Embrace failure

The success of a Defense Department plan to use existing acquisitions to test new strategies for speeding the procurement process could hinge on one question: Are DOD officials prepared to accept failure?

That's not to say that the Rapid Improvement Team program is a bad idea. Indeed it's not, but it's inherently risky.

DOD has shown it is not averse to procurement policy changes, but it tends to avoid risk. Proposed policies traditionally endure a painstaking vetting process, with the final product often emerging like a new set of commandments, handed down from on high chiseled in stone.

Now a team of information technology executives, looking to shorten the time it takes to deliver technology to the field, intends to test proposed policies in much the same way they might try new technology. If it works, adopt it; if not, change it or drop it.

The nature of pilot projects — contingent as they are on a big "if" — assumes risk is involved. But pilot projects provide a way to take risks when the stakes are relatively low. They also provide a feedback mechanism, usually cast as "lessons learned," that allows ideas to evolve. Such an approach often makes it possible to initiate policies or technologies more quickly and confidently.

The concept, however, works only if those involved are prepared to accept the losses when failures occur and are given the political cover to fail. That was the idea behind the Reinventing Government movement under the Clinton administration. It also brings to mind the "faster, better, cheaper" mantra of former NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. That model, of course, paved the way for the startling success of the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997. But some observers also believe it contributed to the loss of two Mars projects just two years later.

Pentagon officials insist they can mitigate the risks with tight oversight of the pilot projects. The risks, though, are real, so the top brass must decide if they are prepared to accept them. If they are going to pull the plug on the whole concept at the first sign of trouble, it's a wasted effort, so kill it now.

However, if they believe that change is necessary and comes with inevitable disappointments, the Rapid Improvement Team should give them reason to believe change is also possible.

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