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Partnership Is a Two-Way Street, and No One Should Claim Right of Way

July 2011
By Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), SIGNAL Magazine

 
We want partners—not vendors.” All of the government-industry days, procurement updates or program reviews offer the constant call for industry to “be our partner, bring us innovation; work with us to enhance the capability for the warfighter or the ultimate end user.” Yet, partnership is a two-way street. Partnership involves communication, open and transparent management of expectations, honest relationships and decisions that allow both sides to manage their requirements. Partnership is not just a word. It takes work to achieve win-win situations—for each side to treat the other with respect and to make good decisions quickly to minimize cost for both sides.

However, in this government-industry “partnership,” common courtesy seems to have taken a vacation. Phone calls are not returned, and meetings are delayed, skipped or never allowed to take place. Information is held close to the vest, making it very difficult for partnership or cooperative relationships. Proposals submitted with a great deal of effort, cost and thought end up sitting unread on desks for weeks or months without feedback.

Industry is in a constant cat-and-mouse game with its government partner, with industry trying to understand anything that would help it plan its business while driven by market pressures that are not very important to its government client. Although a company’s missing its quarter’s numbers may not seem relevant to a government contracting officer or program manager, it can result in the firing of salespeople, engineers or executives who have had to manage the expectations of their shareholders, employers and manufacturing partners. For small companies, when schedules slip, sometimes people are not paid or a company even goes under. Just as the government has to plan its budget cycles and live within its “broken” acquisition process, industry suffers similar issues—often with more severe consequences for nonperformance.

At my home, when we have someone give us a quote to paint the house or redo the air conditioning system, we look for a fair estimate that covers the work involved and how much it will cost, along with a delivery schedule. Perhaps two or three vendors come out to compete for the job. We then decide on a path and award our business to the winning bid. Or, we instead may delay or decide not to renovate based on budgets or other reasons. Few things are more frustrating for that vendor than to have the customer go completely dark. We all are guilty of not phoning the vendor back or of dodging phone calls and requests for information, so our government-industry partnership is not unique in this behavior. However, that does not make it right, nor does it build partnership or provide value to either side of the equation. “No” is the second-best answer in sales. “Yes” is obviously the best, but “no” is almost as good because vendors then know they can cease allocating resources to a project that has no potential for coming to fruition.

The same is true of our government-industry partnerships. Contracts are delayed, budgets are cut and programs run into problems. When honest communication, mutual respect and transparent information are shared, we are able to manage expectations, emotions, outcomes and financial effects. When either side plays “I’ve got a secret,” fails to communicate, operates in a vacuum or is just discourteous to the other partner, the result is equally disastrous.

If you are the government partner and there is no budget, then tell your industry partner. If you are not going to procure their product, then tell your industry partner. If a delay is going to occur in the procurement because of budgets, timing, politics or other items, or if you are not the decision maker and really cannot help a company with moving its product or innovation forward, then tell your industry partner. Do not string a company along; that costs everyone time, energy, money and often  jobs. Treat your industry partner as you would want to be treated yourself if you were on the other side of the table.

Similarly, industry partners, do not waste your government partner’s time with useless meetings or with meeting just for the sake of a meeting. These are busy, committed people often working with limited support. Do not tell them your product does things that it does not do. Do not go in and ask these people what keeps them up at night. It might be their mortgage, their children’s health, the prospect of growing old or a whole host of other concerns, but it probably is not your product. Do your homework and know what the government partner needs and how your product or service fits or does not fit into that organization’s world. Replacing one product with another without a true benefit just to make a sale does not help your government partner. Do you need certifications or approvals? Do you know the policy?

Make sure you are a true partner. Often you know the right answers, and the solution may not be your technology or your product. If you want to be a true partner, then tell your government partner the truth and steer that organization in the right direction even if it costs you the sale. That government entity will remember honest partnership the next time it is looking for support.

Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), is the president and chief executive officer of Grace and Associates LLC and a former chief information officer for Navy Medicine. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SIGNAL Magazine.