The Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) is quite possibly the greatest Contracting mind-set shift we’ll see in our professional careers.
You may have heard, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) issued a memorandum in February 2022 to implement a law that permanently authorized the Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) bid-selection technique for Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based procurement contracts. The announcement favorably ends the 2018 defense CSO pilot program under which the DoD had obligated more than $1 billion in awards under the CSO model.
If you’re not familiar with the CSO, I’d encourage you to read Innovation-Boosting Solicitations Now Here to Stay, a fantastic overview by Victor Deal in NCMA’s May 2022 Contract Management Magazine.
The CSO rules are intentionally worded to give us the power to make decisions. The Government is finally saying “yea, you understand your needs better than we do…here’s the authority to fulfill those needs.” As contracting professionals, this is our chance to flip the traditional model on its head and lead with technology, not with a requirement.
Yes, the CSO is “new”, and some organizations are ahead of others in the maturation cycle. Some have dipped a toe in the water. Some are diving in. Some are waiting for GSA to build a “one-government CSO” lap-pool. This fragmentation leads to disruptive opportunity.
This may, or may not, be a surprise, but no organizations CSO is that far ahead. No organizations CSO is absolutely “crushing it”. I’d submit that every CSO team would agree that we are in the early innings. There is an opportunity for organizations to carve their own path and meet their distinct mission needs.
Where to begin
We’ve presented our CSO model, affectionately called “TryAI”, to our peers at various conferences and webinars. We are sometimes met with a combination of enthusiasm and confusion, and that’s great! It means we have people thinking. It means we are challenging conventional thought in this arena and hopefully empowering our colleagues.
As our CSO model solidified and we had time to reflect, I thought about which narratives were reoccurring. Which sound bites we’d refined and made digestible. What preconceived notions I’d clung to, only to eventually be proven wrong. Essentially, what were the pillars of this accomplishment that we could relay to our colleagues?
From that thought exercise, came the 5 Pillars listed below. They’re not all encompassing. They’re not written in stone. But they are, what I would consider, pretty damn good advice when venturing into the world of CSO’s.
The 5 Pillars of a CSO
1) 10 USC 3458 is your NorthStar. It will guide you, but your path depends on where your journey begins, and with whom you are traveling.
CDAO is a young organization of forward thinking professionals trying to solve real problems. Even with the wind at our backs (metaphorically speaking), our CSO almost never saw the light of day. Expect challenges and use your NorthStar, and grit, to overcome.
2) Lead with technology. If your brainiac data scientist is saying “holy crap, I’ve never seen anything like this!” You should pay attention.
Merit-based decision making is the backbone of the CSO. If you don’t understand brute force mathematics or capabilities of accelerated GPU’s, that’s fine; your technical folks do. So, listen to them. Work with them. Enable their efforts to support the mission. Stay consistent and provide good counsel.
3) Enable smart people to do smart things. If smart people are comfortable with the risks, you should be too.
Have the technical lead sign a technical evaluation stating the following;
· Here is why I’m putting my technical reputation on the line.
· Here is what I think this technology may be able to do.
· Here is why it’s worth our time and effort.
When technical leads sign the evaluation, they own the project. The level of accountability increases, along with the “oh s*!t factor. This leads to better results.
4) Ditch the downselects. There aren’t 40 great ideas; there are 1 or 2. Go straight to demonstrations of those great ideas.
Downselects have benefits related to fair and reasonable acquisition, but they’re not the right fit for everything.
Ever try to get your sharpest technical leads to evaluate 30 proposals? Not exactly an expeditious process. No fault of the folks involved…just not always a practical way to do business.
5) Simple acquisition solves hard problems. Stop preparing for that IP legal battle that may never happen (at least for now).
For high-tech products/platform, I’ll take a low cost, short-term, “pedal to the metal” demonstration over another contracting strategy. It’s the ultimate Source Selection. Merit-based, competitive, direct awards are the first step in true modular contracting.
If the demonstration is garbage, the company goes away; plain and simple.
If the demonstration is a success (however that is defined), we can then prepare for the second inning of the democracy versus autocracy World Series. There will be plenty of time to fight over IP Rights…I promise.
The contracting professional’s ability to source the best technology, at the speed of relevance, is a matter of national security. That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact.
Forward thinking policy makers have handed us the CSO; a mechanism that, if used to its fullest potential, can shift the current contracting paradigm. With this shift in the contracting paradigm comes disruption. With that disruption comes better, faster, and stronger capabilities, and at a lower cost to the taxpayer.
2. Section 03 of NDAA for FY 2022. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/1605/text
3. https://www.acq.osd.mil/dpap/policy/policyvault/USA001228-18-DPAP.pdf 4. Mostly COVID-19 related. Source is Contracts Intelligence Tool behind the paywall at https://www.bgov.com
5. Innovation Boosting Solicitations Now Here to Stay at https://www.ncmahq.org
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