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Widening the Aperture of Acquisition & the Acquisition Team

By Mike Ipsaro PMP, CCE/A, Technical Director

Today’s fiscally constrained environment is being felt in many places, including acquisition. The Federal Government spends billions to execute its missions through acquisitions. After talking with one of my colleagues about the impact on the acquisition discipline, she astutely said “though resources may be narrowing, the way you approach acquisition shouldn’t”.

In fact, to face these challenges, I’d recommend a change in approach by widening the aperture of how you view acquisition, and specifically, your acquisition teams. How can including others in the acquisition process be a benefit and not a burden when time and resources are constrained? It's a topic I discussed with others in the field at the NCMA Government Contract Management Symposium.

What is an aperture?

An aperture may be characterized as the opening of a lens which may affect the size and brightness of an image. Generally speaking, if the aperture is narrow, an image is darker for a given exposure time. Conversely, as the aperture widens, the image lightens.

Why widen the aperture?

Historically, an acquisition team has been viewed by many with a narrow aperture which may result in not seeing the forest for the trees. For example, if someone from operations needed a contract, they’d view the contract department or the contracting officer and specialist as the acquisition team. Often, they’d throw their requirements “over the fence” and wipe their hands. For many of them, acquisition was “somebody else’s job, not mine”.

Consequences of this stove-piped approach yielded incomplete or inaccurate requirements which cause a daisy chain of bad things to happen (e.g., cost and schedule overruns, gaps in service). For example, say an engineer in operations writes a requirement in a vacuum. The requirement may be written in a techno jargon way or with a focus on specific brands, solutions and specs rather than on mission and business outcomes. This causes bad deals due to limited competition and overly prescriptive acquisitions. Further, by stove piping the requirements definition, critical considerations may be omitted such as legal, security, or environmental. Finally, a by-product of stove piping is the numerous back and forth redo’s, which stretch schedules and increase costs.

Let’s continue to track our acquisition through the stovepiped approach. After the requirement makes its way to the “acquisition team,” they move it forward by viewing it exclusively within the context of their domain. For example, if specific strategic sourcing vehicles or source selection strategies (e.g., LPTA) are the flavor of the day, then they may try to fit the “square peg (e.g., requirement) into a round hole” (e.g., procurement strategy) without the rigor backing it. These consequences of viewing acquisition and the acquisition team through a narrow aperture have real time and cost impacts, notwithstanding mission impacts.

How do you widen the aperture?

How do you ask technical, operational, and procurement professionals to recognize the value of seeing their jobs E pluribus unum, Latin for “one from many,” a motto that’s part of the Seal of the United States and on American coins? Especially when their current lens is so narrowly focused on the mounting workload and resource constrained environment.

Three steps to rethinking your acquisition team:

  • View acquisition as a system to be managed throughout a life cycle and define it as a body of related disciplines. Break the system down to see how the parts relate to each other and to the whole. This can help demystify and clarify the complexities of today’s acquisitions by revealing insights into supply chains, including inter-dependencies and sequencing of activities.
  • Extend the acquisition team by defining and communicating it as more than the contracting officer or the contracts department. Include representation on the team from all stakeholders to ensure diversity of perspective. Also, formalize the team with a charter that lays out a clear vision of the acquisition team, and expresses the common goals and shared values.
  • Ensure people on the team are cross-trained in multiple disciplines of acquisition, including team effectiveness, especially the leader(s) and facilitator(s). Consider having members of the team who are external to the traditional hierarchy. Team members do not have to be experts in all disciplines or phases of acquisition. However, having a basic understanding or awareness is key. This provides for a more holistic acquisition through broader understanding that facilitates more effective and efficient agreements. One way to do this is through co-location. For example, someone from operations could co-locate with contracting professionals and vice versa. This can build rapport and spur efficiency.

Adjusting the lens of acquisition and the acquisition team through these steps should help your organization ensure a snapshot of success. Do you have more ideas for rethinking the structure of your acquisition team to achieve better results?

Reposted from the Integrity Matters - Perspectives on Acquisition & Program Management blog

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