PARADIGM SHIFTS, UNLEARNING, AND OTHER TRANSACTIONS

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Not many years ago the term “paradigm shift” was often found in everyday speech. It was widely and wildly misused. Based on my experience, I would say most people that used the phrase had no idea where it came from or what it really meant. I suspect many people reading this article may not even be aware of how common that phrase was ten or twenty years ago. Despite that it has important lessons for today.

Paradigm shift was coined by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and related to how constructs of scientific “truths” are established. The “truths” are eventually replaced in an ongoing evolution of research and knowledge. Kuhn did not address business practices much less the federal acquisition system, but his insights have lessons for acquisition practitioners especially those resistant to exploring and adopting innovative contracting techniques such as other transactions.

Prof. Frank Pajares wrote a synopsis of Kuhn’s Structure book. I’ll quote only the opening paragraph. Replace “scientific community” with “acquisition community” and replace “scientist” with “acquisition professional” and so forth when reading this.

A scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of received beliefs. These beliefs form the foundation of the “educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice.” The nature of the “rigorous and rigid” preparation helps ensure that the receive beliefs are firmly fixed in the student’s mind. Scientists take great pains to defend the assumption that scientists know what the world is like…To this end, “normal science” will often suppress novelties which undermine its foundations. Research is therefore not about discovering the unknown, but rather a “strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.”

When I teach OT courses I often find students who are steeped in the procurement system cannot “hear” what I am saying. Everything must filter through their prior learning. There is a conceptual box for almost every concept. There really are mental “boxes” that inhibit learning and exploring new thoughts. When I am asked to make a two hour or half day presentation people often do not understand when I say OTs are so counter-cultural that a smattering of learning often does more harm than good. Listeners think they are hearing and learning when in fact the overlay of previous received beliefs is so profound they absorb only a distorted view of OTs corrupted by their own preconceived notions.

The analogy to Kuhn’s explication of scientific revolutions, paradigm shifts, may not be perfect. It certainly has lessons for program managers, contracting specialists and others entrenched in acquisition business as usual. Rejection of and misinformation about OTs in DOD is rampant despite leadership calls for innovation and reform. Many practitioners hear only calls for fine tuning the existing system not an imperative for fundamental change or a completely new approach.

After a speech I gave a few years ago an earnest and relatively young contracting officer got up with a comment. She said when she started out a wise, older colleague said stick with the FAR, know the FAR it will keep you out of jail. My reply, the FAR is jail. If your primary professional goal is to stay out of jail you are unlikely to accomplish anything of great importance. The goal is to provide key technologies and capabilities to enhance our national security objectives in a timely and effective fashion. Adopting a system that minimizes applicable laws and regulations (and the opportunity to violate them and go to jail) is a key to accomplishing important objectives.

This brief essay will have zero impact on those that do not read it and little or no impact on some who do. It may be the start of a revolution in thinking for a few. Revolutionaries are needed.

written by Richard L. Dunn

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