The federal government marketplace, like most large marketplaces, often requires multiple vendors to work together to achieve mission delivery. What is unique about the federal marketplace is how frequently vendors work against each other – undermining the very purpose of their partnership. When competitive juices begin flowing these “partners” often transform into “frenemies” once the project is underway.
The good news is, this is not a lost cause.
There are multiple frenemy models that can negatively impact successful mission delivery. Below are a few that are unfortunately common:
1) Prime Contractor as the Gatekeeper of “Truth”
In this scenario, the prime contractor (prime) controls all access and communication with the government customer. The customer is prevented from transparent communication with the subcontractors (subs), and the subs are not granted access to speak directly with the customer.
This creates a barrier to trust and transparency among the vendor partners and limits the customer’s ability to fully understand situations. The prime controls the narrative to ensure they are positioned in the best light with the customer, twisting reality to meet their competitive needs.
Ultimately, this scenario results in a breakdown in innovation and progress in developing solutions to support mission success. I have not yet met a product company in the federal government that hasn’t experienced this frenemy model with federal system integrators.
2) ”Knives Out” – Uncoordinated Free-for-All
Open communication is a good thing … except when it’s not coordinated and leaves the customer confused and misinformed. In some cases, the prime vendor creates a situation that allows for regular access and dialogue between all subs and the government customer. However, for some subs this is an invitation to shine a light on themselves. Mission delivery becomes secondary to taking advantage of the opportunity to make their company look good and everyone else on the team look bad.
This “knives out” scenario can become frenzied, resulting in no mutual incentive to drive towards mission delivery, only to work toward future contract opportunities. This model can be found in environments where many different vendors exist in the ecosystem of a program mission with no contractual or agreed responsibility to each other.
3) The Conspirator
Oftentimes the government lead wants the “real story,” so they will meet with vendors separately to get as much information as they can, even going so far as to encourage vendors to talk negatively about each other. When the lead is often frustrated by progress, they can use this tactic, which is better suited to elicit a guilty plea in a criminal investigation.
Mistakenly, the government lead believes the private conversations will solicit the truth – when ultimately it creates a frenzy similar to the “knives out” situation above, undermining meetings and transparency efforts as vendors position themselves to avoid the gallows. It leaves no one united towards mission delivery.
The good news is, this is not a lost cause. Vendors, in collaboration with the government, can change this behavior and eliminate the frenemy culture.
Here are a few “badgeless tactics” that will help create a culture of collaboration and trust for successful mission delivery:
1) Create a Badgeless Manifesto
Before work begins, develop an agreement of principles that all vendors agree on and are reinforced by the government. This aligned set of values will guide behaviors and expectations that will allow transparency and healthy constructive criticism among partners. In many cases, the vendors will have to work together to help change the behavior of the government customer. When bad behaviors are spotted, everyone has to be committed to calling them out and working against tendencies toward tribalism.
2) Badgeless Delivery Executive Committee
Create a committee of executives from the vendors that meet regularly to address behaviors and undo tribalism and frenemy tendencies. This commitment to the manifesto and transparent communication will build a healthier environment for all teams involved in the project.
When addressing significant issues on the project, the committee members should present a united front with the customer. Partner executives must lead in creating a culture that accepts mistakes as part of the iterative process and call out attempts by the government lead and/or partners to encourage frenemy behavior. I have seen this work well on multiple programs – even where the vendors have methodology capabilities that are conflicting.
3) Brand and Run the Program for Outcomes
Create a brand for the program, and tie that brand to the overall outcome and purpose of the mission. This creates a “north star” for members of the program, both government and vendor, to follow and determine success. Running the program from a Product Thinking perspective that is outcome-based instead of being overly focused on outputs, is the key to reinforcing mission delivery across all staff.
These badgeless tactics will help shift the focus to mission outcome, similar to the “moon shot” mission of going to the moon and back in the 60s.
Today I see a number of positive examples increasingly in organizations that prioritize Product Thinking and Design Thinking. Some examples are:
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shifting its focus from outputs to outcomes.
- Defense Department’s “software factories” branding and breaking down barriers between government and vendor workers.
- United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) leaning in with government ownership of work product.
- General Services Administration (GSA) putting proven technology executives in leadership positions.
- And many others.
Unfortunately, the frenemies culture is still dominant in the marketplace. You can have the right tech, the right talent and the right methodologies – but without a badgeless culture on government programs, programs will still end up siloed and damaging to mission delivery. Including these badgeless tactics in contracts and program governance will help speed up the change in the marketplace.
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Greg Godbout, an entrepreneur and experienced solution architect, is the Chief Growth Officer (CGO) for Fearless, a full stack digital services firm based in Baltimore, Maryland. Fearless is a rapidly growing leader in digital transformation within government, working with federal agencies, including the Centers for Medical Services (CMS), Small Business Administration (SBA), National Security Agency (NSA) and the Air Force. Prior to joining Fearless, Greg served as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and U.S. Digital Services Lead at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He has also served as Executive Director and Co-Founder of 18F. He is a Federal 100 and FedScoop 50 award recipient. You can connect with Greg on LinkedIn.