Buy Lines: Look before you leap into cultural change

Bob Dickson

The increasing emphasis on performance-based acquisitions and other results-oriented initiatives has sparked a need for cultural change in government and industry.

At its root, cultural change is a leadership issue. While some public- and private-sector leaders believe they are ready for the challenge, there are some questions they should ask themselves and the organizations they represent. Otherwise, the risks related to the success of their programs can become overwhelming.

Here are some key issues leaders can use to measure their readiness for cultural change.

Acquisition acumen: Leadership must be engaged in the acquisition process, and roles and responsibilities must be well established.

For major federal-sector programs, this includes the chief acquisition, chief financial, chief information and program executive officers. Their interests and priorities must be aligned as much as possible.

The success of major programs calls for support and involvement of senior management. This calls for teams comprised of technical, logistics, legal, finance, program management and contracting personnel.

Contractors must encourage such integrated strategic approaches, and be prepared to engage their corporate leadership in the same way, as part of a government-industry team. This collaborative approach can produce superior results and mitigate risk for both parties.

In some cases, federal sector divisions of certain companies almost mirror their client bases in terms of long-standing practices to meet their client's needs.

As more agencies adopt leading practices, their corporate counterparts will need to transition to the revised model. That model includes the broader view of measuring the success of programs in the context of agency mission requirements.

Can you hear me now? Communication between government and industry is another critical indicator of an organization's readiness for cultural change. Without a doubt, there have been selective improvements and some success stories. But all too often, old-school thinking about arms-length transactions has been distorted into working relationships that are doomed to produce limited results.

Rather than effective partnerships, polite but adversarial relationships exist. The point becomes more a matter of fulfilling technical specifications outlined in the statement of work than concentrating on the result.

Organizations focused on acquisition mechanics are missing the point. If agencies are worried about procurement administrative lead times, they'll tend to measure a period of time and a couple of events, but not the required mission result.

In industry's case, if the first inclination is to propose metrics that measure timely submission of reports or other deliverables without focusing on the program objective, they're missing the point as well. Organizations demonstrating these values and behavior are candidates for cultural change only if their leaders recognize the symptoms.

Today and tomorrow: Leaders need to think strategically over the long term. In the commercial world, companies favor established associations with their business partners. With the promise of a long-term relationship, suppliers have more incentive to absorb startup costs and to invest resources with the expectation of future gains. These approaches should be favored when they make sense for the overall mission of the client agency.

Leading cultural change in any organization is part art and part science. The role of a leader is to recognize the need for change and then make it happen. While the process is far too complicated to capture on a single page, those involved would be well served to focus on these key principles.

A robust communications process, a strategic long-term view, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities are good starting points for any organization trying to adapt to a rapidly changing acquisition landscape.

Bob Dickson is vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., Oakton, Va. His e-mail address is bdickson@

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