Innovation takes the boring out of contracting

Innovation has become such a popularly cited concept, it’s nearly lost its meaning. In reality, innovation is nothing more than the introduction of something new.

But that leaves a lot of room. “New” can apply to a product, a strategy, a process, or any combination. It can also mean less — the removal of the outdated, unnecessary or counterproductive.

People in the federal government have been talking about innovation for several years now. Cloud computing, itself an innovation, leads to other new things, such as an infinitely more flexible way of handling data and applications.

Some innovations are more like novelties, impressive but not producing real value. Electric cars, for instance, simply push pollution upstream but don’t really reduce it. And they take fat federal subsidies to sell, so they’re uneconomic.

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This week at the National Contract Management Association conference in Orlando, innovation has been a big topic. Contracting officers, contract policy people, and vendors have all been chewing over how to innovate in a highly structured, process-oriented, legally-driven activity like federal contracting.

But you can. Few totally new ideas hatch under the stars, but some old ones gain currency. Here are two having to do with contracting.

First, get the contracting shop into the early planning of an acquisition so the contracting officer knows what the heck the program manager or whoever is setting the requirement really wants. The cartoon here has existed, in various incarnations, on the Internet for as long as the “no one knows you’re a dog” New Yorker cartoon. I find it always fresh because this is how so many projects still work. For government, an agile approach to software development represents an innovation that can avoid these messes.

Second, stop giving contractors stringent requirements that forces them to compete on price, not on value and great ideas. When the B-36 bomber was under development, four of the biggest engines the Air Force could buy weren’t enough, so the plane had six. Luckily companies were coming out with something even better — the jet engine. Rather than specifying a contraption with six model X engines, under the innovation approach the brass would ask, what have you got cooking that could get this behemoth off the ground with a nuclear payload etc. etc. Better yet, ask, what would a delivery system look like that could etc. etc.

Sometimes innovation can rescue a dog. Another airplane example. The F-35 didn’t quite work out as planned. By many accounts it’s a mediocre fighter. I recently spoke with Dan Goure, the highly-informed military analyst at the Lexington Institute. He credits the Marine Corps for creating a competitive advantage by recognizing how the F-35, for various reasons, excels as an aerial surveillance and early warning  platform. Maybe they saved the Air Force from itself. To really get value out of it, all they need to do now is turn it into an unmanned craft.