Procurement Leadership: The OODA Loop for Agile Acquisition

The push for digital transformation in the federal government is driving agency officials to require innovative procurement processes to drive what has long been desired: streamlining the acquisition process and increasing speed of procurements.

Speaking at the Professional Service Council’s Tech Trends conference last year, Dr. Michael Wooten, the administrator in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, discussed how agencies need guidance on the faster adoption of new technologies like artificial intelligence, and requiring contracting officers to have tools and leadership needed to innovative solutions to better serve their agencies.

Dr. Wooten also mentioned one of my favorite topics of rapid decision making, and how to develop a climate of competition in technology acquisition leveraging his days as a Marine Corps officer; the OODA loop. OODA – Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action.

As defined by TechTarget:

“The OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is a four-step approach to decision-making that focuses on filtering available information, putting it in context and quickly making the most appropriate decision while also understanding that changes can be made as more data becomes available. The strategy is applicable at an individual level as well as an organizational level. It is particularly useful in scenarios where competition is involved and where the ability to react to changing circumstances faster than an opponent leads to an advantage.”

The tenets of OODA are perfectly aligned with principles of agile acquisition and innovative procurement, and can be used as follows:

Observe: The first step is to work with the customer to identify the problem and gain an overall understanding of the internal and external environment. This is in essence a data gathering exercise. This critical first step is to help recognize the various complexities, and that all the data collected is a snapshot of the current situation and must be treated as such. Therefore, procurement professionals need to work with their customer to gather whatever information is available, and as quickly as possible, in order to be prepared to make decisions based on the data.

Orient: The orientation phase involves charting the path forward, reflecting on the findings and observations, and focusing on what should be done next to solve the issue. Effective leaders need to work with their procurement customers to ensure there is a significant level of situational awareness and understanding in order to make the best decision based on the data.

Here is another practical application of emerging technologies, especially machine learning and artificial intelligence tools. Using these tools, these solutions can identify potential outcomes while removing any bias which tends to happen in rapid decision making environments since some decisions may be unconscious, or instinctual. Further, this step involves considering what and why decisions are made prior to choosing a course of action, which can be improved through automated tools.

Decide: The decision phase moves towards an action or response to the problem, taking into consideration all of the potential outcomes towards the best procurement strategy. This is very much a team effort, as effective leaders use their teams and resources to work collaboratively with the stakeholders to create the most effective roadmap for the customer.

Act: Action pertains to carrying out the needed decisions to procure the desired solution, taking into account the goals and objectives surrounding the need. This not only requires effective change management, but risk management as well response to the decision. If prototyping or using modular contracting, this step may also include any testing that is required before officially carrying out further actions such as more investments.

The OODA loop can be used for the rapid acquisitions as speed is of the essence. However, quality does not need to be sacrificed, nor risk. It is a fact that to move more quickly, the government is going to have to move to take more risks. Further, acquisition leaders need to push for more problem-solving methods of procurement and move away from detail-heavy, 100-page requirements; the standard “base year plus four” procurements that dominate current technology buys.

Here, top-cover is critical from leadership to experiment, fail fast if need be, and ensure “failure” is not an impediment to further OODA loops and further applications of innovative procurement techniques.

This is how commercial industry buys and how the government needs to buy. We need to find more innovative ways to buy effectively, or we will continue to fall behind in modernization efforts. Further, the status quo means continuing to drown in the ocean of waste on legacy systems which is accumulating faster than the National Debt Clock.

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