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Timeless traits needed in demanding acquisition environment

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Steve Gross
  • Commander's mobilization assistant
Looking at the acquisition business, a newcomer can be astounded by the labyrinthine processes to be navigated, the mountains of information to be scaled, the sensitivities that must be tempered and the patience that must be mastered. Fortunately, we can be comforted and rightly awed by the remarkably talented people who bring order and excellence to this core Air Force business.

Today, our acquisition cadre faces the challenge of modernization pushing in one direction and the budget realities pulling in another. This conflict between objectives and financial realities is a recurring theme that acquisition professionals have dealt with forever; and it will always be the rock to be rolled uphill. The environment is not benign, so it takes the "right stuff" to get the job done and deliver the capabilities that the Department of Defense and the Air Force need.

What is the "right stuff"? It's a topic for debate - endless debate for sure. I draw on my first exposure to acquisition, nearly 30 years ago, when I watched someone with the "right stuff" successfully execute programs. As the chief of plans and requirements sponsoring programs worth $2 billion (huge money 30 years ago), he was the consummate professional. The "right stuff" that distinguished him and his results were his meticulous attention to detail, discipline with the processes, assertiveness when required, patience at all times, flexibility when needed - and a sense of humor.

Those professional qualities observed so long ago are timeless; the same traits are needed today. That mountain of data must be meticulously distilled to yield the information required to make key decisions. The acquisition process has many diversions, excursions and gates that require a disciplined navigator to direct a program through the technical, procedural and financial rapids that threaten progress.

Acquisition programs are designed to deliver a capability in response to a valid mission need. The steward of a program must be the assertive advocate who blends diplomacy and courage to press for the right action when his or her program faces competing priorities. There is always competition, so this becomes a role of vigilance.

Of course, patience is a virtue so apt, given the key aspect of acquisition: the delivery of a new or improved capability. Therein lies the opportunity for innovation, a flashy word with a very simple meaning. Merriam-Webster describes it as "the introduction of something new" and "a new idea, method or device". In acquisition, "new" often implies "never been done before" and that introduces risk.

On the frontier of technology and science, there is often risk as the progress toward innovation can be slow. There can be periods with much learned and little accomplished. If only we knew what we didn't know. But there is always pressure for results, and a schedule. It takes a patient leader to set expectations, calibrate objectives and deal with realities. Patience is a learned attribute that is honed by experience and cultivated by maturity.

The set of expectations, objectives and realities describes what is wanted, what is required and what the likely result will be. In a perfect world, or perfect program, expectations, objectives and realities are all the same ... but nothing is perfect.

There are always tradeoffs that must be brokered and decided. Adjustments will be made to any or all of the following interdependent factors -- performance (scope), schedule and resources (money). This demands flexibility to plan for and find the trade-space where the gives-and-takes will be executed with a margin to ensure that objectives are met.

Finally, given the weight and pressure of the acquisition process, a sense of humor provides a balance and an outlet for relief. People like and admire others who can laugh with them and laugh at themselves - or express the realities with a touch of humor.

I always remember that chief of programs and requirements from years ago. On his office wall hung a plaque that read, "Sacred cows make great hamburger." He was acknowledging that institutional icons were created for a purpose and a time which had passed, and now was the time to focus on new requirements.

We must deliver capabilities that meet the warfighters' objectives in an acquisition environment that is demanding and competitive. Our success relies on our people who have the