My job is all about finding commercial solutions that will solve government problems. Some of my favorite work experiences have been when I can connect a new technology to an existing government problem! Talk about satisfying! Although every company is unique in what it offers, the process is often similar. First, I strive to understand what the company can do. Then, I translate that ability into something that is applicable to DoD. And finally, I look for the place within DoD where that solution is needed. That may sound obvious, but from the perspective of DoD, it’s 100% backwards. And that difference in perspective can often derail the process. So bear with me while I explain.
During my years on Active Duty, I concentrated on requirements and capabilities. I knew that defining my requirements was the first essential step that would lead to my success as a war fighter. It was often tempting to jump ahead on the process and start listing the solutions I needed. But I knew that I would never get far that way.
First, I knew that I was usually several generations behind on what the “art of the possible” was. As much as the movies like to show DoD with up to date capabilities, what we actually had in the field was way behind. Given that DoD spends a fraction of what Industry spends on R&D, that makes sense. Keeping my requirements clear and factual ensured that I didn’t self-select a lower-grade solution.
Secondly, the acquisition folks would never let me get away with writing specifications based on anything but my basic, actual requirements. There are plenty of examples where military “requirements” went uncontested and after the acquisition process completed, the final purchase was for something MUCH more expensive than it needed to be. That’s a big NO-NO in DoD and there is lots of oversight to prevent that from happening. Now more than ever!
Linking these requirements to the resulting war fighting capability is the piece of the process that is most important when trying to get funding. As a C5ISR expert, I had to learn how to make my seemingly endless list of requirements make sense to the folks that had decision-making power over the funding. These folks are mostly interested in what these requirements bring to the fight: the capabilities that will be achieved. Getting my message across depended on linking my requirements to the capabilities that would enable success in a military mission.
Now, overlay on the above Company X, who is really good at making Widget Y. Widget Y does something really cool, and Company X wants to sell Widget Y to DoD. I learn about Company X and how to use Widget Y, and I find a place in DoD where they might need that capability. A meeting is set up, and Company X visits the warfighter and gets their chance to showcase Widget Y. But Company X can’t get the message across! Because Company X is so in love with Widget Y they can’t stop and look at the requirement objectively and offer their educated inputs on how to satisfy that requirement to achieve the capability that is needed.
Every parent that drops off their 5 year old on the first day of kindergarten truly believes that they have just done something really wonderful for that school. It’s not until the first parent-teacher conference that it even occurs to them that their child might not be a perfect, 100% value-added addition to the class! So it is for Company X. But unlike the parent, Company X is not guaranteed a seat in the class!
DoD really and truly wants to hear from Company X, because they know that Company X is smarter than they are about their particular type of technology. But DoD only wants to hear how that technology can apply to fulfilling their previously identified and prioritized existing requirements. DoD is NOT interested in helping Company X figure out where to stuff their solutions.
To make this type of interaction between DoD and Industry successful, the company needs to be prepared to do some homework BEFORE they go in. They need to understand, as much as they can, what DoD needs. They need to be prepared to really listen when DoD talks. And then they need to be ready to interact with DoD to brainstorm ideas and offer expert advice. Obviously, the desired outcome is that Widget Y might be a solution that can help. But that’s something that can only be determined by clearly addressing the requirements first!