Julius Volz via Flickr

Don’t Play Mob Ball: What Acquisition Pros Can Learn from Kids Soccer

PEOs tend to grab onto a hot new contract approach like elementary schoolers chasing a ball.

Have you ever seen little kids play soccer? Without fail, all the kids on the field mob the ball as soon as the whistle blows. It’s the only thing they focus on, despite what their coaches told them about playing positions. If by chance the ball gets kicked free, the child mob moves to another part of the field and again surrounds the ball. This is frustrating for coaches, parents, and players alike, because instead of playing soccer, they’re just playing mob ball.

Eventually, as the kids grow older, they learn to play proper positions and be in the right place at the right time for the needs of the game. They begin to actually play soccer and develop strategy, discipline, and teamwork skills. They improve their game, and it’s a lot more fun for everyone. But then some of them join the acquisition workforce and start playing acquisition mob ball. Like the soccer version, this is frustrating for everyone.

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Over the last four decades, the acquisition community has mobbed around a series of different acquisition approaches and contracting methods like elementary schoolers chasing a ball – to include fixed price versus cost plus, use of Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs), and recent flexible approaches like Section 804 Mid-Tier Acquisition. Various strategies have gone in and out of favor like clothing and hair styles, such as:

  • 1980s: Only do fixed price, everything else is wrong, stupid and evil
  • 1990s: Only do cost plus, everything else is wrong, stupid and evil
  • Early 2000s: OTAs are great – use them (FCS, X-45)
  • Late 2000s: Cost plus and OTAs are wrong, stupid and evil
  • Today: Make OTAs great again – and then do Section 804 for everything

Why does the acquisition community keep falling into this pattern? There are two main reasons. The first is the tendency of program managers to avoid risk. When a certain approach is seen to be in favor, the natural tendency is to go with the crowd. This behavior is reinforced when programs are seen to succeed or fail based on whether they followed the approach.

The second reason is senior leaders, from local managers and functional staffs to Pentagon executives and Congress. When a senior acquisition leader only approves fixed-price contracts, then magically all programs come to her with a fixed-price approach even when conditions warrant otherwise. When a Senator proposes legislation restricting the use of OTAs, it’s not surprising when the Pentagon bureaucracy views use of OTAs as radioactive and essentially bans their use. Such behavior by senior leaders affords a risk-averse bureaucracy an excuse to jettison critical thinking. The middle parts of the bureaucracy enforce what they see as a preferred norm from leadership, usually going far beyond what senior leadership actually desired. All this creates inertia in the system that remains in place until leaders and middle managers change out – or the memories of previous programs fade enough so that alternate approaches can once again be considered.

Every program has a unique set of characteristics, circumstances, and goals. Best acquisition strategy practice and the Federal Acquisition Regulation  are very clear that program managers and contracting officers should pick the right approaches and contract types for the challenges at hand. Policy and practice both agree it is vital to think critically about the nature of the endeavor, then pick the right combination of tools and methods. Otherwise, we mob the ball on a certain approach even when not appropriate, resulting in an inevitable backlash from senior Defense policymakers and the Congress.

Today, OTAs and Section 804 Mid-Tier Acquisition are the new hot things. Everyone wants to apply them – and in some cases mandate them for all programs without considering the possibility that other methods might be a better fit in certain cases. This mob ball approach will almost certainly result in using the wrong methods on some efforts. When some of those programs run into difficulty because of the misapplied methods, we’re likely to see a tightening of flexibility, increases in oversight, and perhaps a complete swing of the pendulum away from OTAs and Section 804.

So, what’s the alternative? A key first step is recognizing that we shouldn’t mob the ball and that there are multiple pathways and tools that we should use in the right combinations for the challenge at hand. Use experience and critical thinking to select the right methods amongst the full range of options and provide the rationale to the acquisition decisionmakers. For senior leadership, don’t lock in on a single method – it doesn’t lead to success. , Let your staff know that you’ll open to approaches beyond the flavor of the month, and that you’ll tolerate some risk if  they do their homework by bringing a logical and well-reasoned program approach that fits the challenges at hand.

To help encourage this mindset in the acquisition workforce, Ellen Lord, USD (A&S), recently launched a collection of digital tools that illustrate the full range of contracting methods. As programs develop their strategies, instead of running to the ball by adopting the latest fad, critically explore the five major acquisition pathways and 23 FAR and non-FAR contracting strategies. The goal is to discourage acquisition mob ball and instead encourage acquisition professionals to apply the strategy, discipline, and other skills necessary to play the game well.