That meant no UCAs or the usual quick-turn methods. They always wanted an existing contract to throw money at. Usually this was for demos or something more advanced than I could comfortably (well, legally) accomplish under my Omnibus BAA. I noticed that the key players tended to be the same for various technologies, sometimes because of data rights or clearances or a particular reason that meant no one else could play in those areas. At one point, I sat brainstorming with my program manager (fun!) and I suggested maybe a small IDIQ with the only four sources for a particular technology. That led to wondering if we might do another small IDIQ for a different technology that had only three sources. And maybe another for another technology with the same three and four sources and a small business who’d developed an edge in that technology. These were all repeated requests that needed fast turns and sucked up my team’s time. In theory, we could scale this idea if we structured the contract well. That’s when I joked, “Instead of a bunch of little IDIQs to cover all our needs, why don’t we write one…big-ass…IDIQ?” Yeah, it stuck. Both the idea and the nickname. I birthed a roughly $500M fund-as-you go contract known affectionately as the Big Ass IDIQ until a supportive General Officer gently asked me to change the nickname, whereas I blushed and croaked, “Yes, sir!” We created a large contracting vehicle that was intended to cut lead times drastically and help grow our beleaguered small businesses (another love of mine). It filled a unique place in my portfolio of vehicles, Leg #2 of the three-legged stool I was building. Now here’s where I get sad: before it was on contract, my Colonel and champion left and new leadership wasn’t fond of this vehicle, so it was changed into something that was a pale shadow of what it was meant to be. HOWEVER, I later had several buying teams from other Centers and other bases come to me for help (while I was still a Fed) and I gave them my entire sanitized package which they copied to put their own vehicle in place for the same reasons I had. Every now and then, I hear that those reincarnations of my brain-child have been very successful, and I feel like a proud mama.
- My third leg of what I was building was meant to be a DOTC-like vehicle using OTs. That was 2013 when I announced that intention, with a goal of having it in place by the start of 2015, after the Big, um, IDIQ previously mentioned was churning out good, fast solutions. A lot of my customers were starting to venture toward the Army’s tool but weren’t fond of paying the fees to use it. They complained often to me of wanting to keep the work at home. I had experience with OTs, so I began to develop a plan to build my own. My champion left before I could get this one off the ground. Meanwhile, it looks like the rest of the world is catching up with this idea!
So these were the new vehicles I was building based on our expanding needs, but I had already at this point built another one for a different program. If it seems I like IDIQ’s, I do. I use them in lieu of Contracts with loosey-goosey options and in lieu of UCAs (Undefinitized Contractual Actions) because they fit and they’re super convenient when well-planned. I had yet another customer who received funds irregularly for a product that was always in demand, and required the fastest turns of all my customers. We had had a history of repeated UCAs that answered the immediate problem but sucked up a lot of energy for the next six months to backtrack and definitize, so my team created IDIQs with a lot of built-in streamlining techniques. This meant if an 8-digit sum, not including decimals, landed on my desk on 27 September with expiring funds that no other buying office could obligate and was going to lose, I could turn it in a day, maybe two if I had too many other irons in the fire. All legal, baby!
I’ve been very candid here about how I planned solutions and what I was thinking. You can see how I tried to group problems so I could find a simple, repeatable solution for all, with plenty of flexibility.
My fastest lead-times during all this? I had five to six people working in the RAC. Most of the time, I was the sixth. At least one intern.
We think we have to have a ton of people to make things happen. We don’t. Not if we have well-planned tools in place and the support from leadership and staff to use them. Not if we have a strategy for getting everything done. If you don’t have the right vehicles and processes in place, then your employees will be doing a lot of unnecessary, inefficient, or ineffective work and you’ll need more people to keep your head above water…and really, is anyone getting additional manning, ever?
I liked to think of all my employees as rock stars (RAC-stars). They weren’t all super star material at the same time, but they didn’t have to be either. I divided up my employees in my head into three categories.
First, I had my super stars. These were the ones I could put on anything and not worry. Just let them run with their creativity and push the boundaries and, sheesh, make stuff happen! I needed to keep challenging them, appreciating them, give them top cover, and keep them happy. I could put them on the most complex and creative acquisitions and they’d never disappoint. They had the most difficult negotiations and got pushed the hardest, usually by themselves before by me. I loaded up their resumes so they could excel at their next assignments and just accepted that I was merely a stepping stone in their rising careers.
Next I had the employees I was grooming to be super stars. Maybe they’d been overlooked in the past or needed a place where they could bloom or maybe they simply needed briefing experience, but I could find a way to develop them and showcase their talents, just as I did with my super stars. I could give them a workload they were comfortable with, even to the point of training others, say with BAAs or more complex delivery orders. At the same time, I could step them up into the next level, having them cross train on the more difficult actions so that if a coworker wasn’t available, no time was lost because they could step in in a pinch. As super stars left for promotions or assignments elsewhere, their tier moved up into those vacancies.
The third tier was reserved for my new folks and less experienced employees. Everyone started here, even my GS-13s with unlimited warrants. Most were in this category for around a month while I assessed their skills and training they’d brought with them. Some were still there at six months, but that was rare, even for interns. Third-tier work means close-outs, admin mods, funding mods, performance extensions, then later simple delivery orders. This way, they learned the software, the customers, my expectations, and took workload off the more experienced coworkers while gaining confidence. I jokingly called it hazing, but it served many positive purposes and didn’t last long.
I not only had the right contract vehicles to support the workload but I matched the right employees to each solution. They weren’t all crazy, out-of-the-box people like me, either. In fact, I think I was the only INFJ in Contracting. Many of my team were ISTJs, oh, ye lovers of structure and order. These are people who, under other circumstances, might have been headed for a future among the Frozen Middle, and not at all what you would expect in an innovation-minded unit. They were my rock, though. They were well-grounded and balanced my idea-fairy tendencies. Their skills were excellent and I could push them to think creatively and let go of that which might slow them down unnecessarily. I’ve noticed over the last six months that among the innovation trends of 2018, we seem to think that wild-and-crazy-good ideas must come from scary disruptors but it’s not so. There really is room for any personality type to contribute greatly to the progress. It was a good balance for the team I built and repeatedly rebuilt over 6 years as my graduates cycled out.
One last thing about my workforce during this era: no one seems to realize how vital it is to create a harmonious team or the work that goes into it. I would always take a less experienced but enthusiastic, hard-working person over someone with tons of experience and a horrible attitude. Experience and skill can be taught but you can’t teach attitude and enthusiasm. I spent a lot of time as chief putting together a team, again and again as they graduated me, that worked well together and were supportive both at work and away. Usually they were so cohesive that I didn’t have to ask anyone to help out another that was overwhelmed or maybe out sick for a week–they voluntarily jumped in to help each other! I sacrificed experience from prima donnas and passive-aggressives for a work family that blended well and churned out high-tempo work. I watched the gender ratio, the generations, the ethnic diversity, the spirituality, the personal needs to create the right harmonious blend that fed off each other’s differences and strengths. At times when I was hurting for personnel, I was offered a known pot-stirrer who had the capacity to destroy the harmony, and I’d offer up my willingness to take one for the team and wait for the next available worker. We were stronger that way.
There’s one other factor in my success in creating the right vehicles and right team, and that’s how I worked with my Program Managers. Sometimes they wanted to look only at an immediate problem, but once they understood what I was trying to build for them in the long run, they were usually onboard quickly. Having the right relationship with Program Managers–trust, honesty–was worth investing in. We could push the mountain farther if we weren’t wasting time pushing against each other.
This is how I did it. It’s how I still do it and how I help others to do it. This is my answer to everything–assess your workload for where you can create efficiencies, build contract vehicles and repeatable processes that can respond quickly, match your employees to the right workload while cross-training them into more complex actions, and build relationships that support all of the above.
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.