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Safety Sucks… and Other Procurement Lessons Learned from the Cockpit

Scott Smith, General Manager of Enterprise Solutions at GordianThis Executive Viewpoint post is authored by Scott Smith, Vice Chair for The Institute for Public Procurement (NIGP) Business Council and General Manager, Enterprise Business for Gordian. 

In a younger life, when my waist and hair were the conversely appropriate degrees of thickness, I spent some time as a naval aviator.

On occasion, the entire air wing would cease flight operations for day-long safety stand-downs. One particular day, my commanding officer strode into the ready room and with all sincerity proclaimed, “Gentlemen, safety sucks.”

Scheduled in the wake of an aircraft mishap, it seemed an inappropriate opening for a forum intended to focus on flight safety issues. He went on to explain that he would like nothing better than to remove the reins, that flying without constraint would make for an exhilarating experience. It would just be more fun. This was a message that resonated well with a group that, despite the airs of military discipline, was prone to test the limits of authority and the flight envelope.

He had our attention.

However, the real message followed: Constraints are an essential part of professional discipline. Without discipline, you sacrifice excellence. Without excellence, you sacrifice the mission. 

National Procurement Month: Procurement professionals find creative solutions and are progressive in challenging the status quo.

As Procurement Month winds down, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the lesson learned from my former life. In the more than two decades since I’ve been in the cockpit, I have largely spent that time helping deliver solutions to various levels of government. It didn’t take long to learn the folks with “Procurement” on their business card are the enablers of mission success in the public sector. Ultimately, nothing gets done without them.

What is too often mistaken for bureaucracy is the framework in which excellence thrives. That framework is upheld by those professionals who are often thought to merely toil in the background. Through the years, though, I have witnessed Procurement evolve to become a much more strategic player at the table. This benefits all of us – end users, suppliers and taxpayers alike.

A couple more lessons I learned:

• Rules of engagement (ROE) matter. Rules of engagement keep unintended conflict at bay. No one really likes them; they curtail the advantage. In a landscape where competition is ever-intensifying, public procurement professionals are the purveyors of fair play. It’s a role I don’t envy, but one I certainly appreciate.

• No one likes heading into combat equipped by the lowest bidder. It was a common expression, the kind of satirical humor that eases the tension. Thank goodness for those procurement professionals that have championed the movement toward best value procurement over the years. It has not been an easy quest – change never is.

Some may be quick to decree these comparisons a bit melodramatic. I’m not so sure. Have you seen some of the stuff these folks help deliver? Emergency response equipment and services, construction projects, even a weapons system or two at the federal level. I’d say discipline and excellence and mission are every bit as paramount in their daily routine as the stakeholders they serve.

I traded in my flight bag for a briefcase longer ago than I care to remember. Since then, I have had the good fortune to work with some of the best in the procurement profession, individuals that have been creative in finding solutions and progressive in challenging the status quo. All with the mission in mind. It’s been my privilege.

Thanks for your service.