Imaginative Innovation in Federal Acquisition

posted in: Other Transactions | 0
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How can an organization or person be innovative without first being imaginative?  Can you have sustained innovation without being fueled by imagination?

Definition of imagination
1 : the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality 2 a : creative ability b : ability to confront and deal with a problem : resourcefulness use your imagination and get us out of here c : the thinking or active mind

There is a lot of talk about innovation within the federal government and Department of Defense.  The word innovation is heard frequently in rhetoric, found in job titles and organizational names – it is an overarching buzzword.  Closely related words, important for understanding innovation, are absent: imagination, creativity, and inventiveness.  Instead, prescribed doctrine and rules emphasizing compliance is backed by full and overwhelming institutional support.  For those working inside the system there is little incentive to do anything else.  Compliance, not creativity, is the paramount virtue.  This begs the question; how do we get innovation out of a system and culture that are in opposition?  Currently, it is at the cost of ridiculously inflated timelines and immeasurable waste.  This, at a time when dynamism is receding, and stagnation is gripping the Nation. Persistently low productivity is worsening, debt is skyrocketing, while soldiers are going without.  The top-heavy military-industrial complex is devouring the actual military.  Much of it is financed with the nation’s future as collateral.

The culture within the federal government is guided a lot by myth and superstition. Policy is hardly ever read and common sense is rarely used, or so it is said. The zeitgeist has been shaped by what is essentially gossip that has taken on meaning. Criticizing the culture while perpetuating lore is a frequent feature. The status-quo, purveyors of myth, has tremendous influence; if in opposition, what is to be done for the sake of innovation?  Get out of the system and look beyond business-as-usual.

Other Transactions (OTs) authorities provide an alternative to business-as-usual for federal prototype projects and R&D broadly.  They are a release from the constipated system.  The flexibility offered by these contractual instruments greatly expands what is possible and can be the basis for other needed advancements in federal business.  It should go without saying, acquiring adequate knowledge is essential for effectively operating in a different environment with a more expansive framework.  Therein lies the sticking point. Uploading knowledge and enhancing skills through education, training, and experience has not progressed.  It’s stuck trying to load. There is no Dojo, center for learning, nor Jedi Master.  Wisdom is being lost, faster than gained.  The imposing of false limitations is directly contrary to the ‘spirit’ of OTs and the remedy they are intended to offer.

UNIMAGINATIVE is the best word to reflect the current general use of Other Transactions authorities.  They have long suffered misunderstanding, ignorance, and stuffed into preconceived conceptual boxes.  Given that modality, these flexible and expansive contracting authorities risk becoming little more than a hack or ‘easy button’ to quickly get money on contract and obligate funding; the favored metrics of government contracting offices.  This is missing the forest for the trees, and of course, has absolutely nothing to do with innovation or delivering new capabilities.  A mindset imprisoned by non-value-added rules instead of being driven by the achievement of goals is producing predictable consequences… chronically.  Congress even got sick of it and went so far as to direct the DoD to “create a preference” for using Other Transactions authorities and mandated management education.  Insufficiently motivated, five years later the DoD remains obsessively fixated on outmoded concepts and thinking.  The continued lack of education and training indicates a passive rejection by stodgy leadership for alternative and novel acquisition approaches.  Leadership needs to evolve.

“Evolution requires conserving what still works and experimenting until something comes along that works better.  We call the fundamentals changing selective pressure and the process of experimenting with variations natural selection… In human organizations, those in power influence the choice of what is conserved or replaced and what it’s replaced with. Those who benefit from the current arrangement will fight to conserve it as is, while those being weakened by selective pressure and those hoping to gain advantages with a new arrangement will fight for replacing the old with the new.” – Charles Hugh Smith

It has been said that the secret sauce for innovation is freedom. Freedom to exchange, experiment, imagine, invest, and fail.  If smart program teams embrace freedom of contract, focus on achieving goals, and use their imagination – the stars really are the limit.  For the imaginative doers, OTs are your friend, get to know them.


written by Christian Dunn, Managing Partner