Program Acquisition Strategy Formulation

Definition: The acquisition strategy is a comprehensive, integrated plan developed as part of acquisition planning activities. It describes the business, technical, and support strategies to manage program risks and meet program objectives. The strategy guides acquisition program execution across the entire program (or system) life cycle. It defines the relationship between the acquisition phases and work efforts, and key program events such as decision points, reviews, contract awards, test activities, production lot/delivery quantities, and operational deployment objectives. The strategy evolves over time and should continuously reflect the current status and desired end point of the program [1].

Keywords: acquisition, acquisition strategy, agile acquisition, "big bang" acquisition, contracting, evolutionary acquisition, information technology, software engineering, spirals, systems engineering

MITRE SE Roles and Expectations: MITRE systems engineers (SEs) are expected to help sponsors craft realistic, robust, and executable acquisition strategies. This means helping to articulate what the government needs, translating those needs into mission- or outcome-oriented procurement/solicitation requirements, and adequately identifying the issues, risks, and opportunities that shape and influence the acquisition strategy. MITRE SEs help agencies achieve what the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) characterizes as "mission-oriented solicitations [2]."


Developing and executing an effective acquisition strategy requires "systems thinking" to ensure that the various elements of the strategy are integrated and that interdependencies are understood and accounted for during execution of the strategy. The acquisition strategy is dynamic in that it must reflect changes that occur during execution. Cost, schedule, and system performance (or capability) tradeoffs may also be required, and program managers will need the insight to make informed decisions based on understanding the risks involved in achieving desired outcomes. Therefore, systems engineering plays a key role in both planning and executing this strategy.

How agencies acquire the products and services they need to perform their operations (or execute their mission) varies depending on the criticality or urgency of the product or service to the agency's mission. Another factor is whether the acquisition entails the allocation of relatively large amounts of agency resources. Acquisition planning for major, complex efforts requires greater detail and formality and has a greater, earlier need for systems engineering. Acquisition management at this level often requires balancing the equities of multiple stakeholders by establishing and executing a governance process that strikes a balance between the desire for consensus and the agility needed to make tradeoffs among cost, schedule, and the capabilities delivered to address changing needs and priorities. Because of the challenges inherent in such an acquisition environment—political, organizational/operational, economic, and technical—the FAR requires program managers to develop and document an acquisition strategy to articulate the business and technical management concepts for achieving program objectives within imposed resource constraints. MITRE SEs are often called on to help develop and execute this strategy.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Focus on total strategy. Avoid the temptation to only focus on the contracting aspects of an acquisition strategy. In many agencies, the term "acquisition strategy" typically refers to the contracting aspects of an acquisition effort. This view tends to ignore other factors—including technical, cost, and schedule—that influence a successful outcome and often have interdependencies that must be considered to determine how to acquire needed capabilities. The overall strategy for doing so will be shaped and influenced by a variety of factors that must be considered individually and collectively in planning and executing the acquisition effort.

Write it down. The FAR requires program managers to develop an acquisition strategy tailored to the particulars of their program. It further defines acquisition strategy as "the program manager's overall plan for satisfying the mission need in the most effective, economical, and timely manner [3]." An acquisition strategy is not required (or warranted) for all acquisition efforts. However, most (if not all) acquisition efforts for which MITRE provides systems engineering support require acquisition planning and a written plan (acquisition plan) documenting the ground rules, assumptions, and other factors that will guide the acquisition effort. For major system acquisition programs, a written (i.e., documented) acquisition strategy may be used to satisfy FAR requirements for an acquisition plan [4].

Apply early systems engineering. In essence, the FAR requires federal agencies to have increasingly greater detail and formality in the planning process for acquisitions that are more complex and costly. These major or large-scale federal acquisition efforts also have a greater need for the application of sound systems engineering principles and practices, both within the government and among the suppliers (industrial base) of the products and services. A well-known axiom of program/project management is that most programs fail at the beginning [5]. In part, this can be attributed to inadequate systems engineering, which when done effectively articulates what the government needs, translates those needs into procurement/solicitation requirements, and identifies issues, risks, and opportunities that shape and influence the soundness of the acquisition strategy.

An acquisition strategy is not a single entity. An acquisition strategy typically includes several component parts (or strategy elements) that collectively combine to form the overall strategy (or approach) for acquiring via contract(s) the products/supplies or services needed to fulfill an agency's needs. These elements tend to differ depending on the nature of the acquisition effort, on whether or not the effort is formally managed as a "program," and on the acquisition policies, procedures, and governance policies and regulations of the agency being supported. However, a common element of most acquisition (program) strategies is structuring the program in terms of how and when needed capabilities will be developed, tested, and delivered to the end user. In general, there are two basic approaches to delivering the capability:

  1. All at once, in a single step (sometimes referred to as "grand design" or "big bang") to fulfill a well-defined, unchanging need.
  2. Incrementally in a series of steps (or spirals) to accommodate changes and updates to needs based on feedback from incremental delivery of the capability. This approach is often referred to as evolutionary or agile acquisition (actual definitions may vary).

For more details on each of these strategies, see the SEG's Agile Acquisition Strategy, Evolutionary Acquisition, and "Big Bang" Acquisition articles.

Pick an appropriate strategy. Selecting which capability delivery approach to use depends on several factors, including what is being acquired, the level of maturity of the enabling technology, the rate at which technology changes, and the stability of the requirements or evolving nature of the need that the acquisition effort is addressing. For most information technology acquisition efforts, experience has shown that an evolutionary/incremental/agile approach is preferred to accommodate and plan for change inherent in software-intensive systems. However, incorporating an evolutionary or agile approach into the delivery of capability is no guarantee that an acquisition strategy is sound. Other factors also determine the effectiveness of a given strategy [5]. These include aspects such as whether the strategy is based on an authoritative assessment of the risk involved in achieving the objectives of the acquisition effort, a realistic test and verification strategy and meaningful event- or knowledge-driven milestone reviews to assess progress toward achieving acquisition objectives, and realistic cost, schedule, and performance (delivered capability) baselines.

References and Resources

  1. Defense Acquisition University, Defense Acquisition Guidebook, accessed August 31, 2016.
  2. Federal Acquisition Regulation, Subpart 34.005-2 Mission-Oriented Solicitation.
  3. Federal Acquisition Regulation, Part 34: Major System Acquisition.
  4. Federal Acquisition Regulation, Subpart 34.004 Acquisition Strategy.
  5. Meier, S., January 27, 2009, Best project management and systems engineering practices for large-scale federal acquisition programs, Acquisition Community Connection Practice Center, DAU.

Additional References and Resources

"Government Acquisition Support," MITRE Systems Engineering Competency Model, The MITRE Corporation.


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