Tuesday 14 March 2017

How to have a flourishing procurement garden

Metaphor is such a powerful tool for facilitating change - it can get overlooked as too fluffy or even too unconventional.

I believe you ignore metaphor as a business change management tool at your peril.

Ignore it at your peril that is if, where you or your team currently are is not where you'd like them to be.

Change is hard, and resistance to change all too common, and yet change management is often overlooked when exploring either how to bridge the gap from where you are to where you want to be or, how to resolve the challenges being faced to get there. (Follow the hypertext link for more on Implementing change using Kotter's 8 step process for leading change).

I don't want to repeat the whole of an earlier post on metaphor, but if you'll forgive me repeating the main reason why metaphor is so good at facilitating change, it's because it bypasses the following beliefs:
  • We've always done it like this
  • If it ain't broke don't fix it
  • We tried that before, and it didn't work then
  • But what will I do then
  • I like doing it this way 
  • It won't work
  • We're not going there 
  • I don't want to talk about it
  • I'm bored about talking about it
  • No
Or other variants in the same vein that mean we defend our position, and reinforce our current point of view. All beliefs that make it hard to be able to stand back, get some perspective and find a solution.

When using a metaphor we are asked to put the current real life situation to one side, along with those unhelpful beliefs, and consider what a solution within the metaphor looks like. As we explore the art of the possible within the metaphorical situation we leave our resistance and preconceived ideas to one side. 

Metaphors also carry a large amount of information within them - I like to say if a picture paints a thousand words then a metaphor paints a thousand pictures. Which means it's laden with potential to be unlocked and applied to the real life situation we're comparing it to.

For 20 years I've successfully used gardening as a metaphor for supplier management with non-procurement managers. It has worked because those managers know more about gardening than they do procurement. There's much to learn, especially when they realise we do mow, prune, weed, feed, mulch, water and put plants in the greenhouse, and yet often fail to do the same for suppliers.

No surprise therefore that non-procurement managers become more accommodating of procurement's involvement once they've explored a garden full of suppliers in a session.

As part of the series where I'm using unconventional tools to provide a different perspective to procurement challenges I wondered what gardening might have to add to the resolution of these challenges.
First a more general exploration of our procurement garden full of suppliers with a few vlogs from the archives:

The challenge many of us face is we may have a procurement garden like this:
Or suppliers who are just like these dandelions: 
Or this rhubarb
The answer may lie in companion planting
or ensuring adequate KPIs are implemented?
or providing sufficient support to suppliers? 
Examples that I hope have provided you with an understanding of the power of metaphor.

You may find reading the guiding principles will also help provide guidance on beliefs or actions that will help you in getting something from the above or following explorations. In essence using these tools just provides a different perspective from which to view the current situation - which may or may not provide additional insight.

I wondered how might gardening apply to some of the challenges people raised in the LinkedIn discussion I posted. 

We'll only know if I try.... Although first I think we need to put the idea of suppliers being plants to one side and explore gardening afresh. 
  • Behavioural procurement: All plants are unique. A successful gardener needs to understand the different needs of the different plants, and to then provide the right conditions for growth for each of them. The same is certainly true when dealing with people, and yet easier to remember when dealing with plants than dealing with people. Perhaps because as a fellow plant we assume other plants. think and behave the same as we do. (Another post in the series takes an alternate viewpoint to consider how we can release the bad cop image.)
  • Talent: Plants also meet different gardening needs - for example you wouldn't expect a rose bush to do the same job as an oak tree. We do however sometimes expect this of our teams. Which is okay if all you want is ground cover, or to simply fill up the garden. If you want variety, year round colour, highs and lows, interest, features, fragrance or simply grass that will cope with the kids playing football on it then you need to careful select your plants/people. One size fits all will never work. (Another post in the series takes a different perspective to look at how to resolve the issue of talent.)      
  • Talent: Plants grow if we give them the right conditions for growth - we need to understand what these conditions are, and which of those conditions we can realistically provide. Living in Scotland I certainly know many plants I could grow in Yorkshire would just not survive here. It's the same with people - each person is motivated by and requires different things. We can't just provide a sheep dip like approach, and hope to keep everyone happy. 
  • Expanding the vision of what's possible: If we're doing this in the context of a garden then I think of Kew gardens, Chelsea Flower Show, or someone going on expeditions into the Peruvian mountains to bring back cultivars to experiment with in the greenhouse - where success and failure are close companions. For me 'expanding the vision' doesn't get done within the garden but outside it - and if successful is only then applied to a small part of the garden first to see what happens. If as a result of a successful trial we bring in new plants, the old plants being replaced are composted or moved to another garden. Interesting to consider this applied to our teams - where expansion of the vision can't come when they're doing their day job. Only by having time outside the garden can they hope to develop the skills, to test, trail and be able to get things wrong so that their vision of what is possible is expanded. If we've changed the vision we may also need different plants. (Another post in the series has taken an alternative view on how to get procurement to expand their thinking about what's possible.)
The aim, as with any of the unconventional tools, would be not to critique nor judge the ideas just yet. To continue with the metaphor and expand the options and perspectives. To keep going, be open, have fun, and just use the metaphor and dig into those thousand pictures to unlock what may be hidden - to find and nurture that kernel of an idea that might just make a difference. There will be plenty of time to critique later, and that's when you can discard the unhelpful.
  • Shape the strategic agenda: Let's assume the garden is part of a wider stately house and garden that's open to the public. The aim of those responsible for running the garden then becomes ensuring that the paying public want to visit the garden as much as the house. They'd achieve this by having year round interest, interesting and rare plants, well maintained gardens, a great set of web pages showing the results of their efforts, special events (for red nose day, bank holidays, Chelsea flower show, quizzes for children and so on). As a result of these efforts there would be no possibility of being omitted from the strategic review for the stately house, because the garden would be a key part of the leadership team. Isn't that true for procurement? If we focus on the reliance on the organisation of the suppliers we engage then we should be a key part of the strategic agenda. Perhaps that's where we've got it wrong in the past - focusing on the price of the plants rather than their positive impact once planted! I suspect there could be much much more behind this exploration if a few people were to get into a room to expand it further. It's one drawback of trying to share the efficacy of the tools here - it's just me typing, and therefore just me inputing ideas too! Events and internal marketing come to mind too. Although there is a whole other exploration we could have about whether procurement are the general gardeners or the landscape gardeners - although I suspect landscape gardeners don't worry about whether they're part of the strategic agenda or not? (A post from the archives on No seat at the table may also provide an alternate and unconventional perspective.)
  • Maximising value rather than minimising costs: I think the above exploration provides some insight to this. We're focusing on the cost of the plants, as are some of our stakeholders. Where the focus should be is on the performance of the plants once they're planted and in situ. Use of metaphor might be a useful means of conveying to stakeholders where the focus is currently, and where it should be. (Although a more conventional means might be to show them the horror stories of procurement gone wrong.) 
  • Getting early engagement of stakeholders: I think these last 3 points are aligned when viewed from the stately home/garden metaphor point of view. Early engagement is a given if plant selection, location, and the general theme of the garden and it's events are seen as central to stakeholders doing their job well. We just have to find a means of doing this within our own organisations. (Another post in the series has taken an alternative view to why experts are ignored.)
How did you get on? What did you notice?

Did any of these suggestions help you understand what you might be missing? Or perhaps reading these ideas had you going off on a tangent that provided some additional insight? There's no right or wrong just thought processes that take us on a journey that may uncover something we've been missing, and that may just be the difference that makes the difference. 

One of these days I may think of a way of getting pipe cleaners into this series :-). They're certainly a very powerful coaching tool that removes the blocks for individuals in their 1:1 and 1:3 coaching sessions - if the evidence of recent weeks are anything to go by.

Alison Smith
The Purchasing Coach
Unlocking personal, procurement & organisational potential using unconventional tools  

Hypertext links shown in the post take you to blogs on the subject highlighted.

I'd be very happy to further discuss your 1:1 coaching, 1:3 coaching, training, facilitation needs to support your team unlocking their personal, procurement and organisational potential. alison@alisonsmith.eu +44 (0)7770 538159

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