Editor’s Note: James M. Baehr, is president of Sourcing Strategies Group LLC
“What’s the difference between a successful Procurement transformation and one that falls short of expectations?” Several weeks ago, I was asked this question and answered with “let me think about that and I’ll get back to you.” My immediate response was going to be “execution” but the voice in my head told me “not so fast”. As promised I gave the question more thought. Based on experience, I was leaning to “attitude” as best the answer. Why? Because, the three most effective transformations with which I’ve been associated all represented a “can do” attitude.
There’s no escaping that Procurement transformations are all about People, Process and Technology. For more than three decades we’ve been driven by process as executed by people. Technology, to this point in time, has been more an enabler. Originally, it was mastering the overall processes that go into a transformation that mattered most. It represented a new way of doing things, exemplified by the legendary recommendation for Procurement to become Supply Management.
As the processes became more standardized and repeatable the focus shifted to the people, and how transformations could capitalize on the increasing reservoir of experience and expertise. This made it more about people and how they would be at the core of a transformation. Therefore, my inclination to stand by my original thinking that the “attitude” of the people involved is the keystone for success.
Back to the three most effective transformations – it seemed best to rule out the one where I was directly affected as a practitioner. Too much of a bias. As for the other transformations – they’re polar opposites – one was in the private sector the other in the public. One was driven by a sense of urgency – the need to survive. The other was driven by persona – the entity was, and still is, recognized for its recurrent accomplishments and a commitment to continuous improvement. How could two groups, on remote ends of the same spectrum, both be successful? The answer must be – attitude.
Didn’t William James, the American philosopher and psychologist tell us … “It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.”
Attitude 1 – A sense of urgency
John Kotter has been telling us for years that creating a sense of urgency is essential to transformation. Sometimes you don’t need to create it. Sometimes it comes to you. This company faced some major financial challenges in a market under duress. Across the company, changes needed to be made and there was a compelling opportunity to transform Supply Management. Everyone in the company, at all levels, was called upon to be engaged, not just the Procurement group. Everyone responded by embracing the concept and supporting the initiative. The Procurement professionals jumped in and led by example. While fear of the company collapsing was undoubtedly a motivator, it was very evident that this team – leaders, professionals and stakeholders all had the right stuff and the right attitude.
Attitude 2 – The “we’re good at what we do” persona
Many transformations are driven by an admission that something is dysfunctional in the grand scheme of the business enterprise. Some are driven by a willingness to go from good to better. This public entity is recognized as a front-runner in much of what it does – operationally and functionally. The leadership looked at how Supply Management was being handled and saw the opportunity to improve. During transformations one often encounters the declaration “we’re good at what we do” immediately followed by “so we don’t need to do this”. For this entity the statement was the same; however, the follow-up was “but, we can do better”. And, they did. Again, everyone throughout the entity was engaged and onboard with the change. The right attitude?
Based on these reflections I was convinced that attitude is the correct answer to the question. The difference between a successful transformation and a failed one must be attitude. Then the voice in my head again said, “not so fast – are you sure you understand the meaning of attitude”. This prompted some research. I didn’t understand the meaning of attitude, especially not in this context and probably still don’t. But, there was one representation that resonated with me. It was the iceberg. Having used the iceberg over many years to explain Total Cost of Ownership it seemed to me a good way of looking at attitude.
Together with beliefs and values, attitude drives behaviors. We can see behaviors, we can influence behaviors and behaviors can influence us. While attitude is important it’s behaviors that make the difference. The behaviors demonstrated throughout these two successful transformations were representative of the complete package – values, beliefs and attitudes. It’s probably safe to say that if one of the components was missing, or at best weak, the behaviors wouldn’t have been the same. So, while it’s likely this thinking is debatable, it may just be behaviors that shape a successful transformation.
Doing the research required to write this piece, some personal suppositions were shattered.
Shattered Supposition #1 – Attitude is everything – There are many good quotes that convey attitude is what it takes to make good things happen. But, to succeed at transforming, behaviors are the difference because they represent beliefs, values and attitudes.
Shattered Supposition # 2 – It’s all about execution – Execution of processes is critical but execution without the right behaviors is no more than going through the motions and is unlikely to deliver the desired outcomes.
Shattered Supposition # 3 – Transformations are about people and by people – This may be true about most transformations, at least to this point in time. However, there’s a new reality coming quickly. Where technology, in the past has enabled transformations, going forward transformations will be driven by technology. This will require a significant shift in thinking and strategy.
For the next wave of Supply Management transformations, we will see behaviors challenged more than ever before. Nonetheless, behaviors may still be the difference between a successful transformation and a failed one.