It’s hard not to like Hondo Geurts.
He supplies a new tune to start every workday via LinkedIn. It’s a generous gesture. If you follow him, you’re bound to discover some great new bands. Often, what he picks sets a rocking tone for the day. What’s more, he accompanies each song with a brief background on the music makers and a quick homily on the leadership lessons of those artists’ journeys.
Most of his readers probably suspect that he has some staff help in keeping the project going for more than a year now, but it would be just like him to do it all himself.
You can’t miss Hondo when he enters a room or appears on your Zoom screen (as he has on mine on several occasions during the past year). He is a big man. He is wont to refer to his 18-inch neck. I admit that I feel safer knowing he is on our side and on the watch for the Navy.
Hondo is both a student and a practitioner of innovation. His self-study of innovators of yore led him to his belief in creating spaces for serendipitous collisions among folks with expertise in widely varying fields. Both at Special Operations Command and at the Navy, he has created specialized environments designed to encourage these collisions. Crazy stuff—and needed capabilities—have ensued.
Hondo is a man in a hurry. He wants to outpace our adversaries with agility and speed. He doesn’t care so much about getting a given capability first, but he is dead set on adapting to it fastest. Pivot speed, he believes, will save us from the fate of the dinosaurs. He isn’t much for pride of ownership, his or yours: He’ll happily rip off and deploy your idea. It’s his version of R&D. Even if you’ve honed and polished it to a fare-thee-well, he’ll examine and happily toss it aside if he can’t use it.
But if he does junk your plan, you’ll likely try even harder on the next one. He’s just that inspiring. And you’ll pull in an even more diverse team for even more outlandish collisions. When your team’s brainchild clicks for him, hang on. He will be blocking for you and you’ll be drawing on his energy all the way down the field.
The Curiosity to Explore, The Humility to Learn, The Boldness to Act
James “Hondo” Geurts was tapped as temporary Navy undersecretary by President Biden in February. He believes acquisition is a tool of war.
James Geurts once again is proving himself a maverick. It is not common for a Senate-confirmed political appointee from one presidential administration to be tapped to serve in the next one.
Yet here’s Hondo Geurts—as just about everyone calls him—back in the middle of it all again. He served as the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition before President Biden appointed him as temporary undersecretary of the Navy on February 4. Geurts is thus performing the duties of the Navy’s number two civilian leader. One senses that he is far from unhappy about it: It is in his nature to be in the fight. “I can’t tell if I look for trouble or trouble follows me,” he told the America’s Future Defense Innovation Summit in October.[i]
Geurts won the call sign “Hondo” in the Air Force, which he joined in 1987. He served for 22 years that were marked by the shock and awe of U.S. airpower during the Persian Gulf War. He retired as a colonel in 2009, having managed intercontinental ballistic missiles, surveillance, tactical fighter aircraft, advanced avionics, stealth cruise missiles, training, and manned and unmanned special operations aircraft programs.
When Geurts left the Air Force, he became a federal executive at Special Operations Command (SOCOM), where in 2013 he was named acquisition executive overseeing an $8 billion buying budget. Once again, he was at the center of the action—after the 9/11 attacks, special forces deployed more than any other U.S. forces.
Since December 2017, Geurts has been a Navy man, running a much bigger yearly acquisition budget—more than $100 billion—for a service at the red-hot core of tension between the United States and China. “One reason I was very interested in joining the Department of the Navy is that I think it will be one of the many things that will be critical to our future ability to compete and win at global scale. There’s a competitive fight going on right now for influence and dominance on the seas,” he told the October summit. “The Navy is a forward-deployed force with our Marine Corps counterparts. They’re out there operating every day and if you just watch the news, you can see they’re not out there operating without being confronted or contested.
“Our overall mission continues to be put the best equipment in their hands, support that equipment, and give them the best tools to compete and win,” he said. “We talk sometimes of acquisition, procurement, maintenance as combat support. It’s absolutely a tool of war. We should think of our entire national security infrastructure that way.”
Tools of War
Geurts has been thinking about acquisition tools of war his whole career. Famously, he created SOFWERX. In 2015, with $2 million, Geurts used a little-known section of commerce and trade law to strike a partnership intermediary agreement with a nonprofit to, in his words, “create a mosh pit where people are bouncing in, people are bouncing out, some stay for a while, some go.”[ii] It was the physical manifestation—in a former tattoo parlor and telephone book factory in Tampa—of Geurts’ belief that “most of our big jumps in innovation were when two people got together who had no other natural reason to get together, but were in a place which was comfortable for them to share ideas. And when you get people who don’t naturally mix and force them to mix, we start seeing what I call return on collisions.”[iii] It ultimately kicked off a series of military WERX organizations.[iv]
Geurts has carried his belief in the power of diversity and behavior change to improve acquisition with him since SOFWERX. “Organizations are like big pieces of plastic. You can apply management heat, and they'll bend around,” he told Contract Management in a late 2020 interview. “But as soon as that heat leaves, as soon as the person leaves … then the organization magically snaps back to where it was. The only way to get after that is changing at the molecular level, where we value diversity, we value curiosity, we value learning, we value boldness. If we can change at the molecular level, we’ll adapt whatever tool or processes invented out there with much more speed.”[v]
This molecular-level change produces a particular species of acquisition professional, in Geurts’ view, one with strong and varied individual skills and a team mindset. “I would say the ultimate contracting manager is 70% contracting, 20% program management, and 10% finance. The ultimate program manager is 70% program management, 20% contracting, and 10% finance.”[vi] No matter their roles, however, the members Geurts wants on his teams share a set of specific characteristics.
“The best team member in whatever role, whether it's contracting, program, finance, whatever, has three traits. They've got the curiosity to explore, the humility to learn, and the boldness to act,” he said. “So, if we can get the culture and the behaviors right, where we value curiosity and learning and bold action, and then free up the resources that allow people to act with those attributes, then I think we’ve fundamentally changed the game, much more so than any single process or any piece of legislation or reducing something in the FAR will do. That is enduring and adaptable, whereas just a process change I don't think will have the same effect.”[vii]
Geurts refers himself as an organizational pulling guard. It’s in his LinkedIn profile and closes the note he left his team in January, when he thought his time as a Navy appointee was up. It is a football term and a particularly self-aware description, especially coming from a guy who claims to prefer solitary endurance sports like Ironman races and marathons. In football, when an offensive guard pulls, he leaves his position and drives behind the line of scrimmage toward the opposite side of the field to surprise a defender and provide an extra blocker. Sprinting ahead of the running back, he engages a defensive player to create space for the back to gain yardage. “I really see myself as a pulling guard. Big guy with a big neck, loves to make holes for teams to run through and then watch them hit the end zone,” Geurts said.[viii]
Geurts clears running room for his team by empowering them down to the lowest capable level and making sure they have time and space to use new tools and exercise curiosity, humility and boldness. This entails getting rid of “stupid.” “Part of what we're trying to do is get rid of low-value-added work, or ‘stupid,’ but as we get rid of that, not having it replaced with more stupid. My personal goal is to give everybody an hour a day back a year. If I can do that by reducing bureaucracy, and creating better processes, and getting the culture right, then I think I'm doing an okay job here as a leader,” he said. “If we don't free up enough resources so that people have time to be curious and time to learn, then they're never going to get the new tools which with they can act boldly and change the game.[ix]
“The issue is freeing up time with things that are low value-added so we can get after some of those higher value-added things like other transaction authority (OTA) deals.”[x] In 2020, pandemic and all, the Navy increased its use of OTAs by 260 percent. Geurts credits freed-up time in part for that expansion. Another OTA enabler was NavalX, the Navy version of SOFWERX that he created in 2019.
“We’re kicking off an effort I’m calling NavalX, Naval Expeditions,” Geurts told the U.S. Naval Institute-AFCEA West 2019 conference. “‘Expedition’ is an arduous task where you’ve got to bring technology and courage and all your MacGyver skills, all that together in one place.”[xi]
NavalX describes itself as a “super-connector” focused on scaling isolated pockets of innovation across the service and beyond. It has stood up 15 Tech Bridges, collaboration spaces to enhance collaboration among the Navy, Naval labs, industry, academia, state and local governments, and DoD to speed up delivery of dual use technology and services to sailors. To spread high-impact knowledge and skills across the Sea Service, NavalX publishes playbooks: basic explanations of tools and methods. Playbooks cover:
- Implementing Agile Scrum,
- Standing Up an Analytics Cell,
- Cloud Migration,
- Navy International Programs Office (NIPO), and
- Private Sector Financing (PSF).
More topics are in the works.
Speed of Learning
Geurts views NavalX and its OTA and other playbooks as part of his campaign to speed Naval learning. “You didn't have to learn everything from scratch, you could find the best examples that we had—tons of different examples to pull from,” Geurts said of the OTA guide. “If I want to speed up learning, creating those resources where a contracting officer can learn from everybody who's already gone the first 50 yards and start on the 50-yard line means they don't have to start on the goal line. And that way, we get transformation at scale. The real key to transformation at scale is speed of learning.”[xii]
Geurts is especially proud of the speed and amount of learning that helped Navy acquisition pivot to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. “If you look at what we were able to accomplish in FY20 in the middle of COVID, we awarded 21% more contracts than the previous year, $140 billion of contracts. We did it with about 11% fewer contracted actions. We broke every record we had for small business participation. Our learning rates were higher than they've ever been in terms of individual learning.”[xiii] He said those achievements came as the result of organizational learning about the need to differentiate work and nurture the Navy’s vast supply chain.
On differentiating work, Geurts said, “I don't want to spend the same amount of contracting assets to award a $100,000 SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research contract) as a $100 million modification to a weapon system or a $500 million IT services contract. But our process, left to its own devices, will view all of those as the same thing. And then we'll misallocate resources. We'll have too many resources on the things that don’t have much risk and that will starve the things that actually have a lot of risk. We've got a good contracting program management team that can work together to illuminate where we can balance the resources of the risk better and put the assets where they can have the most impact.”[xiv]
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Navy was able to put funding assets where they had the most impact in its supply chain due to work Geurts kicked off in 2017. “When I first got here, I was a little surprised that we were not where we needed to be in understanding supply chain if we had to go to war and mobilize,” said Geurts. “Luckily, our effort in trying to solve that problem positioned us well to pivot hard when COVID hit, because the tools we have put in place were tools that we could use in the COVID environment.”[xv] Not only did the Navy map its supply chain down to 900 spare and repair part commercial suppliers, but it also surveyed them all—at 1,500 sites—about COVID’s impact and pushed out $600 million in early payments to get cash in their tills.
Once again, Geurts looks to acquisition teams, not individuals, to assimilate and act on the Navy’s growing supply chain insight. “We're trying to efficiently generate the knowledge of what's in the supply base, where the risks are, where’s the fragility so that each team isn't individually trying to do that. The contract manager’s role in that is as part of that team, understanding the implications to strategy—whether it's an acquisition strategy, or a contract strategy, or an incentive strategy—then, likewise understanding all the other tools that are available to get after that problem.”[xvi]
“Like a T-Rex”
Hondo Geurts is above all a seaman’s, airman’s, special operator’s, and even civilian employee’s leader. This is not just because of his many Hondo-isms—for example, “rip off and deploy” for R&D, or “the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper,” or his many references to Sgt. “Bagadonuts” out in the field. Geurts also is ready, willing, even eager, to mix it up with the folks on the line. He is an avid music buff. So much so that he often walks onstage to speak accompanied by the Black Crowes or another driving beat. And every day, he posts on LinkedIn an R&B, hard rock, or funk song with background on the artist and the tune, along with a leadership lesson drawn from the lyrics or what the players went through to make the track. He has even been photographed wearing a rainbow mohawk wig for a Zoom conference as an homage to Matt “Mohawk Denny,” bureaucracy hacker, “voice of the workforce,” and podcaster at NavalX.
You never quite know what Geurts will say or do, and that’s the point. He models the agility he’s trying to instill in the team.
“Your outside world is changing very fast, whether it's because of technology opportunities, your competitor, or other external factors. Your only real escape is a diverse team with lots of skills that that can adapt quickly,” Geurts said. “So, if we get too functionally stove-piped, if we get too process-centric, if we get too comfortable with the status quo, the world will change faster than we are, and then we will be extinct. It's just a matter of time. I used to say at SOCOM, ‘You're like a T-Rex on top of the world . . . until you're irrelevant.’”[xvii]
[i] Defense Innovation Summit, America’s Future Series, October 27, 2020, https://www.americas-fs.org/defense-innovation-summit-2020.
[ii] Herman Leonard, Mitchell Weiss, Jin Hyun Paik, and Kerry Herman, "SOFWERX: Innovation at U.S. Special Operations Command," Harvard Business School Case 819-004, July 2018 (Revised December 2018), https://store.hbr.org/product/sofwerx-innovation-at-u-s-special-operations-command/819004
[iv] Subsequently, the Air Force created AFWERX, MGMWERX, STRIKEWERX, and SPACEWERX; the Marine Corps created I-WERX (Installation WERX); the Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center created ERDCWERX.
[v] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[vi] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[vii] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[ix] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[x] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xi] Eckstein, Megan, “Navy Rolls Out NavalX Agility Office to Connect Innovators With Support, Tools,” USNI News, February 14, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2019/02/14/navy-rolls-navalx-agility-office-connect-innovators-support-tools.
[xii] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xiii] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xiv] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xv] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xvi] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xvii] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021