This is the meeting you’ve been dreading. Every week, you meet as part of a committee to decide on next steps for this inconsequential project. However, the team spends the entire time debating on the best course of action. They evaluate data, argue about pros and cons, and try to weigh costs and benefits. But there just isn’t enough information, so the team agrees to do more research, and the decision gets pushed out yet another week.
MBAs love frameworks. We have a framework to learn about marketing, with varying numbers of C’s and P’s to memorize. We have frameworks for strategy, with varying numbers of external and internal forces to consider. We are given plenty of tools for analysis, but when it comes to decision-making, we have a tendency to revert back to analysis when confronted with a lack of information.
Paralysis by Analysis
Basic military officer training introduces you to a lot of frameworks as well, including ones for decision-making. I still remember having to memorize a 12-step problem solving process which we had to follow during leadership training exercises. This literally required saying things like “Step 1: identify the problem. The problem is…” as part of the team brief. We spent precious time on the process that could have been better spent on execution. Thankfully, these were only training exercises, and we ditched the process as soon as we got into the real world.
However, once I got into the real world, we ran into a similar problem, but not as overt. You might have had a similar experience in your work – where you spent a huge chunk of your time trying to figure out the ultimate course of action, and then by the time you’ve made the decision, there’s hardly any time to actually do the work. Classic “paralysis by analysis.” Intuitively, we all knew that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Mike Tyson said it better: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
There’s a better way to make decisions and think about how your decisions play out in your larger strategy.
The OODA Loop
The OODA loop (short for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is an idea that is beloved within the Air Force community. It was originally invented by a fighter pilot named John Boyd, one of the most famous military tacticians in the Air Force. He created the OODA loop from his observations of aerial combat in the Korean War, and it was one of the concepts that he used to revolutionize air combat instruction. He used to boast that he could defeat any other pilot in an engagement, from a position of disadvantage, in 40 seconds. He never lost.
The OODA loop stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The basic premise of this theory is that you need to make decisions more quickly than your competition. You need to quickly analyze a limited amount of information, and then decide and act on that information as soon as possible. You’ll then get feedback form your actions, and the process repeats itself. The faster you can iterate, the more you’ll learn relative to your competition. In other words, you’re getting inside your competitor’s OODA loop and disrupting their processes.
Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology takes this principle and applies it to startups. In theory, by focusing on a minimum viable product, gathering feedback, and developing quick iterations of products and the lessons learned from each iteration, you can out-execute the competition. You can also ultimately conserve your resources by failing fast and early, and failing cheaply.
Why use it?
The OODA loop encourages experimentation and proceeding with the 80% solution now rather than waiting for a 100% solution. In the famous ‘marshmallow challenge,’ teams assemble a contraption of spaghetti and tape to see which team can create the tallest free-standing structure. They found that teams of children outperformed adults (including MBA students and engineers) because rather than argue about the course of action, they play with the materials and come to the best conclusion through trial and error, rather than through rigorous analysis and debate.
There appears to be evidence to back up the theory that faster decision-making leads to better results. Faster strategic decision-making has been tied to better firm performance in various contexts, especially in high-velocity environments. Counter-intuitively, the research also found that the fast (and successful) decision makers seem use more information, not less, in their analysis and reasoning.
However, speed isn’t everything – you need to make sure you are doing enough in each step and not focusing so much on speed that the decision quality goes down. A 2002 study in the Academy of Management Journal cautioned that organizations can fall into a ‘Speed Trap’ – where the focus is so much on speed that the quality of decision-making suffers.
Next time you go into that unending meeting or committee, think about what would happen if the group just made a decision and experimented with it. What would be the consequence of failure? Would you learn more by trying a solution rather than another week of debate or research? It might just be better to make a decision and get feedback, knowing that your first decision is going to be wrong anyway.
If you’re a veteran and accepted to an MBA program starting in Fall 2015, you should definitely check out some of the pre-MBA industry exploration programs that are available this summer. They are a great way to get a head start on the internship search, and explore different career paths. Plus, they’re pretty much free!
Note that this is not inclusive of all the pre-MBA programs out there, but these are the ones that a University of Washington Veteran MBA would be eligible for. Hope this is helpful for the class of 2017!
Applications open in late Spring 2015
Opportunities in Investment Banking in their New York office.
Citi Pre-MBA Fellowship
Applications opened in mid-March, unknown deadline
“As part of Citi’s commitment to recruiting high-caliber talent and in accordance with our Diversity Recruiting Mission Statement, Citi Institutional Clients Group is proud to sponsor the Citi Pre-MBA Fellowship. The program will provide exceptional minority First-Year MBA students (women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, military veterans, people with disabilities and people of Black and Latino/Hispanic descent) with an opportunity to join the Institutional Clients Group with financial support from the Firm.”
Credit Suisse MBA Military Boot Camp (Veteran-Specific):
Application available Apr 2015, deadline 13 June 2015
“The Credit Suisse MBA Military Boot Camp, an educational outreach initiative for prior-military MBA candidates who are entering business school this fall and who are interested in a career in financial services. During this day long program you will learn about careers in Investment Banking, Sales and Trading and Private Banking. You will receive advice from previous Vets who have made the successful transition to Wall Street and will have time to network with members of the Credit Suisse Americas Veterans’ Network, the first such network on Wall Street.”
JP Morgan MBA Early Advantage (Black, Hispanic, Native American, Military and Veteran, LGBT or female students):
Last year, applications opened in April 2014 with a deadline of Monday, May 26, 2014
July 15-16, 2015 (New York, NY)
Two-day conference providing networking opportunities and training sessions for those interested in Investment Banking as post-MBA career.
Deloitte Consulting Immersion Program (Anyone w/3-5 years of work exp, pref in large org):
Application opened in March, deadline April 15th at 11:59PM PST
July 10-12, 2015 at Deloitte University (Westlake, TX)
Open to all incoming Class of 2017 Full-time MBA students. Three-day, all-expenses-paid opportunity to learn the basics of management consulting and Deloitte. One of the key benefits to attending this program is that you can interview early for the Summer Associate role for the following summer internship.
Deloitte Career Opportunity Redefinition & Exploration (CORE) Leadership Program (Veterans w/4-8 yrs):
See deadlines below:
April 30-May 2 (deadline March 26),
June 4-6 (deadline May 1), or
November 5-7 (registration deadline Oct 1) at Deloitte University (Westlake, TX)
A three-day all-expense-paid program tailored to help veterans “define their personal brand, identify their strengths, and be able to tell their own story.” Seems like a good networking event and leadership development course for transitioning (or still active) military. One of my friends took it and said it was a great experience – met lots of contacts who gave a no-holds-barred account of consulting.
PwC EDGE Program (Anyone with 3 yrs work experience):
Deadline last year was 4 May 2014, not sure when applications opened up.
As a MBA EDGE intern, you will have a one of a kind experience deployed on an actual client assignment in an international location where you will respond to client issues and present recommendations to the client management team. The skills and knowledge obtained through this distinctive experience can give you an edge both professionally and personally as you continue your education and launch a career in consulting.
Google Student Veterans Summit (Veteran-Specific):
Applications will open March 30, 2015, with a deadline of 1 May 11:59PM PST. Last year, decisions were communicated to applicants in June
8-10 July, 2015 in Mountain View, CA
Competitive! This year they will take up to 50 student veterans, and I believe this is also open to undergrad Veterans as well. This Google Student Veteran Summit includes a professional development curriculum designed to help veterans brush up their business skills and ensure a smooth transition to the civilian workplace. Participants will also meet members of Google’s Veteran community and get an inside look at the company’s unique culture of impact and collaboration.
Procter and Gamble Marketing MBA Summer Camp (Open to everyone):
Applications open until June 12 2015, Interviews as early as March
Cincinnati, Ohio, last week of July 2015
A six day, all expenses paid, action-packed look at P&G Marketing opportunities shaped for students entering their first year of a two year MBA program and graduating in 2016. This pre-MBA program is designed to attract top diverse talent. During the week you will learn about P&G’s Corporate Strategies and Brand Building and how they touch the lives of the world’s consumers. You will have the opportunity to spend a day on the brand and preview the key roles you could play in Marketing after completing your MBA. You will also interact with P&G Executives and recent MBA graduates that work for the company throughout the week.
After a quarter in the MBA program, it’s been really eye-opening to see just how well being a 6X-series in the Air Force can translate into the civilian world. However, since there are so few 6X-series officers (development engineers, scientists, acquisition managers, financial managers, contracting officers, etc) in the Air Force, even members of our own service don’t know what we do.
I remember the day my recruiter told me that I was selected to be an Acquisition Manager. I almost turned the Air Force down because I thought I’d be using my engineering degree to order supplies, which is in line with what the Air Force’s career site advertises. My recruiter had no idea what it was, but eventually she got me in touch with an actual Acquisition Manager who was able to convince me to join.
8 years later, when I was looking to transition out, I was frustrated with the new military skills translators that thought that I know inventory management and purchasing methods. This is a shame, since this kind of information gets sent out to potential employers who use military skills translators to match veterans with potential jobs in their company.
So hopefully this will help the ~4500 Acquisition Managers and Developmental Engineers out there, or anyone looking to understand what we do.
Weapon Systems, not Office Supplies
Based on military skills translators and the Air Force’s own career web site, it seems like we are some kind of office manager or purchasing officer, responsible for managing equipment and supplies. The truth is that we help develop and deliver the latest products to our users. These products could be a new satellite constellation, a new generation of bomber aircraft, upgrades to existing weapon systems…and so on. These products tend to be incredibly complex and could require years or even decades of development and investment before they can be delivered. Hundreds to thousands of engineers, scientists, financial managers, other professionals could be working on this project. There are government decision-makers at all levels of these projects, many of whom are military.
What kind of responsibility do you have?
In short, it’s all about providing government oversight (“trust but verify”) and managing cost, schedule, and performance. We represent the American taxpayer and make sure that we are good stewards of government funds. We also represent the warfighter, to make sure that they can get the tools to do things better and potentially save lives.
Why can’t you just let (insert contractor name here) do it?
There was an effort in the 90’s to decrease the amount of government oversight on these acquisition programs, but then this happened. The debate continues to this day and won’t be discussed much in this post, but let’s just say that being laissez-faire caused some major issues in the past.
But (Insert Contractor Name here) just does all the work, right?
For the most part, yes, and that’s why they get paid the big bucks. They get to turn wrenches, order parts, and do the fun engineering and design work. If there was no government oversight, they could probably do everything and deliver a working product without any issues. However, the Air Force isn’t buying office supplies here. It’s buying (or modifying) huge, technically challenging, innovative and state-of-the-art products, and things don’t always go according to plan. That’s where the government Acquisition folks can help resolve problems – whether it’s a technical or a business challenge.
In my role as an Acquisition Manager, I’ve had the opportunity to influence the decision-making process by providing information and recommendations to leadership. I also had a chance to develop my technical expertise by helping resolve complex engineering challenges, and also got a chance to develop my business expertise by leading major program/contract modifications. Like many jobs, it is what you make of it.
However, like all large organizations, there’s a possibility that folks can get very comfortable and do as little as possible in their role. In Acquisitions, I’ve found that the majority of folks in the career field are motivated to do the best job that they can for the taxpayer and the warfighter, and anyone who isn’t will get sidelined very quickly.
What Do they do, then?
We team up with engineers and contracting personnel to oversee the cost, schedule, and technical performance of a government product development contract. From the government’s perspective, we ‘own’ the product and are responsible for all decisions regarding it. We’re expected to be the expert on our product and an advocate for the product and our product’s customer. Particular job details beyond that vary greatly from product to product. We attend plenty of meetings to stay up-to-date on product development status, and whenever possible we watch the product get developed in-person. I was fortunate enough to be co-located with the Boeing Satellite Development Center for my first assignment, so I got to watch my product get built every day.
When technical problems arise, we bring to bear a variety of government resources to help keep the product on track. We can leverage technical experts on the government side, government research facilities, and our own background to tackle engineering challenges. We can advocate for additional funding or schedule relief.
We work closely with finance and contracting to manage the product budget. I’d say I spent 40% of my time working through technical issues, 40% funding/contract issues, and 20% doing other activities like government internal processes, additional duties, and other military responsibilities. Everything is done in teams, and we constantly communicate or provide information to internal stakeholders (management) and external stakeholders (ranging from the customer to Congress).
So what Key skills do Acquisition Managers Need?
Cross-functional Team Leadership is the name of the game. You do all your work in cross-functional teams, with specialists in finance, contracting, engineering, and other disciplines. At the lower-mid level ranks, you need to use your soft skills (relationship building, building trust, emotional intelligence) to influence without any formal authority. We don’t have formal authority over the defense contractor outside of what’s stated in the contract, so ordering people around won’t get you very far. I’ve always worked hard to establish credibility early on, and build trust and nurture relationships with folks from all stakeholder organizations (and at all levels). These relationships become invaluable over the long term, and I think they are the primary drivers in job effectiveness.
As far as hard skills, you’ll get most of what you need from the Air Force (program/project management, critical path analysis, etc). Having a technical background helps, but I found it’s more important to have a growth mindset and a willingness to learn, and learn quick. You don’t need to be an aerospace engineer to effectively lead a satellite program, but you need to be able to communicate what’s going on with your program to a variety of audiences.
Note that this isn’t a be-all end-all list, typical military skills like general management, dealing with ambiguity, leadership, communication, and having a strong work ethic are all important as well, but just wanted to highlight what the top two are for this career field.
So what kind of Entry-level roles do you fill?
Brand-new Acquisition Managers can go to System Program Offices (or SPOs, the units that are responsible for a particular product system, like the F-22 Raptor or the Atlas V Common Core Booster) and be put in charge of a particular subsystem or modification/upgrade program. In smaller SPOs, you might be responsible for an entire product line. This means that you get cost, schedule, and performance responsibility right off the bat, and you are given very little direction in how to achieve these goals. There are sets of internal/external government processes to manage, but I’d say the majority of your time will be spent working with the contractor and other stakeholder organizations, and breaking down barriers to progress.
Acquisition Managers can also be assigned to research labs, where they will get to manage research programs. Similar to being in a SPO, but instead of working with a large defense contractor, you could be working with an internal research organization or with smaller contractors. Work is a little irregular, and depends a lot on the availability of research funds. Lots of variability here in terms of experience.
There are a variety of other options, to include a ‘career-broadening’ assignment where an Acquisition Manager gets ‘operational’ experience as a Maintenance Officer, Logistics Officer, Space Operations Officer, and so on, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Some folks get farmed out to defense agencies like the Missile Defense Agency or the Defense Contract Management Agency, and some folks get to be on test programs and run/manage flight tests. The list goes on, but typically they all involve some kind of responsibility for a program to either develop or modify a particular product or technology.
Is there a civilian equivalent?
There isn’t a one-for-one equivalent outside of the government, but there are many parallels with program management at major defense contractors. The next closest thing seems to be ‘product management’ – but the definition varies depending on the firm. Marty Cagan from Silicon Valley Product Group wrote a description of what makes a great product manager, and there seems to be a lot of parallels with this career field.
Will they ever make a movie about Acquisition Managers?
Sometimes a movie can explain a career field better than any job description. Navy pilots have Top Gun, Air Force pilots have Iron Eagle, we have The Pentagon Wars. Yes, it’s a comedy. Here’s a clip:
Reservists are not all the same. There are the traditional reservists, who work on a regular basis with other reservists, and then there’s the IMA reservists, who are attached to active duty units. For the non-military folks, IMA reservists are basically consultants.
Like consultants, IMA reservists come in as an outsider. You have to build credibility and develop relationships, and that takes time. It’s like being new to a unit and having to prove yourself as a leader and as an officer, but you don’t have the luxury of time on your side. On the plus side, you get to swoop in and provide skills and experience to the unit that they might not otherwise have, and you get to choose when you come in. You have a lot of say in deciding what kind of work you do and the projects that you want to tackle. You’ll need a unique blend of analytical skills and communication skills.
However, IMA reservists face challenges that most consultants don’t have. You won’t have a team of people helping you. No case manager, no account/client specialist, no junior analyst…you’re it. A common saying among IMA reservists is that IMA stands for “I am alone.” To succeed, you have to be really proactive. You won’t necessarily get told what to do or how to do it. You might not have anyone walk up to you and hand you projects and assignments, or shepherd you through any processes. You have to learn these things on your own. Think of it as being a one-person consultancy.
I heard that in order for consultants to be really successful, you need to look beyond the project or particular task you’re being asked to do. Find out *why* the client wants you to do this project – behind every project and task there’s a business problem that needs to be solved. By just doing what you’re told and doing the project, it won’t necessarily solve the underlying problem that the client has. I think this applies to the IMA Reservist case as well. You need to ask questions and do some searching to find out what the problem is, and then present yourself as an ally to the unit. You can’t work “within” the program anymore, you have to work “on” the program and the organization itself.
The best thing about my MBA (so far) is that I’ve been able to rapidly expand my solution toolset, which will allow me to design better work projects. In my first IMA tour I saw more problems and projects than I knew how to solve by myself, and ended up being overcommitted. Now I have a much better feel for how much it’s going to take to accomplish a discrete task or project, and I now have more transferrable skills that can help me solve more problems and take on more projects.