Introduction

It’s one of America’s great traditions! We celebrate those who come through in the clutch – “winning” in the final seconds – far, far more than we notice their counterparts who “win” through deliberate effort and preparation to “put the game away” – whatever the contest might be.

Think about it, who gets the attention, the accolades, and the glory when it comes to sports? Tom Brady “wins” big when he leads his team to a last-minute Super Bowl comeback – even when his team should never have been behind 28-3 in the big game, to begin with. Jordan Speith “wins” when he chips in to win a big golf tournament in sudden death – even when he should never have been in that position by spraying shots all over the course in the final round. From the high school player who hits a game-winning 3 point shot at the buzzer to the major leaguer who hits the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, we, as a society, reward those who can come through in the “clutch.”

The last second “win” has a great history in the online world as well. This dates back to the first eBay auctions, where bidders quickly learned to hold back with their best bids until the final seconds of the auction. Indeed, “sniping” went from almost being an art form to a programmed method – and nuisance – for online auctions. And now, advertisers see the “clutch” moment everywhere – especially when it comes to hitting buttons. Want to find your dream date or a mate for life? Simply swipe at the right moment. Forget your anniversary? With one tap on your phone, you can have flowers delivered and make a dinner reservation. Want to “win” at shopping? You can score that big-screen TV or an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime deal on whatever simply by hitting the buy button!

And yet, the clock still rules – even in cyberspace. However the time element might be conveyed on a website – when the clock strikes twelve (proverbially, or literally), the timer shows no time remaining, or all zeros show on the scoreboard, for all the emphasis on coming through in the clutch online, if no time remains, no time remains – plain and simple, right – or is it? When there are millions of dollars involved, of course, these days, it’s time to call in the lawyers on such matters.


The 2:00 Moment: The Case of Tele-Consultants, Inc.

The expired clock was indeed the subject of a bid protest that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had to recently decide in a case brought by Alpharetta, Georgia-based Tele-Consultants, Inc., (TCI) (Case: B-414135: Tele-Consultants, Inc.). The case was actually decided in late February, but the GAO’s decision was delayed for release until recently, due to a protective order issued in the case.

The crux of the matter, in this case, is quite simple: What is the definition of “late?”  Obviously, TCI and the government had different positions as to whether or not the company had submitted its proposal “on time.” And this was no laughing matter, as a contract valued at over $44 million dollars was at stake. Reading what happened in the TCI case though does read like a laughing matter – at least for those of us on the outside.

Both TCI and the government largely concurred on the facts of the case. In late September 2016, the U.S. Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command, through its SeaPort e-marketplace, put out an RFP (Request for Proposals) for support services for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. The contract was to be for an estimated $44 million. Only small businesses that had previously qualified as ID/IQ (indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity) contract holders/providers for these specific services with SeaPort could participate in the RFP.  All was normal until the afternoon of November 8, 2016, which coincidently was the day of the 2016 Presidential election – although no one involved claimed that had anything to do with what transpired shortly after 2 o’clock that day.

First, let’s go over a little necessary background from the GAO decision on the “rules of the game” on how SeaPort operates:

The Navy’s SeaPort-e portal provides a standardized means for competitively soliciting, awarding, and managing task orders from a diverse population of businesses and their approved team members. The SeaPort guide provides detailed instructions for using the SeaPort-e portal to vendors holding multiple award ID/IQ contracts… The SeaPort guide indicates that engaging the “Submit Signed Proposal” button submits a proposal. The guide also states that before submitting a signed proposal, an offeror must accept an agreement to legally bind the company to its submission… The SeaPort guide indicates that proposals will no longer be accepted once an event, i.e., an invitation to submit proposals in response to a solicitation, reaches the closing time set in the solicitation. The guide provides that when the invitation to submit proposals closes, all users with draft proposals who have not submitted a final proposal prior to closing will receive an “event closed” notification.  

So what happened at 2:00 p.m. on that fateful election day? Both TCI and the government agree that the company had indeed uploaded its draft proposal in the SeaPort e-portal – as had three other interested parties. However, unlike it competitors, none of TCI’s designated representatives took that final step of hitting the “Submit Signed Proposal” button prior to the 2 o’clock deadline. What is extremely interesting is what took place between 2:00 and 2:01 p.m. Based on the system’s activity logs, two designated representatives from TCI – the company’s president and its senior contract analyst both tried to hit that submit button in that 60-second time span! While no evidence was revealed in the GAO’s decision in the case as to what prompted these two company officials to attempt to finalize the company’s entry in the seconds after the absolute 2:00 p.m. deadline, one can only imagine that a calendar prompt on a phone, tablet, or computer had something to do with them scrambling to make final their company’s proposal in the SeaPort system! However, the e-portal “locked down” as of the 2:00 p.m. deadline, and TCI’s proposal was not allowed to be submitted as it was simply too late – the clock had expired!

Over the course of the next few hours, TCI scrambled unsuccessfully to stay in the competition. Both over the phone and by email, TCI made contact with the contract officer on the acquisition, stating that they had unsuccessfully tried to engage the “submit” button, claiming that there must have been a system issue that prevented company officials from doing so. Even so, TCI expressed that it was willing to be bound by the draft proposal it had previously uploaded to the SeaPort e-portal – even if it had not been able to, in effect, “sign” the proposal. The contracting officer made an inquiry to the system administrator as to whether there had been any system issue that would have prevented TCI from accessing the submit button, but no outage or connectivity issues were found. Thus, late that same afternoon, TCI was sent an email from SeaPort stating that:  “an event for which you created a draft proposal has closed without you completing the final submission process. As a result, the draft will not be considered.”

So thus, being left out of this multimillion dollar award competition, TCI took the legal route, contesting that its proposal should have been considered by the Naval Sea Systems Command. In the end however, their bid protest fell on deaf ears as no extenuating circumstance was found. In an excellent commentary on the case for National Defense Magazine, Julia Lippman and Jason Workmaster, government contracting lawyers with Covington & Burling LLP observed that in this instance, the GAO “simply reiterated its long-standing rule that, when it comes to proposal submissions, ‘late’ means ‘late.’”  

The Takeaway

At the end of the day then, what should the takeaway be from all of this? I do think that there is indeed an important, yet simple, lesson to be learned from this case that is a tragicomedy of errors for all of us outside the company. However, inside the company, this mistake of being less than a minute late hasreal consequences – making it a very real, sad instance for the executives and employees at TCI. It was an error that cost the company at a legitimate shot at tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Thus, due to the size and nature of the potential Navy contract for the company, the expiration of the clock may mean that not just real revenue, but very real jobs are now in jeopardy due to the clock running out on TCI and its executives.

And yet, 2:00 came and went, and the final step in the submission process – hitting that Submit Signed Proposal” – was not carried out that fateful election day. But why did TCI’s fate ever come down to that moment – or seconds – of truth, when there was simply no need for their proposal for potentially millions of dollars in revenue to ever be in jeopardy by the clock striking midnight – or 2:00 pm. in this case?

Not go “cranky middle-aged professor” on the situation, but what happened that afternoon in the offices of TCI in Alpharetta, Georgia is a emblematic of a much larger problem that we see – and suffer from – all too often today. Whether we are talking about students in the college environment, workers in the office environment, or top execs in the C-suite, the same “wait till the last minute” – or even the last fraction of a second mentality – governs how we work today. Think about it. If you asked Coach Bill Belichick whether he would rather have comfortably won Super Bowl 51 or to have seen his Patriots win Super Bowl LI through the largest comeback in the game’s history, you know the legendary coach would pick the former.

In the case of TCI, their executives were not bidding in a reverse auction for the Navy’s business; they were simply needing to click the button to finalize their proposal submission for the multimillion dollar contract. There was no real need for the clock to be involved in their decision-making – at all. There was no advantage to be gained for their company to be “last in” with their bid, as there was no pricing advantage to coming in just under the clock. The company could have submitted its proposal minutes, hours, days, even weeks before the designated date/time. There was simply no need for the deadline to come into play – at all. In fact, due to the nature of the IDIQ contract they were bidding on – one that is not a simple “win/lose” proposition, it is highly likely that TCI would have received at least a portion of the over forty million dollar award, making the clock running out on them all the more indefensible.

The takeaway here then is simple. Ignore the media/societal influences that surround us: the SportsCenter highlights of last-second shots and the commercials where someone “clicks for the win” as the clock expires or comes through in the clutch in a business meeting simply because of the hotel chain they stayed in last night. In real life – even in the connected, “always on” world in which we live, success comes not in the last 1% – or even .01% of the time. Rather, those old virtues – preparation, diligence, attention to detail, and yes, planning ahead – do still mean more to your success – and that of your work team, your unit, your company, your agency, etc. – than the ability to “come through in the clutch.”

Simply put, never put yourself in the situation where you have to make that come through in the last second situation. That advice from your momma and “Larry the Cable Guy” was right: “Git-R-Done!” Don’t look upon the deadline as the time to do something – finish what you start and move on to the next task!


Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

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