Moving Beyond a Culture of No…The Real Challenge to Acquisition Acceleration

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The chief problem that the DoD and other acquisition agencies have is not tied to a lack of desire to speed up their business practices. Nor is the problem based in a lack of statutory or regulatory authority that acquisition agencies have at their disposal. All of the tools these communities require are available between those granted under the FAR, DFAR, and the various OTA vehicles at their disposal. The inability to move faster is rooted in a bureaucratic culture of “NO!” No risk, no explicit permission (visible at the deck plate levels), and no incentives for program managers, contract officers, and legal counsel to step out of the safe and accepted practices of their various bureaucracies. The “Culture of No” is what is keeping us from making meaningful progress in accelerating acquisition!

The messages that industry, government, and academia are getting from their DoD and other USG customers is loud, unmistakable, and correct. From the President, to DoD, to the various service Secretaries and their acquisition leadership we are hearing, “We need to go faster, we need to accept more risk, and we need to behave more like Silicon Valley (although they are succumbing to the pitfalls of bureaucracy as well) if we want to compete technologically with our potential adversaries.” This is the right message, so why is it not happening?

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius

Despite the notable marquee examples like DIUx (now DIU since Defense Innovation is no longer an experiment) and Kessel Run, it is hard for anyone to seriously argue (with a straight face) that we’ve made any real leap forward in accelerating acquisition across DoD or the larger domain of the USG. The reason for this is simple, innovation and speed are antithetical to the organizational behaviors of entrenched bureaucracies. No matter how good the intentions, no matter how sincere the leadership message, if we cannot change the entrenched culture of a bureaucracy, we cannot produce the business results that we desire.

“The opposite of courage is not cowardness, it is conformity.” – Rollo May

This problem is similar to the operational challenges that organizations like the United States Navy have historically faced. Dating back to the days of the Barbary Pirates, the challenge has always existed as to how to drive operational results over a dispersed enterprise that was subjected to unreliable direct command and control structures. Historically, how was the Navy able execute specific operational objectives without direct, reliable, communications with its commanders at the tactical level where decisions had to be made in real time in order to ensure victory in combat?

The answer, especially during the years of the Cold War (when the stakes of the game were exceptionally high), was a “Command by Negation” strategy that empowered commanders, at the tactical level, to execute their mission, as the needs dictated in accordance with operational guidelines unless someone in higher command explicitly told them ‘NO!” More formally, this theory was expressed through the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) construct that gave the appropriate guidance, and more importantly, the appropriate flexibility to make decisions at the lowest possible level to ensure execution at the point of need. This is exactly the type of culture we need to build in to our government business systems if we want to drive change, innovation, and speed. There is no other way!

“There is no disgrace in honest failure. There is disgrace in fearing to fail.” – Henry Ford

This type of fundamental cultural change takes years and outlives personalities that come and go across administrations and and rotational military leadership, this is why the grinding gears of the bureaucracy continue to win out over time. To drive real change, leadership needs to devise strategies that can resist institutional inertia and last beyond the strength of their personality. This is the challenge our leaders face, the question is, can they move beyond their own experiences with the “Culture of No” and set up parallel organizations that allow for innovation once they move on instead of hoping that pilot programs within their bureaucracies will someday blossom and foster institutional change? Fortune and change favor the bold….incrementalism and half-steps favor the bureaucracy….which will our government’s leaders choose? The answer to this question remains to be seen!

guest post written by Wes Naylor, Adjunct Lecturer UCF, former Commanding Officer of Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division & Naval Aviator