How Can the U.S. Regain its Technological Superiority?

What did the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer mean when he told attendees at an August 2014 defense industry conference “we’ve got to wake up”?  Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics (AT&L) was referring to the United States military’s fall from its one-time position of technological superiority. Innovation, he advised, is necessary if we are to stay ahead.


A path to more innovation will be laid, Kendall went on to say, by acquisition process reforms contained in his agency’s Better Buying Power Initiative (BBP 3.0).


However, BBP 3.0, which was released last week, has already been met with skepticism among industry executives who question whether – and how quickly – the reforms can be implemented by Pentagon staff.  Toffler Associates agrees with the skeptics but also wonders, will BBP 3.0 – described by Kendall as containing incremental improvements to existing procurement methods – encourage the kind of innovation needed for our military to regain its position of superiority?


Toffler Associates believes the answer is NO.


Hundreds of studies and initiatives – mostly top-driven – have tried to address the acquisition process over the years. But the process may not be broken. Quite the opposite; the process itself of acquiring new capabilities — as well as the federal regulations guiding the acquisition process – allows for plenty of innovation, including business innovation.


If the Process is Not Broken, Then What Is?


Toffler Associates would argue the problem is cultural. Cultural beliefs and process interpretations, rather than the process itself, have gotten us to where we are today.


Let’s consider the environment in which innovation must occur. Today’s contracting and acquisitions operate in an environment that is changing at an accelerating and rapid pace. There is more complexity in technology, available suppliers and services, and business dynamics. But many of the common practices and beliefs regarding “how things get done” have existed for lot of years and are stuck in a time when the world did not change so fast and wasn’t as complex. The world of acquiring innovation has shifted, yet the ideas, customs, and behavior of defense acquisition is not keeping up.


Behaviors Must Change


Status quo behaviors prevent acquisition officers from searching for agile, out-of-the-box, “gray areas” in which to operate. Government regulation allows for opportunities to innovate, transform, and streamline acquisition, but people are stuck in ruts of old, learned behavior. Incentive structures bake in these behaviors.


Borne out of a history of oversight, regulation, and constraint, these deep-seated behaviors often have resulted in a “we cannot do that” mentality driven by tradition, bias, risk aversion, and even misinterpretation of government regulations. Urban legends of “why we cannot” instead of “how can we” have crept into acquisition offices and organizations throughout the acquisition community.


Driving Change from the Bottom Up


It won’t be easy to change deep-rooted behaviors and beliefs. And such change cannot be accomplished with procedural imperatives directed top-down and applied system-wide. Cultural shifts will need to happen locally, with each acquisition office or agency modifying its own behavior and belief system, driving change from the bottom up.


Recognition and Acceptance


A critical first step is a bottom-up campaign of recognition and acceptance. All officers in contracting “shops” need to step back and examine the role their own behaviors play in the acquisition process. Those involved need to acknowledge every behavior, every bias, every status quo response that may compromise an innovative, agile, and swift acquisition. It starts with the recognition that we may be the problem, not the process.


A long acquisition cycle can no longer be deemed comfortable by virtue of the time it provides to assess and mitigate risk.  While old biases made quicker feel riskier, in today’s environment, it’s just the opposite:  a long procurement cycle actually exposes the U.S. to more risk as other nations seize new opportunities while we are stuck in analysis paralysis.


Affecting Transformational Change and Innovation


Instead of top-down driven initiatives aimed at incremental change, Toffler Associates recommends the following in order to affect the kind of transformational change and innovation required to put our country back at the top:


  • Gather evidence of localized bias, beliefs, and urban legend.
  • Praise and incentivize those that challenge assumptions.
  • Broadly communicate how “the way we could” and “the way we did” is actually supported by existing process and regulations.
  • Create new bias and beliefs that better support innovation.
  • Affect long term behavior modification through an active, bottom-up change campaign.


Transformational change, by its very nature, is uncomfortable. It would be easier and less disruptive perhaps to keep chiseling away incrementally at the process rather than address the underlying biases, beliefs, and behaviors. But our country’s standing as a technological leader among other world nations is at stake. And the stakes are too high to ignore.

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