Disrupting Acquisition Blog

Middle Tier of Acquisition in 1991—and Why It Matters Today

by | Oct 8, 2019 | Mindset

A good Program Manager and Contracting Officer partnership is essential. Someone asked us to pose for a photo while sharing team memories during a documentary.

Everyone seems a little frantic to figure out Middle Tier of Acquisition (MTA) as well as non-FAR-based Other Transactions because we all know you can’t go fast with the FAR and DoD 5000, right? You’d almost think this kind of need has never occurred because it seems so hard for many people to grasp turning any procurement around quickly.

Yet, almost 30 years ago, the original Bunker Buster, the GBU-28, was a fast prototype with a follow-on production contract and many iterations after that as the technology evolved—and is still evolving because the need is still evolving.

It’s not our contracting tools or our 2019 smartphones that give us an advantage with MTA. It’s something else, something that transcends the three decades between. I’ll bet that no matter how many contracting tools and cool personal tech we have, we could still find a way to screw up MTA if we haven’t learned from the past.

But let’s put that past in context of what we know today.

In February of 1991, I was a twenty-something early adopter who was still a year away from signing onto my first “electronic bulletin board” with a 1200-baud modem that sounded like robot farm animals caught in an electric fence. I had an early version of a car phone that was the size of a brick, but it was so rare that none of my engineer friends had one. My YUPPIE shoulder pads were out of style, my asymmetrical New Wave hair cut was growing out, the groove was in the heart, and we were still debating the lyrics of the B-52’s “Love Shack” around the water cooler because social media didn’t exist yet. I was a GS-11 contract specialist in an Air Force laboratory, having just completed a three-year internship, my Master’s degree, and my resume for a GS-12 promotion. Naturally, I was stirring controversy, back then by studying for my Contracting Officer’s unlimited warrant with less than four years’ experience in Acquisition. (They later changed the prerequisite number of years because I was “too young.”)

We had none of the cool advantages we think of today when it comes to being the best at Acquisition. Nah, we were downright primitive.

In 1996, as part of a special project, we produced a 10-minute short documentary that could easily fit in with today’s version of an MTA procurement. The presentation is dated—I cringe now at the background music that was the hallmark of a professional documentary of the 1990’s—but it tells the highlights of a great story…just not the whole story. We talked for a while about having me write a book about it, but we were encouraged to wait a while and it never happened. Now it never will because too much of the story has been lost, as well as a key player.

There were so many cool stories, all related to teamwork and risk-taking, which make for today’s cool stories as well. Not just taking risks with pushing paper, either. The storm clouds would build on the horizon and if the literal bucket brigade carrying literal explosives saw literally one flicker of lightning, they would have to stop filling the Bunker Buster with tritonal. In spite of the personal danger, they were working against the clock, yet the bombs were still warm when unloaded on the other side of the world.

The part of the story you need to know now is the part that doesn’t deal with technology but with the team and the culture of the time. Not that the bureaucracy moved faster back then—it surely didn’t—but it was this team and their risk-taking mindset that made all the difference.

Picking the Right Team

The entire team was hand-picked: program manager, support contractor, test engineer…contract specialist, aka “buyer.”

I wasn’t the first choice for buyer, and three months later, Contracting Officer. I’d spent the previous December issuing an unheard of five undefinitized contractual actions (UCAs) to see if contractors could turn a gleam in the eye into something mature enough to answer the emerging need. By February, I had a full plate with either cutting them off if their tech wasn’t promising enough or definitizing the UCAs, plus my regular workload. In the midst of that, I was studying for my warrant, hauling a crawling baby into work with me on the weekends, watching my marriage disintegrate for reasons unrelated to work, and just skimming the surface of a childhood trauma that drove both my early self-worth and my origins of creativity. I was a fixer, and that’s where I felt most in control of my life. Naturally, I volunteered for this new effort. It was the easiest part of my world that year.

To my disappointment, my Chief of Contracts for the Lab hand-picked someone else, a colleague of mine who was new to my office and didn’t have a full workload. Plus, I was super busy.  At the time, my bosses misunderstood how urgent this requirement would become until my colleague didn’t move fast enough in the very first interchange. My colleague went on to become a beloved leader, but he wasn’t a good fit at that time for urgent acquisitions. Not everyone is, no matter how good they are with other procurements. And I was waiting in the wings, extremely familiar with UCAs by now, and already rubbing my palms together in anticipation of the coming adrenaline rush. He took over part of my workload to make room for me to focus on the urgent stuff, and we were both happy.

Lesson: Hand-pick the team, but pick the right people for the right reason, and that reason is that that person knows what they’re doing and they can move fast. A good match is as much about personalities, including psychological needs to be in the fray, as about skillsets. Often the right person has a particular strength built on swimming upstream for decades, juggling dozens of tasks at once, or working miracles in their personal lives, so it’s more stressful for them to work routine tasks than emergencies because it’s what they’re used to. Of course, this means you need to know your people well enough to know how to match them to the work.

Empowering the Team to Take Risks

The verb empower didn’t come into vogue until Total Quality Management (TQM) a few years later, but I favor action over words, and this team truly was empowered, both to make decisions and to take risks. Only now, three decades later, can I really appreciate that. The way my Contracting bosses and the Program Management chain of command treated me early in my career gave me the confidence to challenge the system and take risks ever since.

Although I was a GS-11…almost GS-12 at the time…my Contracting Officer, Branch Chief, and Chief of Contracts trusted both me and my work. They didn’t hover and review every single syllable I put in a file. Roughly 95% of the ideas I took to them, they allowed. They rarely told me no, even to crazy stuff like a Club Fed prisoner being my clerical support when I had none and putting missiles on debit cards when DFAS was too slow. I didn’t yet have a Contracting Officer’s warrant, but they normally let me handle matters as if I did and signed off on anything I shoved across the desk at them. In fact, my Contracting Officer was minimally involved with the Bunker Buster team, except to sign documentation for my file with no wordsmithing.

This was actually far more freedom than my colleagues and I had when I retired from the career field. In fact, it wasn’t until around 2014 that I really, really hit the Frozen Middle wall. I had more power as a GS11/12 than some SESes tell me they do today, and that is a frightening insight.

I confess that I’m bothered by this realization. My formative years in Acquisition were filled with supportive leaders who encouraged me to be creative rather than conservative. A few duds, yes, but the traditionalists stood out, even in the bureaucracy. What of our trainees in this decade? How will they have the confidence to break barriers if they’re frozen out and told nothing but no?

It wasn’t just buyers who were encouraged to push the envelope. Everyone on this team pushed every corner. One of my fellow twenty-somethings, an engineer, took a big career risk with delaying providing a priority rating for testing—because it hadn’t arrived yet. At the moment he could delay the General no longer and was about to lose the ability to schedule a test, the rating came in—whew!

No one gave up, even when we hit our own version of the Frozen Middle in 1991. For example, we knew the funding was coming down but it was delayed, delayed, delayed while the clock continued to tick. Why? Because a woman in the Pentagon told us that no, she was not going to send it yet. She had a tickler file, one of the little boxes of 3×5-inch lined index cards with each card being a day of the month, and when the card we needed came up on that last day of the month, then and only then would she send the funding document down. Regardless of how many times we asked, we got the same icy answer. She wasn’t going to change how she’d always done it for us. How did we get around her? She was away from her desk, out sick or something, and we got someone she worked with to go into her tickler file for us because she wasn’t there. That’s a trick I’ve often used since…make that urgent request when the barrier is out on her lunch break.

The other part of empowering this team was the top cover from every functional. The Lab director and deputy cleared the path for us. So did my Contracting Chief. I suspect the Contractor was working on their own dime the whole time we were scrambling for funding and official go-aheads because no one could afford to wait, but we never asked, just put our fingers in our ears and hummed patriotically. We married up two contractors on a separate line item on an existing contract and ran with it, and Legal didn’t balk.

We were in a spin for the first couple of weeks of February, but on Valentine’s Day when my love life was on the rocks already, I waited impatiently for classified direction to come down. Only my Chief of Contracts was allowed to see it, but whatever was in it was important enough that all my bosses laid flat every obstacle in front of me. There was only help, no hindrances.

There’s a saying that auditors are the ones who come in after the war and bayonet the wounded. We were aware the risks and that others would second guess us later, but that awareness didn’t stop us. The team had a single-minded focus.

Lesson: Push your fledglings out of the nest. None of that Millennials-aren’t-mature-enough nonsense. Shape them now with innovative practices and streamlining initiatives because you are shaping their future as Acquisition leaders. These are the people who’ll take care of your future when you’ve retired. Give them confidence now in their abilities and you’ll have confidence later in your own security.

Creating Team Synergy via Harmony

Not only was the team hand-picked and empowered, but we harmonized in a way I’d never seen a team do. In 1991, Systems Program Offices (SPOs) and Labs didn’t really get along. The SPOs saw the Labs as a bunch of tinkering engineers and the Labs saw the SPOs as pompous. This was the Acquisition Valley of Death back then. Anything that did transition from the Lab to the SPO was suspect, and I saw SPOs let almost identical contracts of their own because they didn’t trust the Lab to produce anything “right.” Yet this team combined Lab and SPO employees and we worked as a congruent team, both as a broader team and as duos that didn’t typically get along, like buyers and Program Managers.

The pace was frantic, and I needed documentation from a SPO test engineer on the team to issue a UCA. He didn’t have time to write anything up. I couldn’t award a contract without it. His focus on doing his job literally meant I couldn’t do mine.

“Lorna,” he said, exasperated, “I just don’t have the time to stop and give you that.” I could tell by his expression that he wasn’t putting me off. He was maxed out and hadn’t slept much.

“Hey, while we are both walking to the other building for that next meeting, talk me through the numbers for XYZ. If I write it up and hand it to you to sign, will you do it?”

He readily agreed, and I was able to press forward with the legalese in an hour or so.

And then there was Al. Al Weimorts was the genius behind the Bunker Buster, salvaging tank cannons to turn into bombs. He was also creator of the Mother of All Bombs, later titled Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), which is another prototype to for MTA students to delve into. He was working on what would become SOCOM’s Small Glide Munition when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2005. Al didn’t really understand or care about Contracting and I didn’t really understand or care about Program Management, but it was the respect for each other that mattered.  The secret to our success as a team was our professional partnering-up to take care of each other’s goals. We had a deal, the same deal I had with many Program Managers over the years: just be honest with me and tell me what you need, I’ll give you at least one way to get there, and I’ll tell you the bare bones of what documentation I need from you and you’ll give it to me—and I’ll help you give it to me if we are in dire straits. I took care of Al, before and after the Bunker Buster, and we did good, fast, innovative work together. It was an easy alliance under the motto:   do good work together.

Lesson: Everyone on the team looks to make everyone else’s job as easy as possible because on a team of 10, you get 10 times the lift. No time for prima donnas or passive-aggressive termites eating your ship below the water line.  Everyone looks for ways to meet the minimum requirements. Everyone lives and breathes brainstorming mode. Ego goes out the window—the person with the free moment is the one who supports the team by running the document around for signatures or hunting down a projector bulb, regardless of rank or grade.  Just as the President of a small business may both accept the coveted local awards and change the toilet paper in the office, you do whatever it takes, the lowest to the highest task, to get the mission completed successfully.

For all the technology that has changed since 1991 and all the new names we call things now vs then, the one thing that hasn’t changed when it comes to quick reaction success and rapid prototyping is the honest-to-God need for teamwork. Not the meaningless platitudes about teamwork, but truly partnering up with your colleagues, customers, staff, industry. No tool or statute will ever be more of an accelerant than having the right people on the team, allowing them to take risks, and encouraging a team mindset of supporting both the individual and group effort.

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