Always find a way—one of the greatest skills for a Government Acquisition professional to have. Some may say that this kind of skill is developed through years of experience in learning the nuances of acquisition laws and policies and understanding the sometimes hidden flexibilities within. Others might say that the skill is the result of zealous energy and proactive problem solving—a characteristic reflected in many bright and enthusiastic college graduates. It’s probably a little bit of both.
I remember a particular staff meeting in late 2019 with Lt Gen John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, the first director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC). Someone in the room was discussing (or emphasizing or highlighting or stressing) some bureaucratic difficulties which were casting a roadblock on mission success—leaning toward an answer of “No” to our mission partners. The General asked what it would take for the answer to be “Yes”—and the employee explained all the difficult steps needed to get the task done with regulatory compliance. The General looked at him as if to say “Well, there you go!” Addressing the room, he said, “Don’t say ‘no’—instead… say ‘Yes, but…’ and then communicate the ‘but…’”
While this meeting was not particularly uncommon, it was memorable for me because I remember the many regulatory procurement and acquisition obstacles my team was facing at the time. Many procurement rules were purportedly at odds with procuring and delivering AI at the speed of relevance. I knew that the General’s point was not to always make things happen despite regulatory hurdles. Sometimes the answer is clearly “No, we can’t do this,” particularly when there are clear violations of law, ethics, or fairness. Instead, the General was trying to recalibrate our communication style and attitude toward the challenge. Starting your answer with “Yes” conveys positivity and collaboration and good-faith with our mission partners. But maybe more importantly, “Yes, but…” forces problem solving and critical thinking, whereas “No” ends the discussion entirely.
Indeed, when you apply critical thinking to “Yes, but…,” it gets even better. This is where the magic of AI Acquisition modernization can occur for the benefit of government, industry, and academia. Is there a better way to “Yes”? Can we make the “but…” more feasible? In contrast, the lack of a “Yes, but…” critical thinking mentality not only damages DoD missions, but also damages public-private partnerships among industry and academic. It destroys any appeal for non-traditional companies to bring AI solutions for the defense of our nation.
Let’s take federal contracting as a use case. It’s enough that some contracting professionals will jump to “No” quickly because they have not developed critical thinking, but they will do something even worse. They will supplement their ill-informed “No” with the “It’s the law” card. This is an ace-up-the-sleeve move for some contracting professionals, a defense mechanism for those who carry a limited understanding of procurement policies. Even so, it’s hard to fight the “It’s the law” card as a requirement owner or industry/academic partner, especially when federal contracting is not their area of expertise. It works a little like a guilt trip—shaming one for even trying to work a solution that is seemingly at odds with the intricate web of procurement regulations. To all you professionals who keep this card up your sleeve, please stop and get innovative! Contracting and acquisition professionals are meant to be trusted advisors for getting the mission done within regulatory parameters, for continuously growing in knowledge and skills, and for building their expertise so that they can better provide creative solutions and strategies to get to “Yes.” It’s a big responsibility, and a bad advisor translates into the blind leading the blind.
How can the Acquisition professional get into the habit of saying “Yes, but…” instead of “No”? To oversimplify—by continuously growing in knowledge and in zeal. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing when it comes to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and accompanying rules. It is a true statement that the more you understand the FAR and other procurement rules, the more you will understand the flexibilities that they provide. Add zeal to knowledge, and you begin to discover various strategies in creative ways and build up the critical thinking aspects. A sharp, active, analytical mind turns the once obvious “No” answers to “Actually, yes…but…”
What about application for our industry and academia friends? Is the answer: “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘Yes, but it will cost you’”? In many cases, yes—perhaps. But our challenge in AI and the integration into the DoD environment requires critical thinking and creative problem solving from all players in this robust whole-of-nation public-private endeavor. Many times the seemingly difficult problem does not involve more resourcing.
So, let us work together through Tradewind to get to yes. Whether it is a solid “Yes” or a “Yes, but…” to enjoy the fruits of AI for the defense of our nation.
About Will Roberts:
Mr. William (Will) Roe Roberts is currently head of Acquisitions for the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), Office of the Department of Defense. Will is responsible for ensuring that acquisition pathways and methodologies are centered on the JAIC mission of providing AI capabilities to the warfighter and DoD workforce. Previously, Will was a Contracting Officer (CO) for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force (SAF), and worked Acquisition policy for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) where he provided expertise on service acquisition policy for DoDEA. Will became a member of the ABA and Florida Bar as of 2011, receiving his law degree from Stetson University College of Law.