Avoiding a Fatal or Worst-Case Crash

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This is not a DAU or contracting course lecture about going to jail if you don’t follow all the rules.  There is no FAR “jail” for contracting officers, much less program managers, who don’t follow the rules.  Contracting officers, like other people, sometimes get convicted and go to jail when they break the law.  Staying out of jail is not a very high goal for a career.  The basic way to stay out of jail is to use common sense and be guided by what you learned in Sunday School. 

This brief essay is about how to get a job done and avoid mistakes that could cause a meritorious project to crash.  Sometimes meritorious projects will crash.  I have been closely associated with more than one that has. If a crash is going to occur, know how to make the best of it.  The flexibility of OT contracting may result in unexpected opportunities and unexpected challenges.

Let me start by recounting two fatal crashes that had some impact on my life.  One was close at hand and personal; the other was geographically distant but tangentially related to work in which I was engaged.  The first was Air Florida flight 90 in 1982.  The Boeing 737 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C.  The second, United flight 232, a Douglas DC-10 that crashed at Sioux City Airport, Iowa in 1989.  In simplifying the scenarios discussed below there is no intention to denigrate the tragedies or actions of those involved.

In the first instance, the airplane was in good operating order, but airport conditions were bad.  Special procedures were needed to avoid icing.  The crew followed some and deviated from others.  The flight lasted less than a minute, never got higher than 400 feet, and only five people in the aircraft survived. In the second instance, the airplane lost an engine and suffered a catastrophic failure of flight control systems.  The airplane was at high altitude and did not answer to control system inputs; hydraulics out, no flaps, rudder, or elevator response.  Despite this, it got onto the airport grounds at Sioux City and 2/3s of the passengers survived.

The connection between these two events was crew coordination.  The key was how the team operated together.  In the first instance, the loss was ascribed to pilot error.  In the second, the aircrew was credited with getting the airplane to the airport and averting a greater disaster.  In Florida flight 90, the second officer was at the controls at takeoff.  He recognized that the flight instrumentation was giving false readings and said so.  He was overridden by the captain with fatal results.  On the United flight, the captain, second officer, flight engineer and a third United pilot (flying as a passenger but brought up to the cockpit), pooled their knowledge to overcome a seemingly impossible situation.  They credited their training on crew resource management and giving deference to the best idea rather than the highest rank as saving the day. 

At Strategic Institute we emphasize the importance of the OT action team to execute projects effectively.  Often folks don’t hear this message, especially those deeply schooled in the FAR system.  “Don’t you need someone with business experience to be in charge?”, they ask.  Yes, but FAR business experience may not be what is needed. Or, even if needed, it may not be enough or the most important experience.  Entirely different perspectives and, more importantly, the synergy of different perspectives may be what is needed. 

In my days at DARPA, where most of our funding was executed by outside contracting offices, I sometimes had frustrating conversations with lawyers from executing agents.  “My contracting officer has the authority to make the award decision, don’t you agree?”  I would respond something like: “Your contracting officer certainly has sign off authority, but he knows nothing about this technology and the DARPA program manager is our nation’s prime expert on this technology.  The substantive decision will be made by our PM.” In those instances, the C.O had a role to play but it was ministerial, something sometimes hard to admit. In OT contracting the role of the contracting officer may vary widely based on the specifics of the project and individual talents. The DOD Guide specifies that OT Agreements Officers need not be warranted FAR contracting officers.

It is the action team that matters in OT contracting.  Having someone in charge that flies you into a bridge is not the right answer.  Having a team that can avoid a total loss under catastrophic circumstances is a better way to go.

written by Richard L. Dunn