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  • Writer's pictureMichael W. Derrios

The Federal Acquisition Community Needs a Mentor

I’ve been reading a great book recently called “Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking” by Shane Snow. The book analyzes the lives of people and companies that do amazing things in implausibly short timeframes by eliminating unnecessary effort and yielding sustainable momentum. One of my favorite case studies highlighted in the book is about the mentoring relationship between the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), a children’s clinic in London, and the Formula 1 racing organization. In the 1990s, GOSH had been experiencing high mortality rates in the facility’s cardiac ward and the fatalities were being attributed to problems occurring during the handover between the operating room and the intensive care unit. As the book chronicles, one day a pair of doctors at GOSH were taking a short break and watching a Formula 1 race on television in the lounge. They noticed how fast and efficient the pit crews were about getting race cars into, and out of, the pit stop so they decided to call them and an unlikely mentoring relationship between the two organizations was formed. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“The GOSH doctors and nurses needed to model moves of master handoverers,

and nobody beat Formula 1 pit crews at complicated equipment swaps. Ferrari’s

process for tire replacement didn’t map exactly to unhooking and rehooking

ventilators, but its masterful approach to teamwork in tight spaces did. And the

Ferrari team was delighted to coach the doctors.”

This got me thinking about my own line of business in the Federal space. Acquisition is the consummate team sport, where a variety of different, but related, professional disciplines have to come together and work seamlessly to serve a common purpose. The interdependencies between Operators, Requirements Officials, Program Managers, Systems Engineers, Cost Estimators, Contracting Officers, Attorneys, Test & Evaluation experts, Logisticians, Contracting Officer Representatives (CORs), Procurement Policy experts, Small Business Specialists and Funds Managers – just to name a few – are critical to getting capability acquired, fielded and sustained. And we all know that effective Integrated Project Teams (IPTs) are imperative to the success of an Acquisition Program. So, the more I thought about this complex ecosystem of talented independent practitioners needing to form a team, the more an analogy came to mind. Acquisition is kind of like an orchestra of amazing solo artists that all need to be synchronized and in tune with each other in order to make beautiful music. Perhaps, our collective community of practice across government needs an outside mentor. What Formula 1 was to GOSH, the New York Philharmonic Symphony could be to the Federal Acquisition community.

Okay … enough with the eye-rolling! I know this post might be a bit on the eccentric side, but think about it. What if the Chief Acquisition Officer for a large Department in the Federal government brought in the Conductor of the Philharmonic to learn how he or she is able to get all of those different sections of instruments in perfect harmony? At it’s very core, if you break all of the work flows down to the nth degree, the success of Acquisition is all contingent on a group of people with unique skill sets knowing when to come together and how to play their respective parts. In a world-class orchestra, if the horns are too early, or the percussion is too loud, or the strings are too sluggish, or the woodwinds are too squeaky, a beautiful sheet of music can be botched and a great performance can be ruined. Likewise, if the Requirements Officials predetermine solutions, or the Program Managers plan poorly, or the Cost Estimators miscalculate, or the Contracting Officers rush the procurement process, or the CORs slack on surveillance, a major Acquisition Program can breach and successful outcomes can be jeopardized. I think in both cases it’s all about planning and trusted relationships. All parties have to trust that everyone is going to engage and do their job effectively and everyone needs to be involved in the rehearsal/integrated project team. That's where ideas and consensus are achieved in both worlds.

Conductors have to possess the unique ability to look at a score and develop a concept of what the composer intended, which means learning and analyzing all of the notes. Then, a good conductor decides how the piece should actually sound and she must communicate with, and inspire, others to realize this conception of the music, while allowing the individual musicians freedom to do their best work. Sounds pretty similar to a program manager, acting as the IPT lead, who has to take requirements from operators and analyze them carefully to determine what the real capability need is, and then translating them into an executable acquisition program with all of the disciplines in the community bringing their respective expertise to bear along the way. Getting all of the performers ready to play a masterpiece requires expert planning/practice upfront. The similarities between a conductor and a program manager are pretty obvious to me.

The point of this article is that the Federal acquisition community should be willing to look at organizations outside of the government space to see how well they pull together groups of different talents to consistently deliver results around a common goal. By establishing mentoring relationships outside of the norm, our community might learn some new ways to do things that benefit agency missions and the American citizens who rely on government products and services. Getting all members of an Acquisition community on the same sheet and working like an integrated team throughout the process would be music to the ears of taxpayers who deserve a great performance for their money every time.

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