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Small Businesses and Washington, DC: An Integrated Approach

Many small businesses were shocked to see DoD guidance issued just after Labor Day, directing that Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards be suspended by September 30th (unless Congress renewed SBIR authorization, which it now will since Senator Paul removed his objections). It’s unfortunate that this caught so many off guard and it highlights a broader problem. 


First, what’s at stake? SBIR authorization extends across government, but its use is most pronounced in DoD. The authorization must be renewed periodically by Congress. Many months ago, several members of Congress—the charge led by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)—proposed elimination or dramatic changes to the program. This is not a new concern by a minority of Congress. The concerns focus primarily on funded activities that will knowingly never advance to programmatic status, and the proliferation of “SBIR mills.” A SBIR mill is a small business that serves only as a shell to channel SBIR funds to other companies. The channeling action produces a skim or tax of some percentage of the subject funds.

The odds of a phase I SBIR award advancing to program status approach 1000:1. Those are indeed long odds. However, SBIR is about innovation. Perhaps the measure of interest should not be about which technologies survive to reach a program status. Rather, the measure should be of the technology’s viability or non-viability. It’s fair to say some adjustments to the program are in order. In fact, the pending FY23 SBIR policy legislation from the Senate Armed Services Committee directs DoD to report on proposed changes to the program by May 2023.

The bigger issue for small business is not this particular program; it’s their lack of a relationship with Congress. Life was great while the funding flowed, but few were curious enough to understand where and how it really originates before it flows. A relationship with Congress, integrated with the relationship with Industry and Agency, is critical for any business. Small business is no exception.

An Integrated Approach to Washington, DC for Small Businesses

I created Capitol Currency® to help smaller businesses get their heads and arms around these critical concepts of an integrated approach to Washington, DC. For the cost of attending one trade show, a small business leader can get a much better understanding about the processes they have little or no awareness.


Here is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Alan Weiss and my newest book, Million Dollar Influence: How to Drive Powerful Decisions through Language, Leverage, and Leadership:

The Dynamics of the Deal

The authority figure in a business deal can appear murky or even opaque when first approaching an opportunity. Chapter 2 illustrates that one can delegate authority but not accountability. The accountable individual may not be the decider. It may appear logical that the buyer is at the top of the organization chart; however, applying that logic would suggest the CEO does it all. You’ll need to dig deeper.

A constellation of people surrounds the actual buyer in most decisions, planets circling the sun. In business decision mapping, there are gatekeepers, decision influencers, and decision enablers, each of whom can play a role in influencing a decision. Understanding the decision-making process can guide your moves, but the precision and efficacy of your language will carry the day. First, let’s look at some organizations you’re likely to encounter.


Understanding the environment will aid in your success. Hierarchical organizations allow for top-down, centralized management and at least a perception of control by those at the top. In a hierarchical organization, functional leads such as marketing, sales, research, and R&D often report directly to the CEO or a COO. Most people you initially meet in B2B or B2G are looking up to a boss.

A leadership team typically confers about strategy and solutions among themselves and sometimes with board members, then sends the directions downward. Good governance requires a level of board engagement. However, an adjunct subcommittee of seniors often looks at a challenge first, thereby diluting some accountability before the task(s) are sent downhill. In the wrong hands, a challenge worthy of quick action can fall victim to a committee intent on admiring the problem further.

Teams always have a formal or informal leader, as do committees, as do boards, as do “executive councils.” It’s not necessarily “majority rule” but often “which way is the wind blowing for the leader.” Click To Tweet

Product leaders are an additional option to assign accountability. For example, within a hierarchy, Apple assigns product leaders for categories like services, Mac, or iPhone. Scrum management also uses product areas as lines of demarcation within a matrixed organization. Think of product organization horizontally, not vertically. Product organizations all tap into the shared functions listed above.

In many small businesses with annual revenues below $50 million and headcount below 500, the president (or founder) is most often the default final decision-maker. The organization chart may say one thing, but the informal power of the small business president will always be evident. Even with the delegation of authority, if proposing something new or outside the existing plan, the delegated authority in smaller businesses will prove inadequate.

In government settings such as federal agencies or even a congressional office, “ownership” of issues is typically defined by program, project, or portfolio—at least on paper. In government, the actual owner of the issue is the person or entity controlling the relevant line of the budget. It’s etched in stone in government if something has no funding, it’s not real. When you identify who can change budget allocations, you are closing in on where the power lies.

The test for whether you have found the decision-maker is confirmation that they have both authority and means. Click To Tweet

If you are a corporate executive or aspire to be one, you may recognize the power that accompanies control of funds in your immediate circle. You have a boss or bosses to whom you answer for tasking. But which of those people controls your paycheck? The person who determines whether your raise will be an additional .05% or 15% or whether you will receive a maximum or token bonus, or a “pink slip,” is your real boss. Think about it.

Equally important in any organization is the informal power that flows in all directions. It may take any of several forms and stem from a variety of individuals:

  • The person who invented a technology
  • The rainmaker whose behavior is abhorrent but who brings in sales
  • The boss’s son or daughter, or anyone with the family name in a family business
  • The person who is perceived to have a special relationship with a client or customer
  • A former college roommate or friend
  • A fellow veteran who may have served together with someone in authority
  • A former government official who is now on the company payroll
  • Any member of an “advisory committee” to the board or leadership
  • In government, political appointees with particular allegiances (party, elected official, future aspirations)

Informal relationships can permeate any organization chart. Appreciating the impact of informal power on the organization will save you time and frustration. Applying Million Dollar Influence requires that you discern how the organization works.


You may not notice that your actions are a part of a broader campaign that’s continually unfolding. Your attire, demeanor, words, actions, and reputation continually represent you to the buying constellation. You may not yet recognize who the buyer is. You may not even acknowledge you’re selling. Million Dollar Influence is a form of selling. While you are trying to identify who can make decisions, the people on the other side are sizing you up as well.

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