COMMENTARY

3 steps to understanding your customer and fueling innovation

How do we truly begin the process of innovating the government? It’s an age-old question that seems to have no definitive answer.

For a small to mid-size government contractor, when you’re dealing with an entity as large as the federal government that’s been doing what they do for decades on end, it can feel almost impossible that you could effectively break through with innovation.

However, according to the most recent U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) data, the federal government reached its small business federal contracting goal for the fourth consecutive year, awarding 24 percent in federal contract dollars to small businesses totaling $99.96 billion, an increase of over $9 billion from the previous year.

Small and medium sized businesses should feel empowered by this trend and work to understand what the government needs.

With an agency’s inability to sit down with each individual contract team to hold a tailored discussion around their specific challenges or pressures, it becomes exponentially more important for any contractor to independently take the steps necessary to become a better partner to the government.

After my time at NASA and now having transitioned to private industry, I’ve figured out a couple of focuses that can help with easing the government-contractor relationship.

EMPHASIZE INNOVATION

Government agencies are often torn by the fact that they want to modernize, but the logistics of doing so often prove difficult.

Contractors need to understand that the government is constantly torn between the evil they know-- older contracting partners they’ve worked with for years-- and the evil they don’t know-- new and innovative solutions that would be procured through a brand new contract.

What can a contractor take away from this fact? An emphasis on innovation.

Whether it’s during a discussion in a quarterly meeting or inside RFP development, the government needs to come away understanding why a company’s solution and body of work is truly new and different. It can’t just marginally move the needle, it needs to generate massive returns that will make an agency feel like the results will be worth the cost of time and finances it will take to transition to something brand new.

It’s easier for the government to take the path of least resistance if the alternative doesn’t make more than a small splash.

PROVE YOUR AGILITY AND FLEXIBILITY

Another dilemma that the government faces in their pursuit of innovation is the fact that once they’ve made the decision to incorporate a new team, there’s a delay or stoppage in short term progress.

With a flattened budget, a contract team doesn’t have the time or financial allowance to do research as part of the contract, as this will often draw resources away from other work.

Contractors need to ensure that they can get up to speed quickly without hindering their agency partner. A partner that’s self-motivated to do external reading, research, or learning about a particular challenge provides much more value to a government-contractor relationship than simply waiting for someone to hopefully provide you with that information.

ALIGN YOUR MISSIONS

According to a recent Government Business Council survey, many agencies lack a mission-focused strategy. The survey shares that 1 in 3 respondents feel that their agency’s IT contractors lack an understanding of organization mission objectives. This is also likely results in the government’s difficulties in identifying new solutions to mission challenges.

As a contractor, it is your job to make sure that missions are aligned so that you and your government partner are working towards a long-term goal that positively affects both parties. Without a shared mission, it’s highly possible that miscommunication will occur and innovation will be prevented.

As a small business contractor, working with the government can seem daunting. However, following these suggestions will increase your chances for success.

About the Author

John Marinaro is the vice president of the federal civilian division of KeyLogic Systems.

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