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Rules for a Happy Acquisition Marriage: Program and Contracting People Working in Harmony

GovLoop and Integrity Management Consulting are proud to present a 12-part series called “Conscientious Contracting: A Thoughtful Approach to Acquisition and Program Management,” that aims to address common challenges and achieve new efficiencies in government procurement.

My wife and I just celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary. As I look back over the past decade, it makes me realize that marriage is a lot like acquisition – especially in the requirements definition phase when the program and contracting sides must learn to live together harmoniously.

Think about it – during the requirements definition phase of the acquisition lifecycle, you have:

  • two groups of people that look at one another with (unrealistically?) high expectations,
  • input (sometimes invited, sometimes not) from outside parties who mean well, but have their own political motivations, and
  • conflict that can erupt when priorities collide and resources are constrained.

So how do you ensure an amicable blending of two different sets of people?

Below are three tips that are true of marriage, but that you might also find instructive for assisting the Integrated Product Team in the process of reconciling their unique perspectives for any given acquisition:

1) Establish a Consistent Time to Communicate: One of the best pieces of advice that my wife and I received early on in marriage was to set and keep a “date night.” My wife and I were told to honor it as sacred time – and that nothing should infringe on it. We took that advice to heart and blocked off Friday night as our time together. I was the point person in terms of taking the lead for picking a place and making it happen. With life being so busy, it ended up being the best time of the week for us to talk over what had happened in the previous several days and address important issues. If there’s a “honey-do list” action that emerges from our conversation, I am sure to capture it digitally, putting it on my task list or emailing a note to myself and my wife (giving her full permission to give me a gentle reminder as the date approaches).

In the requirements definition phase of an acquisition, a regular check-in meeting for the Integrated Product Team should be established from the outset. Dates on a calendar demonstrate priority. Although both the contracting and program people are working in tandem to schedule the meeting and define the agenda, it’s probably most effective if the program side assumes the primary leadership role for this action. Moreover, be sure to capture action items from the meetings in writing and send a follow-up message as a summary of target dates and team members tasked with completing them. Lastly, as in marriage, decisions are stronger when made together – be sure all the stakeholders have had input to ensure the completeness of requirements and to avoid misunderstandings down the road.

2) Recognize That Your Perspectives Are Complementary: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the years is that differences in a relationship aren’t a bad thing. While the differences are frustrating sometimes, the strongest marriages often result from two people who are able to see those unique strengths as force multipliers. When distinct perspectives are seen as complementary inputs that enhance a decision-making process, a couple ends up maximizing their relationship potential.

The same is true when Integrated Product Team members view one another as bringing important, but diverse vantage points on a project. Rather than seeing a program person as ‘always wanting more than the budget will allow’ or a contracting person as ‘always trying to put up barriers and constraints,’ a high-functioning team will proactively elicit those varying points of view. Team members will respect the value of those contributions and strive to arrive at a final product or decision that honors those insights while maintaining the integrity of the decision-making process.

3) Raise and Resolve Issues Early: What happens in your otherwise happy home when an issue arises and you let it float for a few days? Something as simple as forgetting to complete a promised task can simmer under the surface. Then it blows up into a much bigger conflict when combined with another moderately egregious misstep – and it was a situation that could have been avoided if each person was open and honest with each other!

Isn’t this true for project teams as well? You notice that a milestone was missed and the person responsible for the task doesn’t acknowledge it. A couple days pass and you start to wonder, ‘Maybe they don’t know that they missed that deadline and I should say something – or maybe they do and they’re hedging because they’re behind schedule and don’t want to admit it.’ You know that pressure will be on you for the next phase if this person doesn’t do their part in a timely manner. That’s when the potential for a conflict emerges – and the mounting pressure of time passing only makes the situation worse. That’s why your best bet is to initiate a collegial inquiry sooner than later. A simple, “Hey – I assume you’re busy and maybe you didn’t notice the deadline. Anything I can do to help?” can go a long way toward averting anxiety for yourself and others.

So those are my three real-life lessons learned, which I believe can also support a happy acquisition marriage between program and contracting staff. What are yours?

By the way, if you are looking for some additional pointers when it comes to building and sustaining a top-notch, integrated product team, I’d recommend reviewing Rules of the Road: A Guide for Leading Successful Integrated Product Teams. In addition, if any members of your team need training on requirements definition, some acquisition professionals recommend the Acquisition Requirements Roadmap Tool (ARRT) developed by the Defense Acquisition University.

This blog was brought to you by Integrity Management Consulting, an award-winning small business and leading provider of major systems acquisition and program management support services to Federal customers. Integrity’s mission is to deliver exceptional results for government customers, employees, and the community, driven by a single value: Integrity.

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Jaime Gracia

Having acquisition and legal personnel input early and often in the pre-acquisition process is vital to better outcomes long-term. Certainly for the IPT process, which is governed by circular OMB A-11 and required.

However, just having acquisition and program management in the same geographic area is important to morale, team building, and successful cooperation and collaboration. The “us versus them” mentally pervasive in the often confrontational relationship between contracting and program management is a recipe for disaster, but normally status quo.