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Incumbent-itis: Does Your Firm Have It?

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Are you an incumbent on a contract up for recompete soon? I've debriefed many a losing incumbent who developed "incumbent-itis" (aka, where the incumbent believes only they know the process or work so well that they can't be beat). Here are some tips to keep you sharp for the upcoming competition.

➡️ Participate in Market Research. Respond to Requests for Information (RFIs), Sources Sought Notices, or interest surveys. Simply because the incumbent is a small business (SB), doesn't mean the action will remain a small business set-aside. The acquisition strategy shifts depending on market conditions and Government need.

➡️ Keep Your SAM Record and Dynamic Small Business Search (DSBS) Profile (for SBs) Up To Date. Buyers will use these avenues to pull and review market data to determine the acquisition strategy even when no RFI or other notice of interest is posted.

➡️ Read the Solicitation! Do not assume the scope of work or approach to the work for the recompete is identical to the current work you're performing. This is a HUGE pitfall! I've had incumbents in their debriefing after losing say, "We know what the Government needs; we've been doing it," or "We assumed the Government wanted the same services." They based their proposals on what they had been doing, not the new scope.

➡️ Be Real About Contract Performance. The people closest to the current work are likely the people who will be reviewing your proposal for the recompete. Don't gloss over rough points. Don't pretend things didn't happen. Take ownership and showcase problem-solving and lessons learned.

➡️ Respond to Evaluation Criteria. Answer criteria as set forth. Does the Government know your firm can do the work? Yes, but they must rate the proposal submitted, not their knowledge of your firm or current performance. I had an incumbent respond to evaluation criteria that requested the name of the sub who would perform specialized work with no name. But, the proposal included the statement, "We will find a qualified sub for [X] work." At the debriefing, when that statement was identified as a significant weakness, the incumbent said, "We know what you need and you know us. We are doing the work now. You know we will find a sub for this work." They lost because of statements like that throughout their proposal that were not responsive to the evaluation criteria.

➡️ Efficiencies = Better Pricing. While prices do go up, the Government expects that incumbents have insight to the work and organization that brings efficiencies to the table. Don't apply an automatic 5% escalation to your current pricing and think it's going to be that easy. The same firm mentioned above did just that. The same briefing ended with the contractor's PM saying, "Even though you know we are a high-performing, competitively-priced firm, our proposal reflected a low-effort, high-priced firm?" My response was, "Yes."

So...How do you prevent Incumbent-itis? During performance listen, watch, and listen more. The most smoothly running contracts have times when the Government or the end user (or both) need to get the contractor's attention regarding performance, costs, schedule, subs, turnover, comms, deliverables, etc.

Initiate active listening sessions with Government stakeholders (i.e., end user, COR, Program / Project Manager, Contracting Officer, and the Small Business Specialist) and hold them separate from routine meetings. If you have a project charter, regular sessions can be built in from the start. If not, highly suggest contractors initiate them no later than mid-performance.

Ask each stakeholder, "From your perspective, what three things are we doing well and in what three areas do we need to improve?" Take notes, repeat answers back and don't argue, justify, or defend. Then repeat the same exercise with your internal team and subs.

Do the answers align with what you thought? If not, why? What is causing the disconnect? I guarantee you'll have at least a few answers that present gaps in your perspective you may not have realized. Finding those gaps will help be engaged with the customer at their level on their needs and help keep incumbent-itis at bay.

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