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Sometime In Your Career . . .



Sometime in your career, you will be faced with a decision that will affect the way you perceive yourself. It may be an immediate career changer or it may be one of those little decisions that help to define your career. You will know it when you encounter it and you will think about it before you take action at least the first time. There will be rules designed to lead you in your decision, but in the end, it will be your decision. Your choice may be as easy as right or wrong or it may be in various shades of gray. The choice may be complex where there are competing interests and each one sounds persuasive. You may face pressure to reach a decision that others want you to reach. However, in the end, it is your decision, you will make it alone, and you will live with it.

People Over Process

Recently, as I analyzed The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, I thought to myself: "more hoops to jump through." It has some nice ideas about process but it just adds more process to an already overburdened process. It does have a provision for an award for good performance. Whoopee! However, what it fails to do is focus on the most important aspect of the process――the people working within the process.

The Contracting Course

In 1987, I wrote an introductory training course on contracting for the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) analysts. Unlike contracting courses for those who do contracting, this one was designed to do three things: 1) give analysts an idea of how contracting was supposed to be done, 2) show analysts ways the contracting process could be abused, and 3) get analysts interested in doing contracting reviews. The course was designed for 3 days and covered 1) the process, organizations, and people; 2) competition; 3) requirements; 4) methods of contracting; 5) contract types; 6) pricing; 7) major systems acquisition; and 8) contract administration. As you can imagine, the course skimmed the surface of this process. At the beginning of each course, I always told the analysts that we would be discussing a complicated process. However, consistent with my views, I stressed that the people within the process were most important. I told the analysts to ask themselves: What would you do if you were doing the contracting? Why did the contracting people do what they did?

After giving the course for 10 years, I decided to call it quits in the late 1990s. For the final course, I tried something different. I added a special 1-page document for an exercise within the systems acquisition part of the course. The focus was a hypothetical major system that was unworkable. No matter what was done to it, it wouldn't work. Class members would be split into two groups. Program office members would be the proponents of the system. Operational, test, and evaluation office (OT&E) members would decide whether the system was ready for production and fielding. The class included 6 tables. Three members of each table would be program office members and 3 would be OT&E members. Oh, and me? I was to be General Bullmoose?a character that belonged in the movie "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Think

. The General, of course, was the program's main supporter. He was willing to lean on people or organizations to get what he wanted done. At the end of the exercise, each table would report on what it decided to do with the system.

Could Good People Be Persuaded To Do Wrong?

The goal of this exercise was to persuade the class members to make the wrong decision about our theoretical system. It wasn't going to be easy. First, I would explain the process and how it was designed to avoid failure. Second, I would give examples of what people, within the process, did that resulted in systems that failed. Third, after telling the class members, both orally and in writing, that our theoretical system would not work, I was going to try to persuade them into making the wrong decision and approve it for production and deployment.

As always, I went through the basics of the process using a chart from an old Office of Federal Procurement Policy pamphlet. Some of you may remember it. It has decision points listed at the top and the basic steps of a process within the chart: identification of mission need; conceptual design, concept demonstration; prototype demonstration, operational test and evaluation, initial production, production. Yes, its basic. There's probably thousands of pages of instruction on this process in the federal government and every time GAO or an inspector general issues a report on a system, the process gets 10 pages longer.

We worked our way through the process while I used the chart as an overhead. I explained the chart and gave examples of problems with systems. Along our way, I stressed the role of the people within the process--including the roles of the program office and the OT&E. Towards the end of the presentation, I walked up to the overhead projector and squeezed the OFPP document so that the only thing that could be seen on the wall was "analysis of mission" and "production." The other steps in the process were scrunched together. With that, I would explain that they were seeing "concurrency" where steps are run simultaneously to "shorten" the acquisition process.

After the presentation, it was time for the exercise and time for the class to meet General Bullmoose. I called to an imaginary person outside the door to come in. I left the room and General Bullmoose entered.

When the General entered the room, the only thing he could talk about was the need to get the system into the field. Then he went into his initial speech about God, America, and the system. He appointed an assistant and told the assistant that the room was filled with a bunch of weaklings who needed direction and a "push" through their decision-making. The assistant was to be inside the room listening for non-believers. The General would persuade the non-believers with their own personal face-to-face account of God, America, and the system.

After his initial barrage, the General walked out of the room and left the class to proceed with their discussions about the system. After a bit, the General returned. He explained to the class that he had just left a meeting with the Secretary of Defense and the President. They both wanted to see the system in the field as quickly as possible. After that, he roamed the room praising the system. The General again left the room so the class could further discuss the system. After about 15 minutes, it was time for the General to seal the deal. When he returned to the room, he pleaded for the members of the program office and OT&E to get this system to the field for the "boys and girls" who needed it. As he bounced about the room--and off the walls--the class members could see his eyes watering and a tear or two rolling down his cheek. Yes, the General was trying hard. The General moved to the front of the room, gave his final "encouragement," and left the room for good.

Once I was outside the room, I needed to walk the halls of the GAO building to rid myself of the General. It wasn't easy. However, after pacing the ugly dullness of the GAO building, I slowly became myself again.

After about 15 minutes, I walked into the room. The class had about 45 minutes to discuss the system and reach their decision and it was time to see what each table did with the system. The first table, concluding that the flaws in the system were minor, approved the unworkable system for production and deployment to the field. The second table approved the system too. The third table approved it and planned to "retrofit" it in the field. I liked that one. And so it went, one table after the other approved a system that they knew would not work. There was some minority sentiment too from program office and OT&E members, especially at the sixth and last table. Two members at that table explained this "system won't work." And they were quite upset that the majority at their table approved the system. They issued a "strong dissent."

Think about this for a moment. After discussing the process, after explaining the human causes of systems that failed, after telling the class that our theoretical system would not work, all six tables in the class approved the system for production and deployment to the field. The only thing between the right decision and the wrong decision in this exercise was persuasion. Now, you will never meet General Bullmoose since I retired him. However, you will encounter some form of persuasion that wants to affect one of your decisions. What will you do?

Remember, the decision is yours and you will have to live with it.


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This is an EXCELLENT article, true to life, and most certainly needs to be shared.

Early in my career, I would have gone with the flow as did the majority of your students. In the past few years, however, I would most certainly have challenged going forward with a known non-workable spec.

Now let me say I have not been affiliated with any military entity, nor have I ever had to face a General. But I would not, at this point, be afraid to face my Agency Head to express my concerns. I would expect my Agency Leader to listen to me, as through the many years I have worked with this Agency, I have gained the respect of many. It has been a hard fought & won respect, but by being honest, flexible, and service-oriented towards the customer's (requestor's) we have strong mutual respect. VERY IMPORTANT in this field of work.

Now, whether or not the management decision would be made to proceed or re-visit the spec's, I cannot predict, as every acquisition has it's own importance to mission, time, cost, and impact to the Agency. At times we would pull back, at other times, we may proceed, with full knowledge as did your one team with the retrofit plan.

If I only knew then what I know now...but that is the way of the world.


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That is an excellent exercise and should be part of training for everyone. Unfortunately the situation is a reality most of us will face at least once if not many times more.

The good part it doesn't happy everywhere. There are places where the contracting field is viewed as valuable and supportive and adds to the mission accomplishment. Those places are too few however. There are other agencies where contracting is viewed as an obstacle and CO's are obstructionists. That's where this exercise becomes reality because planning just doesn't happen. Program offices do their thing in isolation and then want the CO to rubber stamp and endorse their actions. When you face that work environmnet, that's usually a sign to move on.

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About 8 years ago, I wrote this entry.  I was reading through some of my old entries this morning and this one stood out.  Truthfully, I liked several others too.  However, this one provides a lesson in life.  At least 2 people thought it was of value and left a response.

It is a universal lesson of life.  At some point, a position you take will leave you feeling like you are standing alone in gail-force winds.  Do you get blown over and fall in with the crowd?  Or do you forge ahead alone because your position is correct?  If you forge ahead, it may cost you your job or more.

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Great post, Bob! After reading your Lockheed/Thoikol posts, I went back and re-read some of your earlier posts, including this one. It's amazing how powerful groupthink is in a workplace setting. I myself have caved to it more times than I care to admit, especially earlier in my career. This is a great reminder of the old adage - stand for something, or fall for anything. 

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