On April 24, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics issued a memorandum about implementation of the “Better Buying Power” initiative, phase 2.0. You can find it at:
Sigh, another acquisition improvement memo.
But, reading the thing, I came upon this interesting paragraph:
Think. The first responsibility of the acquisition workforce is to think. We need to be true professionals who apply our education, training, and experience through analysis and creative, informed thought to address our daily decisions. Our workforce should be encouraged by leaders to think and not to automatically default to a perceived school solution just because it is expected to be approved more easily. BBP 2.0, like BBP 1.0, is not rigid dogma ¾ it is guidance subject to professional judgment.
“Think”! Now that’s something you don’t often see in an official memo. You’re much more likely to see something like, Just do it. Why did the Under Secretary write that? Does he believe that people haven’t been thinking, or was “Think” just a rhetorical exhortation? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really isn’t happy with the present state of acquisition thinking. He shouldn’t be.
What Is Thinking?
What does “Think” mean? Let’s think about this. “Think.” What is thinking, exactly? It’s a mental activity, we all know that. Is it something that must be accomplished, or is it a method of accomplishing something? Is it a function — a set of tasks directed towards a general purpose, like maintenance, or is it a specific task? Is it a method? If so, is it a specific method or is there more than one way to think? If there is more than one method, how many more, and in what ways do they differ? Is thinking the same as reasoning? Can one think without reasoning, or reason without thinking? Is there unreasoning thinking, or unthinking reasoning?
As I pondered thinking I recalled a book that might help and rummaged around in my library until I found it: What Is Called Thinking? (English trans., 1968) by Martin Heidegger. I shuddered as I recalled the college course (oh, so long ago) in which it was assigned reading. I frankly don’t remember much about the book, and my old underlining didn’t help. But the very first two paragraphs were a bad omen:
We come to know what it means to think when we ourselves try to think. If the attempt is to be successful, we must be ready to learn thinking.As soon as we allow ourselves to become involved in such learning, we have admitted that we are not yet capable of thinking.
That book is sitting on my nightstand now, like the raven on Poe's bust of Athena. It’s time to pull out a dictionary.
One of the definitions for think in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., is as follows:
To reason about or reflect on; ponder… To decide by reasoning, reflection, or pondering….
A Dictionary of Philosophy, Rev. 2d ed. (1979), by Anthony Flew, provides something a little more expansive on pp. 352 - 353:
The mental activity of (a) theoretical [i.e., explanatory, speculative] contemplation directed toward some object with a view to reaching a propositional conclusion; or ( b ) practical deliberation directed toward some objet with a view to reaching a decision to act.
I found a longer entry about thinking in Volume 8 of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Reprint Edition (1972), pp. 100 – 103, which contains the following:
Thinking is an essentially human activity occurring in two basic forms. We may think in order to attain knowledge of what is, must, or may be the case; we may also think with a view to making up our mind about what we will or will not do. Following Aristotle, these two forms of thought may be called, respectively, contemplation and deliberation. Both forms may be carried on well or badly, successfully or unsuccessfully, intelligently or stupidly.
Despite their obvious shortcomings, I like those last two explanations, because I can relate them to things that contracting personnel do at work. For instance thinking about what evaluation factors to use in a source selection is deliberation. Thinking about what kind of thing an evaluation factor is and what kinds of evaluation factors there are is contemplation. Deliberation is practical. Contemplation is theoretical. You deliberate in order to decide what to do. You contemplate in order to understand and develop ideas.
So, what is thinking? (The definitions that I quoted are from lexicographers and philosophers. A psychologist might answer differently. See Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), by Daniel Kahneman.) I believe thinking is a debate with yourself — a purposeful process of asking yourself questions about something and then trying to answer them. You ask, you answer, you challenge, you respond, and you decide, just you and yourself, in foro interno. For example: What is an evaluation factor? Answering entails definition, induction, analysis, classification, deduction, and argument. Each of those operations should be performed according to exacting standards of rigorous thought. You will get a different answer from other people. It is something to think about. But right now I like the contemplation/deliberation distinction and will run with it.
Contemplation and Deliberation
It seems to me that in order to deliberate well, you must contemplate first. You cannot deliberate well about what contract type to use until you first contemplate the concept of contract types until you understand what they are and how they are supposed to work. In order to do that you must read more than the summary descriptions in FAR Part 16 or in a set of PowerPoint slides. You must read the standard contract clauses peculiar to each type and think about how the clauses work together and with what results. You must then figure out how each contract type differs from the others. You must also contemplate contract type theory, which holds that the right distribution of cost risk “will provide the contractor the greatest incentive for efficient and economical performance.” Is that true? In order to contemplate contract type theory, you have to contemplate risk: What is it? What causes it? Can you measure it? If so, how? And on, and on. It’s never done.
In order to deliberate well a professional must have a head full of well developed professional ideas gained through contemplation, as many as possible. You will need them in your deliberations. Much deliberating is done in cooperation with others, and you can better communicate and be understood when your ideas are well-developed and deep, so that you can explain them clearly and answer questions.
Where do you get such ideas? You get them by going to school, reading, talking things over with colleagues, and, especially important, by going into a quiet corner and asking yourself questions and developing answers about the things that you have been taught, that you have read, that you have heard, and that you have worked out for yourself. It takes quite a lot of effort, and it takes a long time, a professional lifetime. It’s never done.
Understand Simple Things Deeply
According to The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (2012) by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird, the first key to effective thinking is to master the fundamentals by understanding simple things deeply. “The most fundamental ideas in any subject can be understood with ever-increasing depth.” If asked to explain cost, as used in cost estimate, cost analysis, and should cost, what would you say? If asked to define cost on the spot, could you do it? A cost estimate is an estimate of what, exactly? How much and how good of an explanation could you give to someone who doesn’t know anything about it? How deeply could you go into that concept? Could you anticipate the inevitable questions? Could you answer them?
If you are a contract specialist, how much do you know about the concept of contract? Can you go beyond “an agreement that the courts will enforce” or offer, acceptance, mutual assent, consideration, competent parties, legal purpose, etc., or the definition in FAR 2.101? How long can you talk about What is a contract? Five minutes? Fifteen minutes? An hour? Longer? How much do you know about, and how deeply do you understand, the thing in which you specialize?
In his memo, the Under Secretary alludes to the importance of contemplation:
People. Thinking does not do much good if we do not have the professional preparation to think well. Policies and processes are of little use without acquisition professionals who are experienced, trained and empowered to apply them effectively. At the end of the day, qualified people are essential to successful outcomes and professionalism, particularly in acquisition leaders, drives results more than any policy change.
Contemplation is professional preparation for deliberation. Deliberation is the practical application of professional ideas to professional problems. You cannot deliberate well if you have not first contemplated well, and in order to contemplate well you have to put in a lot of work. And it’s never done.
The Perils of Deliberation without Prior Contemplation
What happens when you deliberate before you contemplate? Consider: The Department of Defense IG recently issued a report that is critical of the way DOD contracting personnel awarded and administered performance based payments (PBP). See DOD Inspector General Report No. DODIG-2013-063, Award and Administration of Performance Based Payments in DOD Contracts, April 8, 2013, and FAR Subpart 32.10, Performance Based Payments.
According to the DODIG:
DoD contracting personnel did not properly evaluate and negotiate PBP schedules. Specifically, for the 60 PBP schedules reviewed, they did not:· establish appropriate events for 1,807 out of 2,356 events on 57 approved PBP schedules.This occurred because DoD guidance was inadequate and DoD contracting personnel needed specific PBP training.Therefore, DoD contracting personnel either misunderstood or were not aware of the FAR requirements for defining the performance events that allowed payment to the contractor. In the absence of thorough DoD policy and adequate training, contracting personnel did not scrutinize the contracts but accepted contractor-provided PBP schedules.
In order to award performance based payments (instead of progress payments based on costs), contracting officers must identify and select performance events (aka, milestones) and then pay contractors based on the predetermined value of the occurrence of the event. See FAR 32.1004(a)(1). FAR doesn’t explain the concept of an event, but says that contracting officers may not use as events such occurrences as (1) the signing of contracts or modifications, (2) the exercise of options, and (3) the mere passage of time.
Maybe what the DODIG found happened because the contracting personnel deliberated about what events to use before they had contemplated the concept of an event. Perhaps they did not ask and answer some basic questions:
Perhaps they should have contemplated those matters and identified the attributes common to (1) the signing of contracts or modifications, (2) the exercise of options, and (3) the passage of time that make those events unsuitable. Then, when deliberating about what events to use, they could have made sure not to choose any that had those attributes.
Now consider this: Suppose that a source selection team must decide what evaluation factors to use. See FAR 15.304. The team sets to thinking about their choices, and decides to look at old RFPs for examples. They then choose certain ones and cut and paste. They don’t stop to ask themselves:
If the agency’s acquisition personnel don’t devote some time to contemplating those things, if they cut and paste from old RFPs, they may end up making bad choices and being unsuccessful or less efficient and economical than they could have been in identifying the firm that offers best value. See Vernon J. Edwards, “Streamlining Source Selection by Improving the Quality of Evaluation Factors,” The Nash and Cibinic Report, October 1994.
Is Anyone Thinking?
How good are acquisition personnel at thinking? Do they contemplate before they deliberate, and do they contemplate and deliberate well? Are they professionally prepared to do those things, as the Under Secretary says that they must be in order for their thinking to be of any use and to have a good outcome?
Based on extensive personal experience in the classroom, I believe that acquisition personnel could do much better at professional level thinking. They are not alone in that. It is often asserted that today’s undergraduate education does not prepare students to think well. The private sector has long recognized this problem. See “Executives to new grads: Shape up!” by Anne Fisher, accessible on line at CNNMoney:
In all, a 65% majority of business leaders say young people applying for jobs at their companies right out of college are only "somewhat" prepared for success in business, with 40% of C-suite executives saying they are "not prepared at all." Not only that, but even those who get hired anyway may not rise very far. Almost half (47%) of C-suite executives believe that fewer than one-quarter (21%) of new grads have the skills they'll need to advance past entry-level jobs.And what skills might those be? The most sought-after are problem-solving (49% ranked it No. 1), collaboration (43%), and critical thinking (36%). Also in demand is the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively in writing (31%). Technology and social media skills came in at rock bottom on the list, valued highly by only a tiny 5% minority of senior managers. The kicker: According to the poll, new grads fall far short of the mark in every one of these areas -- except tech savvy, the least desired.
See also “What are most students learning in college? Not enough, study says,” by Sara Rimer in The Hechinger Report, January 18, 2011:
Many public and private universities and some institutions of professional military education offer courses about thinking. Harvard even has a course called “Thinking about Thinking.” The National Defense University, in conjunction with the Defense Acquisition University, offers a two part, two semester course entitled, Critical Thinking and Decision Making in Defense Acquisition, ICAF 6152-1 and 6153-1, but it is available only to those who already have a Level III certification and who are enrolled in the Senior Acquisition Course. If thinking is so important in acquisition, why isn’t there a course more widely available for those in earlier phases of their professional development? Why wait until someone is a decision maker to offer them such training? Many mature students have complained to me that they didn’t get the right kinds of training early enough in their careers. Why is that so?
Assuming that acquisition personnel know what thinking is and are able to do it well, do they have enough time to think, given their professional workload and their reporting, data entry, and other clerical duties? Do they have enough administrative and clerical support?
The workload has been crushing over the last decade, and the rules keep getting more and more complex. In October 1995, the rule in FAR 16.505( b ) governing the multiple award task order contract “fair opportunity” process was 565 words long. By May 2012 the rule had grown to 2,203 words. There was a similar development in the rule in FAR Subpart 8.4 governing the placement of orders against GSA Federal Supply Schedule contracts. That kind of development means more work to process a contract action. Also, the issuance of new reporting requirements has become practically routine. Administrative and clerical support is virtually nonexistent, yet, every year, Congress and senior officials in the Executive Branch pile more reporting and data entry tasks onto the shoulders of contracting personnel. I believe that I know what a random sample of GS-1102s would say if asked whether they have enough time to think deeply about anything at work.
Thinking, however, can produce troublesome thoughts, and I wonder if the Under Secretary realizes what he has asked for and, if so, whether he means it. What if people begin to think and their thinking leads them to question fundamental tenets of acquisition dogma? For example, what if contemplation leads them to question the efficacy of proposal-based competition for development contracts? What if they argue that such competitions encourage the submission of inflated promises and foster unrealistic expectations? What if they begin to question the utility of contract incentives and to argue that they cost more to plan and administer than they yield in terms of reductions in cost and improvements in performance?
Will such thinkers be welcomed and their thoughts given serious consideration? Or will they face professional “excommunication” and see their thoughts rejected out of hand? How open will the higher ups be to their ideas? Will they encourage and support such thoughts?
Consider the DOD Source Selection Procedures issued under the previous Under Secretary on March 4, 2011:
These procedures are effective July 1, 2011, and are mandatory for all competitive acquisitions using FAR Part 15 procedures. All requests for proposals (RFPs) issued after July 1. 2011, are subject to these procedures.
Italics added. “All” -- no exceptions. Waivers require the “express permission” of the Director of Defense Procurement. In short: Don’t think. We’ve already done the thinking. Just do what we say. Use the standardized rating tables, whether they make sense in your case or not, whether or not you think there is a better scheme. That’s ironic in light the Under Secretary’s memo: “Our workforce should be encouraged by leaders to think and not to automatically default to a perceived school solution just because it is expected to be approved more easily.”
Yet, we need thinkers in acquisition, and good ones. I recently read the following in “Education for Critical Thinking,” by Col. Thomas M. Williams, in Military Review, January-February 2013, pp. 49- 54:
[W]ar is about identifying and solving ill-defined problems where experts can and do disagree on the range of solutions. In this operational environment, leaders have to prepare themselves to do more than apply doctrine and follow rules. Army doctrine — Mission Command — welcomes this possibility and gives us license to be unorthodox if the situation warrants. Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-0 states that it is “a guide for action rather than a set of fixed rules,” adding that effective leaders know when the doctrine or training experience and experience no longer apply, when they must adapt. This is not a legal indemnification; it is a call for honest critical thinking.
Substitute acquisition for “war” and “operational,” and I think his statement applies equally well to the work of acquisition professionals.
Acquisition is a squishy field. While there are acquisition laws, regulations, and dogma, to be sure, most of the big problems involve fuzzy logic, and experts can and do disagree about solutions. Critical thinking is an essential skill. So it makes sense that the Under Secretary demands that DOD acquisition professionals think, but it is ironic that his office has issued directives like the source selection memo.
I wonder whether the Under Secretary is serious about wanting acquisition personnel to think. If he is serious, I wonder what he is going to do about it. A memo isn’t an accomplishment. Is it? Well, is it?