Disrupting Acquisition Blog
Limiting Beliefs in Acquisition and Life
“Midway along the journey of our life,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
…But if I would show the good that came of it,
I must talk about things other than the good.”
― Dante Alighieri
“If there’s a harder way, we’ll find it.”
— Contracting leader, identity withheld
Many of us grew up being told certain immutable truths…or what we believed were immutable truths but were actually limiting beliefs that we usually hear as aphorisms. I was far more than midway through the journey of my own life when I began to question some of the foundations of how I saw the world and entrenched points of view that informed my career in Acquisition. They were such deeply ingrained beliefs that it was startling to look hard at whether they were really true and to commit to that kind of personal and professional excavation. After exploring the personal aspect, I applied these new ways of looking at old beliefs to Acquisition and how I teach, how I interact, how I craft potential outcomes—and my expectations for what it means to do good work.
(Hint: good work and suffering are not synonymous.)
Where these supposed truths, aka limiting beliefs, come into play with Acquisition is that if we believe them, we may be making the Acquisition culture and its inequities and processes more difficult than they need to be, simply because we think suffering, hard work, and struggle all mean that the process, if not the product, is somehow superior. As unbelievable as it may sound, Contracting can be a lot of fun, but we sure seem to try to make it torturous when we can and then point to enduring the pain of it as a virtue.
Aphorism #1: Nothing good in life comes easy.
When I was in high school, at every gathering of the student body, the headmaster was there to drill into us that “Nothing good in life comes easy.” Ask any student of that high school and it’s like a hypnotic sleeper phrase that triggers us into stressed-out-workaholic mode because we heard it so often. I get what he was trying to do. He wanted to encourage the students to work hard and not coast as teens are sometimes wont to do. Some, at least.
Unfortunately, the idea that everything has to be hard can be a limiting belief.
There was the expectation long after high school that if something wonderful dropped into my lap, then it was suspicious or too good to be true or a misunderstanding. It couldn’t be worthwhile if it came easily, could it? Yet, as an adult, I’ve found that some of the best things in life have been so very easy. Those are usually in the realm of joyful partnerships, passion for creative projects, helping someone in need, spiritual connections, and all-night Life-Death-and-the-Universe talks with people I adore.
If we think that everything in Acquisition—Contracting, in particular—has to be painful or else it’s not good, then the passion for meeting customers’ dire needs, taking care of taxpayer dollars, birthing agreements for new technologies, and creating mutually beneficial arrangements with industry and academia becomes drudge work that no one wants to be a part of. It feels more like “just a job” than a calling.
Aphorism #2: Money can’t buy happiness.
As someone who has never been motivated by money except for the freedom to be creative that it buys me…or more recently the ability to afford good health care…I’ve always understood this expression to mean that financial wealth is not synonymous with happiness and that, of course, you can have a lot of money and still not lead a joyful and meaningful life. I’ve read a few studies that say that yeah, the rich really can be quite happy but may also still think they need significantly more and other studies that say that the ideal income for day-to-day happiness is around $70,000.
Growing up in a financially constrained family, I often heard stories of very poor people who were just deliriously happy with their lot in life and never complained. The stories were usually followed up with an admonition that I should be satisfied as well and make the best of it. I’ve become more convinced that those stories were myths, or maybe times have changed significantly. During the pandemic, a few hundred dollars was the difference in my neighbors with two kids and four jobs not being evicted. A few hundred dollars was also the difference in a former classmate being able to afford life-saving medicine while out of a job. For those two families, money bought happiness in the form of relief from worry about living out of their car or dying that week.
When I first came into the Contracting career field in 1987, I was told frequently that if either my Program Manager or the contractor was happy with my work, I was obviously doing something wrong. The culture outright encouraged an adversarial relationship. I was also led to believe that contractors were greedy, just out to get some of those free tax dollars. There are still pockets of those beliefs.
If we look more closely at what we believe about money for ourselves and for others and what motivates financial decisions, we can start to see those beliefs at play when we assess proposed prices or don’t concern ourselves with how long it takes to plow through a source selection. I see a lot of unawareness when it comes to some startups and mostly small firms that fit into the Small Business Administration’s contracting assistance programs (Small Disadvantaged, Woman-Owned, 8(a), Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned, etc.). Even large contractors are paying attention to their bottom lines, but some of these small businesses simply don’t have the resources that many Government buying offices take for granted. They can’t afford to hold a team together for a year while they wait for the Government to make a decision and notify them. Okay, so they may one time, but they may not put the resources into the next solicitation if they don’t make the cut the first time. They probably don’t have one person doing nothing but writing proposals, if they are very small. That’s an evening and weekend extra duty. Their margins are tight and they’re having to watch where they spend every hour and hoping it’s in the best place to keep their company alive. Meanwhile, Acquisition personnel who are usually salaried don’t count their salaries in the cost of an extended source selection or how long it takes to prototype a new technology. I don’t recall anyone at the working level ever considering Government resources in the cost of Contracting decisions until 2020.
Money may not buy those small businesses happiness, but it does buy the comfort of not having to worry about having the resources to answer a Request for Information, attend an Industry Day or Pitch Day, or write a proposal. For the individual, time is life but for a business, time is money.
Aphorism #3: If they really wanted it, they’d make it happen.
This one has burned me personally more times than I can say, and it’s not until recently, through reconsidering these aphorisms, that I’ve gotten a handle on it. There are other versions, of course. If someone really wanted to make time for you or a project or a cause, they’d find the time to do it. If something is important enough and they can’t afford it, then they’ll sell body parts or family heirlooms to get the money to do it. The crux of it is how important you are to them.
This particular limiting belief can be a relationship destroyer, personally or professionally, and can create unnecessary hardships on Contractors struggling to work with the Government. I’ve been able to accomplish a lot in life through sheer willpower, but a couple of years ago after an illness, I began to question this belief. Because I had previously pushed through brick walls, I assumed everyone could if they weren’t lazy/unmotivated/weak. Then for the first time, I couldn’t push my body through pain to become stronger and instead the pushing that had once made me buff left me with an injury. Pain was no longer weakness leaving my body but a red flag for self-care.
Since then, I’ve questioned other personal expectations of being a superhero. Maybe there are good reasons someone can’t push through, regardless of how much they want something. By applying that to relationships, we take some pressure off ourselves, others, and our expectations. By applying it to Acquisition, we can begin to see that the Contractors we partner with, as well as various functional experts, don’t always have the ability to pull off a miracle. That applies to Contracting Officers, too, who’d love to perform superhuman feats for their customers.
I find that if I stop regarding other people as secretly stronger than they realize and bypass truly helping them by telling myself that they’ll somehow dig out the strength to handle it when their reserves are low, I’m a much more compassionate person. That applies to Acquisition as well, particularly the equity lens.
It applies, too, to Contractors who are at a disadvantage with Government contracting because they don’t understand all the barriers, the slow pace, the rules they’re unaccustomed to with non-Government investors. They can really want to work with the Government but for their own reasons, those hurdles are too high, and Acquisition personnel don’t even see the barriers because they’ve looked right past the barriers for their entire careers.
If small businesses have technology I want to get to as a Contracting Officer but I’m not willing to look at my part in the barriers to working with the Department of Defense, then I cannot in good conscience bypass my responsibility and quietly assume that they’re not participating because they’re just don’t want it badly enough. For example, if they’re economically disadvantaged and can’t afford to travel to an Industry Day, then instead of shrugging it off that maybe they just don’t care enough and don’t want it badly enough, I can make some minor modifications to my plans to be more inclusive with a hybrid virtual/physical Industry Day. Can I help them and others level up?
Besides helping others, there’s another potential payoff in that we never know what great ideas someone we’ve unwittingly excluded might bring to the mission.
In thinking through these three frequently held beliefs, one thing that jumped out at me was the sheer expectation of struggle. No. More than expectation. Glorification of struggle. Not that it is a struggle but that it should be a struggle. It shouldn’t come easily or it’s not worthwhile. If we don’t fall prey to some weakness of character, we’ll find a way to push through and overcome and that success will be our reward for suffering. It’s okay to struggle without resources because we should find satisfaction in that. If we really want results, then we will endure our suffering until we are rewarded with those results, regardless of circumstances.
Acquisition does not have to be a hardship. It shouldn’t be a struggle or filled with pain to get anything done. This is a career field with a lot of potential for fulfillment and even daily fun. It really is! Can we figure out how to turn around our limiting beliefs from glorifying the hardest way we can find, even unintentionally, and instead enjoy the passion of collaboration, unique arrangements, smooth transactions, customer satisfaction, shiny new technologies, partnership, exploration and experimentation? Soon?
By the way, Dante wasn’t halfway though his life when he pondered these thoughts. He couldn’t have known at the time, but he was 62.5% through when he began his exploration. It’s never too late to reconsider where you are or what you’ve been conditioned to believe.
Looking for resources?
If you’re looking for resources to help you (and your team) question the status-quo to identify opportunities for disruption, try the Innovation Toolkit’s System Map. It’s intended for systems, but in this case, a system can also be an individual. After you’ve uncovered a limiting believe, try the Mission and Vision Canvas to reimagine a new way.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors only and do not represent the positions of the MITRE Corporation or its sponsors.
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