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Innovation: How Not To Go Down In Flames

Vern Edwards



Innovation: How Not To Go Down In Flames


The role of each member of the acquisition team is to exercise personal initiative….

Contracting officers should take the lead in encouraging business process innovations….

 —FAR 1.102

                                              There’s guns across the river aimin’ at ya

                                         Lawman on your trail, he’d like to catch ya

                                              Bounty hunters, too, they’d like to get ya

                                              Billy, they don’t like you to be so free

                                          —Bob Dylan, “Billy 1”


In a thread in the Wifcon Forum Contracting Workforce category entitled, “Personal Initiative: Who Has Used It?”, Bob Antonio asked for answers to four questions:

  1. Have you ever tried personal initiative but you were shot down by "higher ups" because the FAR did not authorize something?
  2. Have you ever used personal initiative and your idea was supported by "higher-ups?"
  3. In federal contracting, is it easier to be human or to be an automaton?
  4. If you answer automaton to #3, is it because of GAO protests, supervisors, etc?

      I’m especially interested in the answers to the first question: “Have you ever tried personal initiative but you were shot down by ‘higher ups’ because the FAR did not authorize something?”

So far, Bob has received seven responses. Five of the seven were “Yes.” The “yes” answers are the ones that interest me. I wonder why the would-be personal initiators got shot down, given the persistent calls for innovation these days. Even some blockheaded bureaucrats say that they want to change their world.

My complaint about all the presidential appointee/career management calls for initiative and innovation is that they they’re not honest about just how hard it is to move a bureaucracy in a new direction, even if by only a compass point or two. Such faithless calls risk alienating the very people the bosses claim to want to motivate, especially newcomers, who might react badly when their initiatives are rejected. The bosses may be preparing fertile ground in which to grow a new generation of cynics.

In my experience, many, maybe most, working level proposals for innovation fail, because the initiators didn’t know what they were in for, didn’t understand the need for intelligence and tactical planning, and made a poor presentation. They wanted to beneficially change their agency’s behavior, but they didn’t know how to go about it in the right way.

*  *  *

Suppose that you are a journeyman contract specialist in a “conservative” Government contracting office. Suppose further that you have just completed a three-day seminar in source selection in which a charismatic instructor argued persuasively that you could streamline and speed up the source selection process by asking for oral presentations from offerors instead of written technical proposals. The instructor even pointed out that the technique is expressly authorized  by FAR 15.102.

You have no hands-on experience with oral presentations. You’ve never seen one, and you haven’t read much about them. But, newly enthused, you go back to your office, make some inquiries, and learn that your agency has never used them in place of written technical proposals. So you go to your boss and propose asking for oral presentations instead of written technical proposals in an upcoming source selection to which you have been assigned.

Your boss, the Contracting Officer, who has not used oral presentations and who is not really expert at source selection (though he thinks he is), cuts you off. He says that oral presentations will expose the agency to protests about improper discussions. He also says that there’s no good way to document the presentations or the evaluations of them. Bad idea. Forget about it.

You visit an attorney in the legal office, who says much the same.

You talk to colleagues, but none of them have used oral presentations and don’t know much about them.

You approach the program manager, who is not expert in source selection, has no experience with oral presentations, and doesn’t understand how oral presentations can replace written technical proposals, even though she says that written proposals are a time-consuming pain to read, evaluate, and score. She worries about how you would incorporate oral presentations into a contract. She asks a lot of questions about the process, to which you have no definite answers.

Finally, by happenstance, you run into the director of contracts, your boss’s boss, at lunch in a nearby sandwich joint. You mention your ideas to her. She listens politely, but says that she hasn’t the time right then to discuss the matter. She tells you to make an appointment to come to her office. Later that afternoon your boss fusses at you for going over his head. He tells you again to forget about it.

You’ve gone down in flames, crashed, burned. So you cut and paste the traditional proposal preparation instructions and grumble about the higher-ups and the lawyers.

What have you learned? Well, if you paid attention, you should have learned that you just tried to sell the idea of using a bicycle to people who’ve never seen a wheel.

*  *  *

Before we go any further, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that many of today’s established contracting rules and procedures were once innovations. The Truth in Negotiations Act was an innovation of the late 1950s, as was the source selection tradeoff process, sophisticated numerical proposal scoring, and the modern concept of discussions with offerors within a competitive range. The formal evaluation of past performance was an innovation of the mid-1960s that failed and was revived in the 1990s. The imposition of Cost Accounting Standards was an innovation of the 1970s, as was the proposal color-rating system, which was designed to solve problems created by misuse of numerical scoring. The Competition in Contracting Act was an innovation of the early 1980s. Electronic proposal evaluation software was an innovation of the 2000s.

Another thing to keep in mind is that managers and staffs in organizations involved in Government contracting are geared for rule compliance. Failure to comply can have consequences, sometimes serious ones. It would be one thing if the rules were clear and unambiguous, but they’re not. The rules are badly written and subject to lawyerly interpretation games and to time-consuming and costly litigation. The compliance mind casts a shadow over all proposals  to innovate. Compliance is not risky. Innovation might be very risky. These realities tend to make managers and staffs conservative and reluctant to embrace change that is promoted from the bottom up.

What makes me mad at political appointees and career managers who call for innovation is that they fail at one of their most important leadership functions—teaching their people. If you want people in a compliance-oriented organization to innovate, you must teach them how and pave the way through the bureaucracy. Senior managers who encourage people to innovate without giving them navigation charts for the Sea of Bureaucracy and a reliable course heading deserve a kick in the pants. Some of their best people will end up lost.

Most of you initiator/innovators don’t have good senior managers, so you will have to plot your own course. Suppose that you want to innovate with oral presentations in source selection. Start by asking yourself some questions:

1. How well do you know and understand the applicable source selection rules and practices —not just as they appear in FAR, your agency supplement and policy documents, and in your agency’s handbooks and manuals, but also as interpreted and applied by the GAO and the Court of Federal Claims? What do you know about the history of those rules and practices, where they came from and why? How deeply have you thought about them?

2. What do you know about the concept of the technical proposal and about their typical content? What do you know about preparing them? What do you know about the actual experience of evaluating them? What do you know about their legal role in contract formation and administration? What have you read about the criticisms of them?

3. What have you read about oral presentations in the professional literature, in publications such as Public Contract Law Journal and Contract Management magazine? Did you Google <oral presentations in source selection> and read what you found?

4. Do you know how many protest decisions there have been in which oral presentations were an issue? How many of them have you read? Did you take notes about the kinds of acquisitions in which oral presentations were used, the particular methods that were used, and the issues involved? Did you compile won/lost statistics and reasons?

5. Did you check the past year’s listings at FedBizOpps to find acquisitions in which oral presentations were employed? Did you get the solicitations? Did you call the contracting officers to ask how they went about it, how it came out, and lessons learned?

6. Did you conduct market research to find out whether oral presentations or something similar (marketing presentations or “sales pitches”) are used in the industry with which your agency will engage in the upcoming acquisition?

7. Did you do a pro and con analysis? What would your office gain, if anything, by evaluating oral presentations instead of written technical proposals? What might it lose, if anything, not just in terms of potential protests, but also in terms of information necessary to make a sound a source selection decision? What are the risks? What are the benefits? What are the tradeoffs?

8. Did you develop a detailed plan and process for using oral presentations? Does it reflect what you have learned? Is it practical? Will it show the decision maker and others that you’re not just winging it?

9. Do you know the bureaucratic structure of your headquarters organization, its history, and its temper? Do you know the backgrounds of the decision maker and other affected and influential staff? Do you know their likely issues, questions, and objections, and are you ready with detailed responses? Do you have allies? Do you know your opponents?

10. Did you assemble pertinent and verifiable facts, prepare a persuasive written argument and appropriate presentation, and choose the right time, place, and audience at which to present them? Did you invite the right people to attend? Did you rehearse?

11. Did you think tactically about how to work your way through the layers of bureaucracy: whom to approach first, whom next, and how to build support and momentum toward your objective before hitting up the decision maker? Did you think about how to prepare for attacks by opponents against your argument's flanks and rear?

Sound very formal and like a lot of work? Well, it is. And it might require some or all of that if you want to initiate an significant innovation. While some innovations are produced by flashes of insight and inspiration, most, especially big and important ones, are produced by fact gathering, analysis, deep thinking, careful planning, and good tactics.

You probably won’t have to go to all that trouble when proposing minor innovations that effect only one routine, relatively small dollar acquisition in only one office. For that kind of thing you might be able to walk into the boss’s office and simply say: “I’d like to try something…” But when proposing a “major” change in policy or procedure, get into the research, planning, and persuasion mode.

      Every working-level proposal for innovation is a sales pitch that, hopefully, will lead to a negotiation. A famous expert in negotiation once arrived home from a business trip only to be pounced upon by his teenage son, who presented him with all sorts of ideas that he wanted his father to buy into right away. According his son’s recollection, the father was quiet for a moment, then said:

“My ideas are my old friends and your ideas are your old friends. You may have some very good friends. But you cannot expect me to throw away my friends and adopt your friends at a moment’s notice, as soon as you introduce them to me. Give me time to get used to them and I may adopt them. But I need that time—I need that acceptance time.”

See Gary Karrass, Negotiate to Close: How to Make More Successful Deals (1987).

    Mid and senior-level bureaucrats, who are not always up to speed on the latest and greatest ideas, and who tend to be conservative, will need a persuasive introduction to your friends. Selling innovation takes time, thought, tactics, preparation, and guts. By the way, that’s half the fun. And keep in mind that a well-done study, plan, proposal, and presentation might attract the attention of a higher-up and be a big career boost, even if the proposal is rejected.


Recommended Comments

Great post Vern.  Here is another way of saying it.  Innovation, or better the adoption of innovative ideas, are a function of superior subject matter competency and influence communication.  The professional level competency of the subject of contracting (and beyond) is something you have discussed on a number of occasions.  What you have only occasionally raised is the role of what my Director calls "influence communication" which requires an understanding of people, their positions (both organizationally and conceptually), and personalities.  If you know those three "Ps" you stand a better chance of success as you may otherwise have.  

I recommend "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion" by Cal Newport (author of DeepWork).  He pushes back on that whole "What Color is your Parachute...Do What You Love The Money Will Come" approach to career development and highlights with 4 general rules:  1) Don't Follow Your Passion (Passion seldom pays); 2) Be So Good They Can't Ignore You (Importance of Skill); 3) Turn Down a Promotion (Importance of Control); and 4) Think Small, Act Big (Importance of Mission).  These are ways that we can develop competencies to actually come up with workable innovative ideas.

The second book I recommend is "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by Robert B. Cialdini.  Influence communication is something I have observed in short supply in government generally.  Whether people admit it or not, when it comes to putting forth ideas that deviate from the path dependent way that government typically functions, you are involved in a sales job.  You are selling you, your idea, your competency, and vision of what is possible.  

Ideas are a dime a dozen and everyone has one.  Most of the ideas that I hear on federal contracting are anchored in ignorance.  People lack the understanding of the regulations, environment, structure, and behaviors to actually come up with a workable idea, and fewer still have the influence communication skills needed to see it through.  I think your post, and resources like that of Drs. Newport and Cialdini, can help towards that end. 

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I like this post and have shared it with my staff. But I don't work in government; I work at a contractor. My department is focused on continuous process improvement and innovating business practices; it's what we are paid to do. Somebody identifies a problem or a process glitch or a noncompliant situation, and my team goes into action. But many of our process problems are cross-functional and so we develop teams (or IPTs, if you will) to go tackle long-standing, tough, issues. Sometimes we lead and sometimes we are just team members. In almost every single case, the improvement initiative succeeds or fails based on how we execute change management and communication.

In one recent example, we are nearing consensus on a problem that has plagued us for (literally) more than 6 years. We have held meeting after meeting, trying to develop a solution that all stakeholders would accept and actually implement. Everybody agreed that improvement was necessary; but there was passionate disagreement regarding the solution. Finally we all aligned on a fix that was far from perfect, but it was the most feasible solution given the constraints. And then management shot it down because they didn't understand how much effort had gone into developing the compromise solution, and it was (obviously) not the perfect solution. We've spent the past 5 months recovering and trying to build consensus with the members of the management team who want the "perfect" solution. Why did we stumble with management? We didn't communicate and we didn't present our proposed fix in a manner that clearly showed why our solution was the way to go right now.

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     "My complaint about all the presidential appointee/career management calls for initiative and innovation is that they they’re not honest about just how hard it is to move a bureaucracy in a new direction, even if by only a compass point or two. Such faithless calls risk alienating the very people the bosses claim to want to motivate, especially newcomers, who might react badly when their initiatives are rejected. The bosses may be preparing fertile ground in which to grow a new generation of cynics.

     "In my experience, many, maybe most, working level proposals for innovation fail, because the initiators didn’t know what they were in for, didn’t understand the need for intelligence and tactical planning, and made a poor presentation. They wanted to beneficially change their agency’s behavior, but they didn’t know how to go about it in the right way."

There is some truth here.  The posting focuses on the second paragraph, but I wonder if the real problem is really in the first -- I wouldn't want the major part of the blame for no innovation to lie with working-level professionals because they didn't do a good enough job selling their ideas upwards -- in my mind, the major part of the blame lies with the senior leadership of our agencies and their "faithless calls" and even outright hostility to rocking the boat.



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I could have certainly used this the day before it was posted. I've often wondered what the FAR writers meant when they drafted the passage Vern provided above. What did they mean by  exercise?

exercise (ˈɛksəˌsaɪz)

vb (mainly tr)

1. to put into use; employ: to exercise tact.

3. to practise using in order to develop or train: to exercise one's voice.

4. to perform or make proper use of: to exercise one's rights.

5. to bring to bear; exert: to exercise one's influence.

FAR 1.102-4 states

(a) Government members of the Team must be empowered...In particular, the contracting officer must have the authority to the maximum extent practicable and consistent with law, to determine the application of rules, regulations, and policies, on a specific contract.

(b) The authority to make decisions and the accountability for the decisions made will be delegated to the lowest level within the System, consistent with law.

The review process checkpoints and stonewalling of personnel exercising initiative would appear to be a deviation from the FAR.

The model doesn't work well when the lower tier has the responsibility, but the upper tier maintains the authority. I wonder what would happen if the higher-ups were the only ones with warrants and the rest of us were contract specialists, etc.

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Jamaal-  Believe it means number 4.  The expectation is that each team member have personal initiative and use it to craft good business solutions.

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