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The right tool for the job

When I was a kid, my dad used to hammer (forgive the pun) two pieces of advice into my head: "You need to use the right tool for the right job" and "there's a right way and a wrong way to get things done." They were talks I probably deserved but was sometimes reluctant to hear.

It is so easy in life, as we gain knowledge and skills, to fall back on what we know best and make the mistake of presuming that our favorite technique or approach fits all circumstances. It's like that other old adage: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

For today's government workforce, being savvy about the breadth of tools available and understanding the circumstances that argue in favor of the use of a specific tool are crucially important. Interestingly, although the government technology workforce has aged, people have not retired at the rate predicted. For every government technology worker under the age of 30, there are 10 technology workers who are 50 or older, and that ratio has been increasing in recent years.

Conversely, almost 50 percent of the contracting community workforce has less than 10 years of federal experience, and half of those workers have less than five years of experience. The saw cuts two ways. The more experienced the workforce, the more likely they are to view new opportunities through the lens of their past experience. Yet less experienced workers are less likely to have the confidence to embrace a new set of tools.

Furthermore, complaints about a lack of innovation in government solutions are to some degree attributable to contracting practices that stymie the ability to offer new ideas. When the toolset being used in government contracting is unnecessarily limited, opportunities to get better results are missed.

Rigid statements of work, as opposed to statements of objectives, limit the ability of industry to bring new ideas and technologies to the government. Punishing rather than rewarding the identification of alternative approaches during proposal reviews similarly narrows the aperture for new thinking.

And the misuse of contracting techniques such as lowest price, technically acceptable further limits the ability to bring the best minds and fresh ideas into government solutions.

A broader set of tools, including managed services and performance-based contracting, could yield better results.

Agile methodologies are currently riding a wave of mounting enthusiasm in government, and some of the key tenets -- such as a rapid, iterative approach; placing a premium on customer collaboration; and the flexibility to navigate uncertainty and adapt to change -- have broad applicability to the program management process.

Too often, though, the fact that agile techniques come from the world of software development pre-ordains a solution that relies on extensive software development. In reality, the tenet of "agile discovery" is what's crucial to discerning the best approach. Sometimes the right answer might be implementation of a managed service or use of a commercial product rather than software development.

Simon Sinek, in his book "Start With Why," argues that we spend far too much time on what needs to be done -- the specific, detailed steps to be used in delivering a solution -- and not enough on why and how. By starting with why -- the outcome we need to achieve and the reason it matters -- we will be better able to discern the contracting approach that will deliver the mission results we seek.

About the Author

David Wennergren is executive vice president for operations and technology at the Professional Services Council.

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