Disrupting Acquisition Blog

PRO TIP: The 3 P’s of Making Change

by Jul 23, 2019Mindset

Introducing change inside a bureaucracy is always challenging, but it’s also an important part of the job for defense acquisition professionals. The DoD needs people to lead change and drive improvements into the system, and today’s blog post shares a few tips on how to do exactly that.

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

Whenever I’m introducing an innovative method or advocating some new idea, I use an approach I call the Three P’s. Here’s how it works.

The first P stands for Policy. I always start any proposal by doing a little homework. I read through the regulations, policies, guidebooks, and memos from senior leaders. I’m looking for phrases and clauses that support my proposal and aiming to confirm that the idea I’m offering is allowable under the current regulatory environment. In the defense acquisition world, this is much easier than it sounds. Pro tip: press (ctrl-F) to search long policy docs for key words related to your topic.

For example, I often point to FAR Part 1.102(d), which says “each member of the acquisition team is to exercise personal initiative and sound business judgment.” That paragraph goes on to say that if a “strategy, practice, policy or procedure is in the best interests of the Government” then it’s allowed, which makes this almost universally relevant for virtually any innovation proposal. You’re welcome.

Similarly, I might point to FAR 1.102-2(b)(2), which says the acquisition system should “encourage innovation and local adaptation.” Whenever someone insists on uniformity to a common process, I use this reference to gently point out the FAR says otherwise.

Those long clunky FAR reference numbers don’t intimidate me and they shouldn’t get in your way either. In fact, I find that quoting the FAR chapter and verse helps add gravitas and credibility to my proposal.

Picking the right policy to reference is important. For example, when I’m speaking with Air Force personnel, I might quote a memo from SAF/AQ about Rapid Acquisition, where Dr. Roper says to “be dismissive of things that do not matter but very disciplined on things that do.” If I’m speaking with the Navy, I might use a similar quote from ASN(RDA) Hondo Guerts instead. Not sure where to look? Check out this collection of references we’ve assembled for you.

To be clear, this is not about cherry-picking policy statements or selectively ignoring inconvenient counter-policies. Instead, it’s about making sure I genuinely understand the rules and can demonstrate that while my proposal may sound new or unusual, it is actually consistent with standing guidance.

This first P aims to preempt any skeptical reactions of “the policy won’t allow it,” an objection that is almost never true. Of course, policy support will only get us so far, which brings us to the next P.

The second P is Precedents, and this too requires a bit of research. I constantly seek out stories, case studies, and examples of people doing the sort of thing I recommend. It doesn’t have to be an exact match – something in the general vicinity will suffice. As with policy, I aim to make sure the examples I use are relevant to the topic at hand and are accurately presented.

If I’m talking about how to increase the speed and thrift of a large, hardware-intensive acquisition program, I may bring up the US Navy’s Virginia Class submarines. If you’re not familiar with that one, you may be interested to know that when the USS Illinois was commissioned in Oct 2016, it was the 9th consecutive sub to be delivered ahead of schedule (and tens of millions of dollars under budget). It’s a powerful example of rapid innovation on a major scale.

If the category is space, I’ve got a large collection of stories about successful NASA missions. Other times I’ll use first-person examples, such as the time my team delivered an $84M radar system ahead of schedule and $8M under budget

Whether I’m talking submarines, spacecraft, or radar systems, the point is to use these precedents to illustrate key principles and practices that have been used previously and could be used again. These real-world precedents help shape my specific proposal as I’m developing it and they show the real-world provenance as I pitch it.

But we’re not done yet. Having demonstrated that my innovation proposal is consistent with policy and has been shown to work in other areas, there is still one P left. It just might be the most important one of all.

The third P is Partners. This is where I identify the specific people who will help turn the idea into reality. These partners may be senior leaders who have already expressed support for the idea, or practitioner-level teammates who can lend a hand. Sometimes they are folks who will be directly involved in the project, other times they are peripherally supportive, perhaps creating training or tools the core team can use.

Innovation is a team sport, and as my friend the late Lt Col Chris Quaid liked to say, “networking is working.” Following his example, I spend a lot of time building professional relationships with people, expanding my team of partners. Tools like LinkedIn help make this easier than ever, and so does simply inviting someone to get coffee and have a chat.

The secret is to build these mutually beneficial, collaborative partnerships in advance, so that when a new project or idea pops up, you can hit the ground running with a team that has already gone through some of the forming / storming / norming process and can quickly get to performing.

Using these three P’s when I’m proposing an innovative new technique means I can show that the policy allows it, it’s been done before, and there are people who will help. That combination tends to make a pretty strong case for moving forward and reduces the most common objections and barriers.

I encourage you to begin collecting your three P’s today, lining them up so they’re ready to use in support of your next innovative idea.

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