So What’s the Problem? What makes OTAs Different

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“OTAs are used when you’re really experimenting and prototyping… to find out exactly what the art of the possible is.”
– Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense AT&L

To adequately solve a problem, the problem must be understood.  This statement seems obvious, yet the hard work of problem-solving often takes a back seat to wishful thinking and solutions without a cause.  Focus too long on a problem and one risks being labelled ‘negative’ or too ‘serious’. People love talking about the latest #innovation but are often uncomfortable delving into the real or core issues.  It is common to deny the real problem, at least partially, in favor of something less taxing or an easy fix.  A recent article critical of the Pentagon’s spray and pray approach to innovation indicates that the DoD may be looking for solutions without fully understanding the problems, instead just seeing what sticks.   

“It’s not that I am so smart, it’s just that I stay with the problems longer.” – Albert Einstein

Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs) are a different approach to acquisition.  Whereas the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) focus on requirements (to get the rest of the rules-based process moving glacially toward an outcome); OTAs beg their users to spend time parsing and analyzing the problem(s), thinking critically.  The solution, in part, is found by minimizing non-value-added (illogical) business processes and increasing strategic collaboration with outside partners. OTAs front load heavy analysis and thinking to lay the foundation for heightened creativity to develop new, and likely better, capabilities with less wasted effort. The additional benefits are increased speed and greater affordability.  A little more thought time in the beginning pays off big in the medium and long term. In fact, the most important part in developing an OTA is a sophisticated understanding of the problem and writing a problem statement clearly and concisely. Simply put, OTAs shop problems, the FAR shops requirements.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein

Once a problem is well defined, OTAs encourage demand strategic collaboration between government, industry and/or non-profits (academia), which can exponentially increase brain power, add perspective and offer the possibility for unexpected favorable results. This permits for something often devoid in the current acquisition process: creativity! Inventiveness does not come about through heavy burdens of systemic rules, requirements and processes, it is in part due to the freedom to think, which OTAs allow.   

“Don’t listen to the person who has answers, listen to the person who has questions.” – Albert Einstein

OTAs allow unprecedented opportunity to experiment with innovative forms of collaboration, new technical and business approaches, and encourage goals rather than rules to be the primary force in forming a contractual relationship.  Here at the Strategic Institute we use slogans like “OTAs are not business as usual,” and “OTs are FAR out,” and talk about the ‘spirit’ of OTAs, so that folks understand that these authorities are more than a just a contracting tool or instrument, but provide an alternative approach to doing business and are a different way of thinking.  

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” – Yoda

After more than three decades of trying to reform the federal acquisition system, the current culture and processes has proven mightily resistant to change, resulting in the loss of the nation’s competitive edge across a number of domains.  The business of government is mired in bloated bureaucracy that hinders its ability to be fast, flexible, and innovative. Fixing anything by those who are indoctrinated in the current system (paradigm) is tough, despite the best of intentions.  It will not be fixed with a new rule or hastily devised solution or even a well-researched white paper, these have been done again and again. It begins by allowing groups to experiment with the freedom that OTAs provide, fully supported by leadership, learning from their successes and failures, and spreading where applicable. In time, it will be better understood that OTAs provide an alternative approach to business and acquisition.

“You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.” – Albert Einstein

Conclusion: Problem solving is less about coming up with a solution, it is more about the ability to understand.   We live in an age where we are bombarded with hyped solutions and answers that can make us faster, better, stronger, smarter.  Solutions abound but critical analysis of any given problem is in short supply. The result is that the bulk tend to be half-baked, unnecessary or poor performers, even dangerous. It should go without saying, but truly understanding the problem is paramount. OTAs are not just a tool or a work around, it is a fundamentally different way of thinking to solve challenges and develop new capabilities faster and more affordably.   

So what’s the problem?


written by Strategic Institute staff

For more information do not miss an exciting development and training opportunity:  ACQUISITION-X: Sparking Synergy in Alternative Acquisition, December 4-5, 2019 in Falls Church VA