The Incumbent Advantage: A Barrier to Innovation and the Power Dynamics of Grant Reviews

A funny cartoon shows two guys pushing and pulling a cart with two square wheels. Another guy walks up to them carrying two round wheels, and he asks if they would like an improvement that will move the cart faster and easier. The guys pushing the cart respond 'no thanks, we are too busy to…

A funny cartoon shows two guys pushing and pulling a cart with two square wheels. Another guy walks up to them carrying two round wheels, and he asks if they would like an improvement that will move the cart faster and easier. The guys pushing the cart respond 'no thanks, we are too busy to make any changes now'.

This cartoon illustrates that an innovation is not only about creating a new process, service, or product. It must also come at a time when an organization is ready, and current contractors (like the square wheels) have an advantage of familiarity.

Proposal reviewers often appreciate innovation. However, they can afford to be liberal and open to change in comparison to contracting officers. Reviewers exist externally to operations with different vested interests and biases. They do not work with the project that they are reviewing day-in and day-out.

The role of a review board ends once a proposal passes a threshold score. At this point, the funding decision shifts to budget and the fund organization's officers, where nine times out of ten they will choose an organization that they know.

Continuing with a known team reduces risk with fewer processes to learn, greater acceptance of identified problems, tested channels of communication, and familiar personalities.

It takes a conscience, active decision by a number of decision-makers within a fund organization to replace a vendor.

If you are unsure if a fund organization is actively looking to change, then read the announcement to determine if it aligns with the strengths of an incumbent. Read it without thinking about what you would do differently.

Does the announcement emphasize current processes and have they made decisions regarding basic methods for conducting the work? If you can get information on how the project currently operates, compare that information with what is in the announcement.

Keep in mind that the employee will have generated lessons-learned and future directions through the contract. These ideas may be incorporated into the announcement as desired innovations, playing to the incumbents strengths and previous preparation.

Leaders in all fields need to understand the relationship between innovation and power because without this understanding investments will be made in innovations that do not have much chance of succeeding. If you lack information about anything to submit a proposal for a continuation of a project, err on the side of patience and save your resources for another day.