Congress has invested over a year in the journey toward defense acquisition reform, as policy makers wistfully seek to harness the nation's technology edge for increasing the agility of defense enterprise. The goal is to turn around an ailing Department of Defense acquisition system's inefficiency and inability to fully realize the pace of technological development.

The vision is a reformed system that is proactive, agile, transparent, and innovative. But what does that look like? According to the specific fact sheet summarizing the intent of the House Armed Services Committee’s effort, being "agile" equates to decisions made quickly and managers rescued from mountains of bureaucracy so they can focus on program management tasks like contractor oversight and risk management. Being "innovative" and "agile" equates to embracing a culture change that affords the autonomy and adaptability that acquisition teams need to harness the capabilities of industry and translate them to a distinct competitive advantage.

Some groups within the U.S. armed services are already making progress toward this vision. In 2012 the Navy launched the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Rapid Innovation Cell, (called "CRIC."). CRIC is right on target with the goals of the Thornberry Reform Effort: Rapid integration of new technologies into the Navy, fostering a culture of innovation, and increasing agility.

The goals of CRIC are unimpeachable. The use of crowdsourced innovation and mentorship is really smart. Yet the program has run into obstacles; call it a clash of cultures. Ironically, creating a culture of innovation in a centuries-old institution that started off well in relying on leaders that could deal with ambiguity and make quick decisions when given broad objectives to accomplish far from home with no communications has struggled in getting back to its roots. At the center of this issue is people. Former CRIC chief of staff describes this group as the "frozen middle" — senior managers who are both most resistant to change and most needed to carry forward change. Without their active support, innovation and reform initiatives cannot succeed.

This steers directly into the question, "What can fix what ails when it comes to providing a framework for autonomy to reassure leaders these new practices will deliver?"

For the Thornberry Reform effort to succeed, executives must be enabled as the sponsors and champions we need them to be on the programs in the portfolio that drive the agency strategy. Human capital strategy that addresses recruitment, training and retention should be aligned to the core fundamentals of the Talent Triangle™. There must be a foundational framework to ensure the requirements, contract, and associated program management considerations are taken into account when all of this "innovation" and "agility" is churning. Easier said than done, right?

The Project Management Institute’s 2016 Pulse of the Profession®: The High Cost of Low Performance underscores this. Although organizations still waste more than a $120 million U.S. dollars for every billion spent on projects as a result of poor project management practices, there are organizations that are managing projects effectively. They are putting their people, both — leaders and practitioners — at the center of the solution. Here are two relevant findings:

  • Executive sponsors are uniquely positioned to overcome barriers. They are able to secure funding, champion strategies and objectives and foster collaboration within an organization. This year’s study found that when more than 80 percent of projects have an actively engaged executive sponsor, 65 percent more projects are successful.
  • While technical skills are core to project and program management, they’re no longer enough. The ideal skill set — a combination of technical, leadership, and strategic and business management expertise — is embodied in the PMI Talent Triangle. Research shows that when organizations focus on all three skill sets, 40 percent more of their projects meet goals and original business intent.

There is now legislation that will make it easier: Recently passed in the U.S. Senate, the "Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act of 2015" (PMIAA).  Let's embrace PMIAA, find the project managers across the workforce, train them, and cultivate executive sponsors that value the "agents of change" that project managers and associated leading practice can be. With the recent collaboration between Secretary Ash Carter and Eric Schmidt (former Google CEO, now chairman of Alphabet Inc.). As overused as it is, perhaps the term "enabler" should be replaced with "incubator," when it comes to a providing the means to effectively change and transform the acquisition process?

While we are all well aware of the long gray-trunked pachyderm in the room in terms of this being the largest area of discretionary spending in the federal budget, it is important to remember that services outweigh capital goods in that "spend" with much less rigor around process and training via DAWIA.

There is no shortage of excellence in the federal government, it is simply a manner of equipping it to incubate the innovation knocking on its door, and provide a management framework that eases the minds of leaders and allows the talent resources to do what they do best to bring in the best technology and capabilities as quickly as possible to the acquisition system.

Jordon Sims is director of organization relations and programs for the Project Management Institute. Previously he was an officer in the U.S. Navy.

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