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3 Elements to Create a Collaborative Culture

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Do you know what makes a culture? There are reasons why you should consider it to  develop a collaborative environment? Several factors make up cultures, such as habits, preferences, styles, unwritten codes of behavior, etc.  One thing I learned while leading transformations was that it is the leader that sets the tone. When I hear the saying, “culture eats strategy for lunch,” I can relate. When strategies and culture do not align, change may have a short life span. 

The leader sets the tone and that tone trickles down to everyone in the organization.  People have different personalities. Each person will contribute his/her character to the composite of the organization’s culture.  If it is a positive tone, people will be inspired to collaborate, care, and add value to each other.  The people will make this part of their daily behavior.

On the other hand, if the tone is of distrust and negativity, It will also trickle down and may be perceived as a toxic culture.  The culture of an organization impacts its customers, both internal and external.   People tend to give what they receive; therefore, this is one reason why it is vital to treat employees the way we want them to treat customers.  

Many organizations treat the symptom by providing customer service training.  Although it is a valuable investment, in some cases, not knowing how to treat customers may not be the cause of substandard customer service.  I worked for an agency that had the worst customer service record in the organization.  As a new hire, my task was to turn the organization around and fix the customer service issue.  After brief conversations and observations, I concluded that the customer service issue was merely a symptom of a more significant problem.  The root cause was the leadership style and the negativity that permeated throughout the organization.

Resolving the customer service issue required a fresh start with a new leadership style, shielding staff from the negativity that flowed from higher levels in the organization, and training.  The change in leadership gave everyone the incentive to recommit to their role and approach daily situations with the same consideration and care they were now receiving.  Changing culture is not a quick process.  It requires time for each individual to experience and adopt a new set of unwritten rules for behavior that comes from appreciation, choice, and communication.

1-Appreciation: One way to start changing a toxic culture is by helping people feel appreciated and supported for their work. Regardless of whether it is their responsibility to perform their respective roles, people need to feel that they contribute to something bigger than themselves and their contribution matters.  In his hierarchy of needs model, Maslow identified the need to belong and be appreciated as every individual’s psychological needs.  Naturally, individuals are happier about their environment if it meets their psychological needs.  

Coming up the ranks, I encounter environments where the person in the leadership position offered a constant reminder that everyone’s job security is in the hands of management. The threat to stability puts at risk a person’s means for fulfilling his/her basic need for food and shelter.  Fortunately, many organizations understand the relationship between treating people with respectful appreciation and customer service quality.  When people are happy, the chances for better customer service increase; it starts with the leader.

2-Personal choice and commitment:  Everyone must see something in the leader or environment that compels them to recommit to their job. Each person has a choice. It is the leader’s responsibility to gain the trust of the team.  Each person’s commitment to the group will have a positive compounding effect and help change the culture.  It is a one-event at a time process.  It takes time to change the culture of a government organization.  I benefited from being a new sign of hope for the team.  I didn’t expect to see immediate changes, but I offer them hope for a better future and a new organization.  No one will change on command; it is an individual process, and it happens only if the individual chooses to do so.  Getting buy-in is vital to the transformation process.  

There are a few examples of organizations that have a collaborative culture.  One of them is Chick-A-Filet.  Just visit their drive-through and experience a happy culture.  I don’t usually eat fast food but became curious after hearing a speaker talk about the company’s leadership and their effort to create a collaborative culture. 

3-Communication: Communication is essential in any change process, especially when you strive to have a culture where collaboration is at the center of all success.  Communicating freely in all directions within the organization is necessary to develop an environment of cooperation, trust, and excellence.  It is an excellent idea to provide communication training to make interactions more significant, given the diversity of personalities and backgrounds.  When people understand how to communicate more effectively with others, they can develop better relationships.  One way to help people identify how to communicate with others with different personalities is to offer them the opportunity to take an assessment, whether DISC, Whole Brain, or any other.  The appraisal’s objective is not to pigeon-hole the person into their style, but to offer recommendations on how to best blend their style to more effectively communicate with people with a different personality profile.

To summarize, culture consists of many factors, including personality styles, leadership cues, and the overall environment created overtime.  To change the culture, it takes time and intentional effort by the leader and every individual that makes up the organization.  Showing appreciation for work performed goes a long way to creating a positive environment, which then translates into the service provided to its internal and external customers. Changing the culture also requires the individual commitment of those in the organization, including leadership. Finally, communication is an important factor throughout the change process and maintains the level of collaboration desired by the organization.    The team should communicate in all directions to increase the effectiveness of the team and benefit the organization. Communication is the door to change and, therefore, should be consistent and frequent.

The Principles of Growth and Procurement Transformation

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Transformation and growth go together, and awareness is a prerequisite for development.  I found this to be true throughout my career in public service.  Both personal and organizational development requires the understanding that there is the potential to expand our capabilities and perform at a higher level.  We may have a natural talent in some areas.  But talent alone does not determine the level of performance or success. It is necessary to cultivate and develop those talents.  We all have high potential to become more and do more, but we each choose to use that potential.  I read in several sources that we use anywhere between 10% to 40% of our potential. I can only imagine how much more we would accomplish it we use another 20% of our capabilities.  It is a daily choice that we make to set our priorities and determine how we spend our time.  It is easier to go about life underperforming than elevate our game and take a more challenging path, a path that can lead us to achieve extraordinary things.

Some of us may have lofty goals of making a mark in the world by leaving our leadership legacy for our family, colleagues, and our profession.  Some of us want our existence to matter by making the contributions that future generations can enjoy.  If our goal is to leave a mark in the world, we need to stay relevant, and to remain relevant, we must continue to evolve into the best possible version of ourselves. But growth is change, and change is uncomfortable. 

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

I led a mastermind with a group of procurement professionals. A mastermind is a group of like-minded people who come together to share and discuss ideas and concepts. The book that we studied was “The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth” by Dr. John C. Maxwell.  As I gathered with colleagues and friends, it is refreshing to learn that many want to continue to learn, grow, and make a difference.  We all struggle with the day-to-day and perhaps mundane tasks that often get in the way of our growth.  Sometimes we wonder why we’re not further along in our career or other aspects of life.  I think the answer to that is in our daily schedule, our habits, and routines.  The choices that we make today reveal the results tomorrow. 

The reason these are laws is that they apply in every situation. I am now putting this book in the context of team transformation, and I believe that these laws are applicable based on my experience. There is a reason why they are considered laws. The awareness step always preceded any transformation plan, at least, those I led.  It was necessary to assess and take inventory of the conditions and circumstances that led the team to the present state.  Reflecting on the past helped take stock of the present conditions of the team and their performance.  This reflection and observations helped identify the gap between the vision for the future and the current state.  Understanding the gap helped me develop a path forward.  The purpose of the goals for growth was to help the team become people who could achieve the vision.  Change, of course, was necessary.

In my opinion, John Maxwell’s laws of reflection, intentionality, and awareness are present in the initial assessment exercise.  If we want to grow, it is necessary to take inventory of where you are, determine where you want to be, and be intentional about taking steps that move us towards the desired state. The law of the mirror comes into play when the organization decides to invest in the procurement team’s transformation. From the organizational perspective, those making the decision see sufficient value in the procurement function to invest in it.  

Interestingly, these laws apply both at the group level and the individual level. Each individual in the organization needs to self-assess where they are and where they want to go.  Once they identify the gap, they can design their growth journey.  Individual awareness goes beyond professional goals.  Taking a hard look at themselves in every aspect of their lives is ideal.  Understanding where we are is vital because we cannot change what we don’t know is broken or no longer serves us. Having awareness is the first step, but we must also take action. Action has to be very intentional to move us in the direction of our vision for the future.  

Another law that I found revealing was the law of the environment.  I can relate this law to the culture of the organization.  The atmosphere within the team may or may not be conducive to growth and development.  In an organization, everyone influences everyone else.  When each member of the organization is at a higher level of awareness and has the right leadership in promoting an environment of collaboration, that environment will be conducive to growth.   This particular law says that “growth thrives in conducive environments.” We don’t select our co-workers, but a team environment can make change possible. If the people around us are on a growth journey, the chances for the team’s collective growth are more significant.

We see the law of the rubber band in the tension created by growth.  Change is difficult, and development requires change.  This tension between the comfort zone and the unknown translates into growth both individually and collectively. When we stretch our abilities, we are essentially learning and growing.  Challenging situations offer us tremendous growth opportunities.  Being in that tension stage is very challenging, particularly for the most tenured staff.  Imagine going from the most knowledgeable in the room to having to re-learn your job!  Although you are always the most knowledgeable in the group, there is no tension and, therefore, not growth.  This tension stage is uncomfortable, but as the rubber band, individuals add the most value to the organization.  This tension is a good thing even though there’s plenty of frustration.  To stay relevant, one must continue to grow and change.  This tension benefits everyone both individually and collectively. 

Growth tension can be maintained when each team member remains curious about the continuous improvement of processes and finding ways to bring best practices to the operation. Staying curious is an asset that will help keep the individuals in the team growing.  An environment that enables individuals to explore that curiosity will benefit the entire organization.

We can observe on the back end of the transformation process, the laws of expansion and contribution.  The result of the growing tension is the increased capabilities of the team and each individual.  As the group expands its capabilities in an environment conducive to growth, team members will want to share knowledge, particularly with new team members.  This mindset of sharing information, helping those around you, and contributing to others’ growth also helps individuals get a more in-depth understanding of what they have learned.  An environment of collaboration is beneficial when it comes to change.

To conclude, I think that all of the laws discussed in the book are important and very relevant both on an individual basis or a group basis.  I only mentioned a few of the 15 laws of growth.   These are present in the transformation process, starting with awareness, reflection, intentionality, and worth (law of the mirror) at the very beginning.  Growth comes from the tension caused by a change in an environment that supports collaboration and the continued curiosity for continuous improvement.  Finally, when team members can teach each other, their knowledge is elevated and helps create a culture of collaboration, growth, and development. 

The ABC Strategies for Procurement Transformation

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Change is certain in every aspect of life. A major change or transformation may present some complexities particularly when resources are scarce. In my 27-year government career, I had a chance to test a few strategies. There are some strategies that worked for me whenever I went to a new agency to lead a procurement transformation.  These became my “go to” strategies to initiate the process and show progress in critical areas.  The success of their implementation helped me gain the support for resources needed down the road and accelerate the momentum in the transformation process.  

Interestingly most if not all of the transformations that I led shared a similar vision:  to become a trusted partner in the entity.  That vision was certainly a very lofty one given the starting point of each transformation initiative.  In most cases procurement was considered a roadblock to the operation and/or had the worst customer service record.  My task was to substantially improve the role and performance of the procurement team within the entity.  Common objectives included enhancing the quality of the interaction with end users, which generally related to concerns about speed, quality, customer service, and the ever-changing process.   The success would be measured in each case by significantly reducing end user procurement-related complaints that were brought up to high level executives.  

At the other end of the spectrum, procurement personnel attributed the process delays to understaffing.  There were reasons to believe that.  Almost every organization had experienced the loss of personnel due to massive layoffs, retirements, high personnel turnover, or the lingering effects of budget cuts several years before.  It’s not easy to recover from the loss of positions.  This is particularly true when the organization attempts to continue operating in the same way as it did before the budgetary reductions.   Reductions in personnel will inevitably exaggerate the much talked about length of the procurement process. 

To make significant progress quickly, I tried to focus on the root cause(s).  Over time, I developed my ABC strategies.  These helped me follow a path that would positively impact the most pressing issues and score some wins in the transformation process.  When higher executives task a new hire with transforming a department, they don’t generally trust that it is possible with the current staff. No transformation happens overnight; therefore, dealing with root causes of the most pressing issues is essential.   The goal of the ABC change strategies was to do just that. 

A first step in the assessment of the situation was to determine where was the brain power being allocated.  Data, when available, is very helpful to support findings and measure the extent of inefficiencies.  But I found that some of these issues were obvious to an outsider because as someone said: “it’s hard to see the picture when you are in the frame”.  It didn’t surprise me when data showed that 80%  or more of the effort was being directed to activities that did not add value to the process.  This meant that only 20% or less of the effort was being directed to advance the more complex solicitations. In other words, personnel were busy taking care of repetitive, low value add work, while the large and/or complex projects waited for procurement expertise and attention.  Even when the group appeared busy all the time or productive, the apparent productivity was not producing the desired return for the entity.  

To complicate the matter, some of these organizations reacted to the symptoms of the problem by replicating procurement infrastructures at the end user level.   In my opinion, the strategy created additional budget demands overall and greater inefficiencies because personnel in these end user procurement groups were rarely offered formal procurement training.  It also exacerbated the problem because it disproportionately increased the number of people demanding time and attention from an already understaffed central procurement team.  

The A is for Automation. One of the first strategies that I looked at was to automate repetitive tasks and shift the brain power to procurements.  I considered short term and long term strategies in the area of technology.  The success of a short term strategy would help accelerate momentum in the transformation process and gain support for long term strategy later on.  Good will accumulated early in the process comes in handy when you are seeking funding support for long term comprehensive technology.  The objective was first to maximize any existing technology to reduce manual work and repetitive tasks.  In each instance, I was able to garner support for a lower dollar plug-and-play strategy to make significant impact particularly in the areas of speed and/or quality.  The short term strategy varied from agency to agency as it depended on what was already available.  There is a short window to obtain resources in a transformation process and time is of the essence for requesting needed resources.  Any investment is looked at more favorably when it is presented as an opportunity “enhance the buying experience of the end user”.

The B is for Believe in the capabilities of the team.  When an organization is set up to execute tasks, it will take some time before personnel feel empowered to think critically. It is a major shift.  Routine is disrupted and people have to unlearn and relearn their jobs. During this transition, it’s not uncommon for people to feel alone.  There is no  comfort in knowing that others are going through the same process.    Self-doubt and the feeling of inadequacy kicks in. The leader must believe in the people and encourage them through the growth period.    Offering training, personal development, coaching, and mentoring are essential.  The leader cannot be indifferent to the struggle of each person in the team.  Some are going to struggle more than others of course.  But once the first person breaks through some of the barriers that kept him or her performing at the task executor level, others will also be encouraged.  The key is to help people believe in themselves by believing in them.  In the end, critical thinking will help in the quality of the interaction with end users. Trust will start to develop one project at a time.  The increase in trust will give room for a more collaborative relationship with the end user and this collaboration will enable better customer service. This collaborative approach along with the training will also help improve the quality of solicitations, which will enable higher quality responses from suppliers.  There is a high return on training and empowering the right personnel.

The C is for Consistency.  This third strategy may seem simple and it should be.  A strategy for consistency is necessary up front, at least in all the transformations that I lead.  Part of the reason why there was distrust in the process was because end users received a different answer depending on who they asked.  The root cause of the inconsistency varied, but in all cases the variety in approaches had been considered acceptable and became the practice.  This was a consequence of people working like “islands” instead of a team.  Achieving consistency required a sequence of internal communication,  the progressive standardization of processes, and implementation of best practices learned through professional training.  The adoption of best practices was an opportunity to get everyone one the same page and working as a team.  As end users started receiving consistent guidance, their trust in the process increased.  Gaining that trust was important because it also helped gain support for other changes later in the transformation process.

To conclude, there are three issues that I focused on early in the transformation process: speed, quality, and consistency.  Using my ABC approach helped me focus in areas that made significant impact early in the transformation process and enable the support of other strategies by accelerating momentum in the process. Reaching that point of momentum is important because buy in becomes easier and people tend to be more forgiving when a strategy doesn’t go as planned.

Perspectives on Ethics

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Ethics is very important in every field, particularly in procurement. I want to first acknowledge the high ethical standards that my colleagues live by in the performance of their duties as public procurement officials. Many states and municipal level governments have adopted their own ethics laws. These laws generally prescribe principles that all public officials must abide by.  

Ethics has been talked about since ancient times. In Ancient Greece, Socrates was and still is considered the Father of Ethics. The ancient Greek term for ethics is êthos, which refers to character. Socrates’ teachings focused mostly on good and bad character traits; on virtues and vices. Plato also spoke about ethics from a virtue-based perspective. He argued that happiness and well-being are the highest goals of moral thought and conduct. Well-being is the result of a virtue-based pursuit of higher knowledge and fulfilling man’s social obligation to the common good.

Ethics shows up in your decision-making.  Twenty-five-hundred years after the eloquent work of the great thinkers, Larry Chonko, PhD, Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Texas, Arlington, defines four categories of ethical theory associated with decision making. Not everyone has the same ethics filters when making decisions.  

  • Deontology: People should adhere to their obligations and duties when making decisions.  
  • Utilitarianism: It is based on one’s ability to predict the consequences of an action. 
  • Rights: The highest priority is to protect the rights established by society or community.
  • Virtues: Focuses on a person’s character rather than any action that may deviate from normal behavior.

Three of these categories deal with the external aspect of ethics and what it looks like to be ethical. One of them focuses on the person and his/her core values.  Our interpretation of ethics is important because there are two different perspectives: policies and people. 

The first perspective deals with acceptable behavior based on external parameters, whether law or policy. These laws or policies help define how an action would be interpreted by others and what the potential consequences might be. Organizations have institutionalized ethics to establish principles that govern the behavior expected of its members.  This is often referred to as the code of ethics. In some jurisdictions, ethics is handled by the attorneys. I have nothing against that, someone needs to oversee that function. The point that I want to make is that ethics is not just about what’s legal or not. It is about what’s right and what’s wrong, which the law attempts to codify from the perspective of legality. 

A second perspective deals with a person’s character and the values that they live by. Integrity plays a big role in the result of an established ethics code.  Integrity is the person’s moral compass that guide their every action. It guides them in their decisions between what’s right and what’s wrong, even when no one is watching. Without minimizing the value of a code of ethics as guidance based on principles of good conduct and the behavior expected from each individual, people ultimately dictate the level of effectiveness of such ethics policies and laws.

A solid character makes trust possible. Character communicates consistency, potential, and respect. This is true for everyone, especially leaders.  It is hard, if not impossible, to trust a leader who does not consistently show inner strength. A person who is talented but has a weak character is like a time bomb that can cause significant damage. Having talent is not enough because people with weak character are not trustworthy. A person who does not have a strong inner compass cannot earn the respect of others. To achieve ethical behavior in an organization, personal inner values must align with ethics principles.  

In some instances, fraud, abuse, misconduct and overall unethical behavior still occur despite the ethics codes adopted by the organization. We have seen cases come up in the business world, government, media, entertainment, and even in the religious area. Most of the organizations where high profile scandals occurred had a code of ethics of some sort. Yet, those policies did not stop the wrongdoing that cost many their careers, reputation, and even freedom. Sure, anyone can make a mistake.  But these cases are not the result of a one-time mistake. They were the result of a series of  repeated actions… the wrong actions. The State of  Illinois took on an ethics reform initiative after corruption at the highest level planted doubt and distrust in government in general. Like Illinois, there have been other states and municipalities that have fallen victim of a scandal and tightened their ethics rules as a result.

These were actions by individuals who perhaps lost their way at some point in time and were overcome with the dark thoughts that they held deep inside.  What may lead a person to lose their way? Perhaps it is greed, the desire to get ahead at all cost, the thought that they will not get caught, or simply a weak moral compass. One can only speculate what the reasons might be.  I’m not here to judge their actions. I am sure there is more to the story than what’s been shared in each case. Why did they consider deceit as the best choice? Did they think they were choosing between right or wrong or did it not cross their mind? How did they justify the actions in their conscience? Were they not aware that the choice could harm others? These are questions that linger in my mind.  In each case, the fraudulent and deceitful actions were kept from public knowledge. I think that the reason why these actions were hidden is because those involved knew they were wrong. Perhaps their motives were stronger than their values, or maybe it is simply a character weakness.

Every profession has a code of ethics. As we have likely all observed first-hand or read about cases of unethical behavior, we know that a code of ethics may not prevent an individual from wrongdoing. But a formalized code provides guidance and a reminder of the type of behavior expected.

Ultimately, ethics is a personal matter. A person’s moral compass must point in the right direction for ethics policies to be truly effective. Having integrity, character, and being trustworthy is about the small things. Trust has a compounding effect. If a person can’t be trusted with small things, they definitely can’t be trusted with bigger things. A strong foundation can withstand the challenges of temptation. A reason why some people may struggle with issues of integrity is because they look outside themselves to explain character deficiencies. Integrity commits to character over personal gain. A person of high integrity will adhere to moral and ethical principles whether written or implicit.  

Most people want to do the right thing or at least, I choose to believe that. They want to live in peace and harmony with others. Then, what is the solution to minimize ethics breaches?  I don’t think that anyone has found the solution yet, but the reactionary approach is to enact more laws and implement tighter policies. These are all external solutions.  I don’t think that the problem is that people chose to conduct themselves unethical due to the lack of policies and laws.  No, I think it is a values issue. As such, it is an inside job.  

It starts with all of us and the behavior that we model for our children, particularly in their formative years. Perhaps we don’t think much of small infractions like cutting a line, forgetting to pay for an item and not rectifying the situation, watching a second movie while at the movie theater without paying for the second one, or telling the little white lies to get by or avoid an undesired task. It is about the little things. If the little things compound to build trust, they can also compound to build distrust. I believe that we should raise our awareness and take inventory of these small infractions. Even though these small infractions from a consequential perspective did not significantly harm anyone, we need to be intentional about taking action to keep these little wrongs from potentially having a negative effect in society.  I think that we are all responsible. Do I think there will no longer be a breach? No, I think that there will always be someone whose unchecked ambition will drive him/her to deceive others.  But any effort that we make will move our community in the direction for a better future and a make this a better place for future generations.

To conclude, people have different filters when it comes to ethics. There is an external perspective that focuses on the actions that we see and judge; and there is the internal factor that relates to our core values. Both perspectives are valid, and they complement each other. I don’t believe that you can have an effective ethics policy without people’s good moral compass. Ideally, external, prescribed behaviors and internal, personal values align to create a self-perpetuating ethical culture. Individual decisions and actions that consistently reflect institutionalized norms and personal value are the basis of integrity. Integrity fosters trust. And trust is the foundation of our relationships, society and government. 

I think a better way to look at ethics is by simply following the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Ethics is really about the golden rule!

Purposeful and Transparent Supplier Communication

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Procurement officials should develop good supplier relations in order to maximize the benefits to the organization. This is sometimes challenging due to agency practices associated with restrictions on external parties’ communications. The restrictions generally stem from cases where abuse and undue influence have plagued the procurement environment with bad press and public distrust. The result is a high level of caution almost to the detriment of the entity. In some cases, the reaction to experiences colored by improprieties either apparent or real are memorialized through the implementation of laws, rules or policies or the highly conservative interpretation of such laws, hindering the communication with suppliers. 

Procurement officers with a good moral compass understand how to navigate communications in a way that professionalism and high ethical standards are upheld. Likewise, suppliers who are seeking a long-term relationship understand that crossing the line could cost them much more than their business. I agree that ethical behavior should remain front and center when it comes to procurement-related conversations. I also believe that effective communication is the key to success in every facet of our lives, including business.  Unfortunately, in extreme cases the topics of ethics and conversation with suppliers appear as polar opposite and used as an excuse to avoid vendor meetings. This is not a strategic approach.  Instead, it is a missed opportunity.  

Regardless of the industry, effective communication is the key to developing successful business relationships. This is true whether prior to or after entering into a contract. Sharing unrestricted information is beneficial to both parties. 

Given the constant complaint of resource insufficiency, procurement professionals need to be more strategic about how they invest their time. Talking with suppliers is a form of primary market research. Leveraging the supplier’s market intelligence, for example, can help the procurement professional be more strategic.   

Procurement professionals’ expertise is in process and, with some exceptions, not in the intricacies of product or service details. Rapid changes in technology, goods and services make it challenging for procurement professionals to stay up to date on the benefits and features of new products. This is particularly the case when procurement professionals claim to be a “jack of all trades” in environments where resources are scarce. Absence of adequate resources may cause procurement professionals to try to juggle too many requests without the necessary tools, leaving very little time, if any, to conduct research to learn about any changes in the market.

The expectation of many procurement professionals is that the end user should provide clear and concise scope of services or detailed specifications. The rationale is that the end user is responsible for providing well-written specifications or at least know the essential requirements that need to be included in the solicitation. It might seem logical to assume that the end user is up to speed on current trends within their area of responsibility. Sadly, that’s not always the case. 

In my experience, receiving high quality specs is rare. Yet, we should be more empathetic. Technically, end users are subject to the same time and resource constraints that limit opportunities to learn about market changes and conditions as procurement professionals. Also, like procurement staff, end user personnel might also be required to restrict their communication with external parties.

Although the expectation is to put the knowledge burden on the end user, many procurement professionals dislike the thought of end users going directly to suppliers to obtain information. And when the end user has done so, the suspicion of  unfair advantage for a single or select group of vendors may come into play. I should point out that significantly restricting communication with suppliers whether by mandate or choice conflicts with the expectation of well written specifications.    

Conversations with suppliers is a form of market research. Although market research is a process that procurement professionals should employ frequently, the reality is that many are so overwhelmed with the number of requests that market research falls on the back burner. Realistically, not much market research is done on products or services that we consider routine. This situation is less than optimal particularly when a procurement is not successful due to outdated specification requirements. 

There is a solution to this dilemma. Develop a written protocol for supplier meetings. Procurement officer may consider formalizing supplier meeting practices.

A written protocol helps achieve consistency when meeting with suppliers. The protocol should be cross referenced with the agency’s ethics guidelines or policies and define how to appropriately meet and engage with suppliers to make the best use of each interaction. Adopting the new protocol as part of the written policy and procedures has the added benefit of institutionalizing a practice that ensures a level playing field for all suppliers, while giving staff a referenceable structure to guide their communications with suppliers.

Implementing the protocol can be aided by developing a supplier meeting form or guidelines. A supplier meeting form may be advantageous in that it provides an in-the-moment resource to guide each meeting, capture highlights of the meeting and/or essential information that can be used to document the meeting and offer the agency process transparency. The structure of the form can be simple.  It can capture general information, market research questions, and any action anticipated or taken.

  • General Information. This first section may capture general information such as the supplier’s name and contact personnel, the industry where they compete, and the category, product or service that they provide. The form can also include the name of attendees and the date of the meeting.
  • Market Research Questions. The purpose of this section is a to remind the procurement professional to ask relevant questions regarding the industry and help him/her be more intentional about the meeting. Questions may relate to trends, changes, and industry innovations. Possible questions to include: 
    • What are some of the trends in the industry, and what should procurement professionals be looking to adjust in their solicitations? (i.e. economic trends, import/export issues, environmental requirements, new technology)
    • Is there any legislation that could potentially impact some of the past requirements included in specifications? 
    • What requirements are you not seeing in solicitations that may help agencies obtain more cost-effective products/services?
  • Action. At the conclusion of the meeting, the procurement professional may note any next steps.  Next steps may include: a follow up demonstration, internal research,  additional market research, or simply “no action” required at the time. 

I liked the strategy that my executive assistant implemented of scheduling shorter meetings. Instead of a full hour meeting, she scheduled half-hour meetings, especially if it was the first-time meeting with a supplier. This helped keep the meeting focused on the main topic as opposed to sitting through a half hour of marketing material.

Suppliers should be advised as part of the meeting confirmation process that they should plan to spend no more than three minutes on company introduction. While the marketing material is often very impressive and showcases the supplier’s market position, the potential for time to be spent in this way discourages already overextended procurement professionals from granting a meeting in the first place. 

Some of my colleagues may be interested in a higher level of detail, but I doubt that they have the luxury of time. Time was such a precious commodity for me that it was essential to be as strategic with it as possible. I delegated gathering any needed background details to someone in my team. This is where “leave behind” marketing information became handy. 

To be clear, sound, supplier-neutral specifications are not built out of conversations with a single vendor, but the having more purposeful meetings can help improve the quality of the questions.   When the quality of your questions improves, so does the information that you receive.

Inviting an end user to the meeting can also be beneficial. Although, I recommend being clear on the potential benefit to the end user before engaging more people in the meeting. The more people that you involve in a meeting, the harder it is to coordinate and the longer it may need to be. The idea is to keep this process simple and with minimum disruption to an already packed schedule.

I want to emphasize that any process can work provided that those involved proceed ethically. While there are many written ethical standards and guidelines, these are useful to define potential circumstances that may be perceived as  problematic. The existence of written guidelines can also help elevate the awareness of individuals in an organization. In the end, it is necessary to rely on each individual’s good values to adopt and model behaviors that ensure transparency, fairness, and good business practices.   

To summarize, communication with suppliers is necessary to develop good business relationships and solicitations. Procurement professionals can make communication with suppliers more purposeful and strategic by implementing simple agency-wide protocols. The information gathered may help the procurement professional ask better questions, prepare higher quality solicitations that are better aligned with the market conditions, and reduce unsuccessful procurements due to the quality issues. Meetings with suppliers can be a worthwhile investment of time if the procurement professional chooses to be more strategic and intentional in his/her communication. Ethics, training and guidelines are helpful, but it is ultimately an “inside job” that determines whether these values are put into practice. The leader must model and reinforce the importance of ethical practice and help create a culture that mirrors that behavior.