Executive Summary – Critical Thinking and Analytical Skills: the Fundamental Tools of Acquisition Management

Executive Summary – Critical Thinking and Analytical Skills: the Fundamental Tools of Acquisition Management

As budgets have constricted and Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age, the Federal workforce has become less seasoned and more overburdened, which makes the Government less prepared to handle the intellectual challenges that positions in acquisition management present. This fact, combined with less training in argument, analysis, and critical thinking skills, leaves new contracting professionals especially unprepared to manage the challenges that other-than-simplified acquisitions so often pose.

Two of the most important skills to develop are the ability to think critically and the ability to analyze data and information. These skills involve not only knowing what questions to ask, but when to ask them—and how to apply the data and information received to form a conclusion.

Increasingly, program offices are calling on outside acquisition consultants to assist with the preparation of pre-award packages (requirements definition through acquisition planning and solicitation). Acquisition professionals need to be able to prepare and explain why documents such as Analyses of Alternatives (AoAs), Source Selection Plans (SSPs), and Justifications of Other Than Full and Open Competition (JOFOCs) need to be written, and what they are supposed to contain.

Begin with Questions

Contracting professionals are regularly called upon to identify or find effective ways of managing business and technical risks, but they do not always receive the information needed to make informed decisions.

Regardless of the environment or the discipline, the critical thinking process always begins with questions — what?, why?, when?, where?, who?, and how often?, chief among them.

  • What is this service or commodity and what purpose does it serve
  • What are the specifications that will achieve that outcome?
  • What are the risks involved and how can we contractually mitigate those risks?
  • Why is this constraint or restriction being imposed?
  • Why is the program office insisting on sole-source award or brand-name only?
  • Why is this stakeholder asking this question, or insisting on this approach?
  • When is the item or service required?
  • When will the Government review and approve (or reject) this CDRL item?
  • When will the Government deliver the promised GFE/GFP/GFI? (And the companion question: does the contractor have an approved Government Property Control system?)
  • When will this data item be considered “delivered” for the purposes of EVMS (i.e. when it’s submitted—or when it’s approved)?
  • Where is the requirement for that item or service in the contract/SOW/PWS/task order?
  • Where will these meetings be held and/or work performed
  • Where does the Contractor obtain these specifications or documents?
  • Where will UAT or FAT or other testing be conducted?
  • Who is responsible for performing this task, or for meeting this requirement?
  • Who should be designated “key personnel” under this contract?
  • Who will serve as the primary points of contact?
  • How exactly does the Contractor meet this requirement?
  • How does the Contractor price this requirement (“Some travel may be required”)?
  • How will successful performance of the task be measured?
  • How will this item be funded?
  • How will the Government use this information and how should data be formatted?
  • How will the Contractor monitor and control the performance of its subs?
  • How often must this report be submitted or meeting be held?
  • How often will the Contractor’s performance be reviewed?
  • How often will the Contractor be permitted to invoice?

There are hundreds of other questions that will arise during the course of any given procurement, but those above will give contracting professionals a head start—and each one of them has the potential to change the shape of the ultimate contract.

Think Analytically

According to Bowdowin College[i], a person with behavioral indicators of analytical thinking and problem solving:

“works systematically and logically to resolve problems, identify causation and anticipate unexpected results (and) manages issues by drawing on own experience and knowledge and calls on other resources as necessary.”

That means taking the time to read and understand clauses in the FAR and in agency regulations (not just memorize their numbers and titles), and try to figure out what they’re intended to encourage—or prevent—and why. The rules exist for a specific reason; to promote or discourage specific kinds of behavior. Knowledge of the intent of the regulations will allow accurate application of when, where, if, how, and to what extent they apply.

Subpart 1.102-4(e) of the FAR specifically authorizes legitimate creativity:

The role of each member of the Acquisition Team is to exercise personal initiative and sound business judgment in providing the best value product or service to meet the customer’s needs.

“If a policy or procedure, or a particular strategy or practice, is in the best interest of the Government and is not specifically addressed in the FAR, nor prohibited by law (statute or case law), Executive order or other regulation, Government members of the Team should not assume it is prohibited. Rather, absence of direction should be interpreted as permitting the Team to innovate and use sound business judgment that is otherwise consistent with law and within the limits of their authority. Contracting officers should take the lead in encouraging business process innovations and ensuring that business decisions are sound.”

Building consensus for creative approaches, as well as defending the FAR and other agency regulations requires critical thinking, careful analysis, and reasoned argument. While forming an approach, remember that Acquisition is a discipline unto itself, with its own unique body of knowledge, lexicon of acronyms and abbreviations, and specialized skillset and capabilities.

Prepare and Argue Logically

The essay, Arguing Syllogistically: Finding the Logic in Acquisition, provides an example of how such skills apply in the field of government acquisitions:

Issue: The contractor doesn’t understand why it has to provide cost and pricing data.

Major premise: Cost and pricing data is required under FAR 15.403-4, and under the terms and conditions of the contract.

Minor premise: Unless the contract meets the exceptions delineated in FAR 15.403.1(b)—that is, unless:

  • Pricing is based on adequate competition;
  • Prices are set by law or regulation;
  • The contract is for commercial items;
  • The Head of the Contracting Activity (HCA) has waived the requirement; or

The pricing applies to the modification of a contract for commercial items— Cost or pricing data must be submitted.

Conclusion: The circumstances of the contract meet none of the conditions for waiver of the requirement listed above. Therefore, cost and pricing data must be submitted.

Before entering into any debate, personal or business, it is essential to analyze the other positions as thoroughly as you analyze your own. Play devil’s advocate, and try to anticipate—and address—any objections the other person is likely to raise before he or she can raise them. This strategy has two benefits:

  • First, it’s very hard to debate with someone who can successfully rebut any counter-claim you make; and
  • Second, your opponent can’t help but be impressed by how thoroughly you’ve thought your position through.


Written by Carol Barton, Senior Acquisition Specialist, Changeis Inc.

For Carol’s complete work, look for the forthcoming article in the October issue of Contract Management.