top of page
  • Andy Higgins

Progressive Elaboration as an Acquisition Approach

"... DISA is working on an "Innovative Contracting Playbook" for executing innovative requirements for the Department of Defense. And we need your help. While SETI focuses on Innovation in engineering and technology, the "Innovative Contracting Playbook" is for Contracting Innovation. How have you seen contracts/task orders executed in non-traditional ways? What does Industry do to get work under contract faster, better, more efficiently? What do other Agencies, both DoD and Civilian, do that you've seen work?"

I've thought about this idea for some time - here's my response to DISA's RFI:

A change in contracting approach will often require additional changes in Project (Program) Management, Engineering, and/or Information Technology methodology.

For example, IT Prototyping is often not the same as DoD Acquisition Program prototyping. Prototyping may be used in classic engineering / PMBOK-managed projects as a first phase, but the full weight and overhead of converting the prototype into a deployable unit is then applied in later phases. But in industry, IT (less-than-fully-baked) prototypes may not only be developed but also be deployed (released as beta versions) for user test drives – an unlikely scenario for software which may have to meet stringent security and robustness qualifications in order to be deployed on a DoD network.

Other examples include: Agile development requires Agile PM, which not all program offices are able to adopt. Typical PMOs won’t naturally know what to do without SFR, PDR, CDR, TEMPs, SEPs, Requirements Management Plans, Risk Management Plans, etc… Without all these elements in the typical acquisition response – and in the acquired project plan – how does the PMO manage?

Does Acquisition equal Execution? No. Many acquisitions believe that Technical Approach, Pricing, Past Performance, and other parts of the solicitation response will be adequately translated by project teams into executable Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) & Integrated Master Schedules (IMS).

The belief is that the execution team knows exactly what the proposal team said, and that the proposal team knows exactly what the execution team will do after award.

This is a fantasy that has little basis in reality.

Granted: many program offices hold to the belief that the execution team should be held accountable to the proposed approach. Granted also: most execution teams believe themselves to be constrained by the proposed approach. But mutually adopting these constraints does not mean that the execution realities can be made visible into the past (when the proposal was written).

Truth is a function of time. What is known when matters.

The acquisition team must find a way to make the proposal equal execution. Leaving aside any ripple-effect changes to Engineering, PM, and IT, what type of changes to the acquisition process might make a material difference to the execution of a contract? To the extent a proposal team can come closer and closer to what will actually be executed, a program stands a greater probability of successful implementation.

To do this, use Progressive Elaboration of the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) and the Integrated Master Schedule (IMS). For whatever pool of bidders (even full and open) the program office deems viable, invite all prospective bidders to an Industry Day which lays out the high level processes, objectives, and requirements of the program. Invite bidders to respond with a Level 2 WBS which delineates all the elements needed to accomplish the work. Down-select to those bidders who have “covered the waterfront” and who have listed all the work that needs to be done. This will likely be >90% of the Industry Day attendees – very little winnowing will occur here. A Q&A exchange may be needed, even after Industry Day, to clarify scope.

Continue the elaboration to generate a network of activities and intermediate work products. After Industry Day and first submissions, continue to ask bidders to refine their WBS. First require submission of a Level 3 breakdown. Eliminate those vendors who do not demonstrate an adequate methodology for completing all elements of the project. Refine the WBS into a schedule. With the breakdown of work properly laid out, ask for continued elaboration to L4, and the expansion of the WBS into a network of tasks and activities. Continue with Q&A at each iteration. Provide government feedback to each respondent in the form of Engineering Notices, to be addressed in successive elaborations. Continue to eliminate bidders who do not demonstrate adequate understanding of the work. Deselect those who “forget” (demonstrating sloppy planning) or who are ignorant of (who are unqualified to do the work) necessary deliverables and milestones like engineering reviews, security scans, coding standards, test plans in addition to test reports, etc.

In the next elaboration generate resource estimates – including government furnished items (GFI)!! With an execution network in place for the project, estimate resources. The PMO should now have an understanding of all the GFI required for the contractors to execute. Define what will be available, what will not be available, and what may be available. Provide the bidders with details on GFI availability. Allow bidders to refine WBS / IMS with risk-adjusted approach for GFI which may or may not be available. Evaluate (and down-select) bidders based on their ability to adjust to risks in their approach.

Continue until the pool is both competitive and low-risk. Continue to refine the WBS / IMS offerings to levels 5, 6, 7, or beyond, as needed, to narrow the pool of bidders. Provide ENs at each elaboration to which responses are provided in successive submissions. Once the acquisition team has reduced the population to a competitive and low-risk pool of bidders, ask for pricing.

Why might bidders like this approach? There are three key “wins” for bidders: Understanding, Reduced Investment, Reduced Risk.

Progressive elaboration of the work allows for better understanding, over time, of what’s really required by the customer.

For those bidders who are not selected for subsequent rounds, their investment is reduced. For those who may not be able to wrangle together a full response, an incremental investment may be justifiable. A full proposal response is expensive, and having all offerers provide all sections at one time means they all have to invest “all in” to respond by the due date. Many companies make no-bid decisions based on availability of bid and proposal teams vs win probability. A progressive elaboration, with both win probability and team availability assessed at each stage, allows bidders to manage and control their investments with much more granularity and flexibility. Proposal teams can bring in the right execution personnel to inform the development of something the execution team is going to be saddled with anyway.

Execution risk is reduced when the give-and-take of successive elaboration refines the approach and project plan, including the specification of GFI and risk.

An execution team is much more likely to follow the proposal if the proposal team can give them a fully-baked path that accurately reflects the reality they will encounter. A proposal team is much more likely to bid an executable approach (with a good price and schedule “fit”) if they can gain understandings of where the execution team will encounter difficulties.

Why might the government like this? There are three key “wins” for the government: Understanding, Reduced Investment, Reduced Risk. (Hey - how about that! The same as for the bidders!)

Progressive elaboration of the work allows for better understanding, over time, of what’s really required by the vendor to be successful.

Just like a B&P team for bidders, a source selection team is an expensive “all-in” investment for the government. All resources are sequestered away for a chunk of time, evaluating proposals and scoring responses. Progressive elaboration requires incremental time investments and successive intervals, and personnel can “squeeze in” their proposal evaluations between other responsibilities. Cost, schedule, and other quantitative analyses can be progressively refined, with assumptions and unknowns at one analysis validated or invalidated in successive ones. Briefings to senior acquisition leaders and source selection authorities can also be incremental and progressive – narrowing the time from evaluation to recommendation to award, and increasing the probability the successful bidder will actually have their execution team in place for delivery. The total time investment for a source selection team should be reduced if they can focus on what will be done for me, rather than what’s been done in the past for others, what the bidders are saying they can do, what the bidders are saying they’d like to do or what they always do, what the bidders think my customer wants…

Execution risk is reduced when the give-and-take of successive elaboration refines the approach and project plan, including the specification of GFI and risk.

A government team is much more likely to know the approach the successful bidder will execute if they can accurately reflect the reality the vendor will encounter.

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Mr. Cooper, She Hurt Us All

The following opinion piece appeared in the Washington Post today; highlights are mine: Opinion by Christian Cooper July 14, 2020 at 1:09 p.m. EDT Christian Cooper is a writer and editor and a board m

Why I don't accept blind LinkedIn invites

If I don't know you, I am VERY UNLIKELY to accept your LinkedIn invitation. LinkedIn is supposed to be a NETWORKING site. I restrict my use of it to that method. If you need to link with me, get a t

bottom of page