Think “The Lucky 7” for Your Strategic Plan

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Building your strategic transformation plan should not be a one-time exercise. This plan is a document that one should review often.  The strategic plan paints the picture of the future state, considering where the entity is going.  Often you hear of people that work on an elaborate strategic plan only to realize a year later that the organization is not better off than it was a year ago.

Developing a strategic plan may seem like a daunting task if this is the first time putting one together.  I broke down the strategic planning process into seven steps at a high level.

The first step is understanding the current state and how the current state developed. Spend time to learn some history so that you don’t repeat past mistakes.  Learning from others’ ineffective decisions may end up saving time.  You will not have to relive the same results you are trying to change in the first place. 

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” – Karl Marx

I have referred to my listening tour in a previous blog. This was always time well spent.  Gathering information and different perspectives is good information to have.  There is valid information in each of these perspectives. Still, it is critical to listen with objectivity as each historian in the process will tell the story slightly differently.  It is important to note that strategic plans are not just for organizations that are not operating well.  It is also for organizations that want to continue to stay relevant, considering foreseen or unforeseen changes in the environment.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” —Proverbs 29:18

The second step is to develop a vision of the ideal yet realistic state.  The next step is to develop a vision for the department considering all information gathered.  The important thing is to develop a vision that people can relate to and might be a little scary at the same time.  One should align the goals to the mission of the organization.  They should also align with the overall goals of the entity.  How will Procurement help support the entity’s goals as Procurement transitions to its future state without sacrificing the mission that it fulfills within the agency? Most of the organizations that I worked for were concerned with the speed of the procurement process, cost savings & cost avoidance, quality, and other agency-specific goals. 

“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

The third step is to develop a strategy.  The strategy is the plan of action necessary to help the Procurement organization move closer to the goals identified in the previous step.  From this strategy, you can develop objectives and tactics.  Breaking down the plan into smaller measurements will determine whether the actions taken are moving the organization closer to the goals and, ultimately, the vision.  The goals are the outcomes targeted with the strategic change initiative.  

“A vision without a strategy remains an illusion.” Lee Bolman

The fourth step is to establish measurable actions.    The objectives are specific, measurable actions.  Tactics are the tools used or steps to achieve the objectives, which help determine the strategy’s effectiveness.  Ultimately, these roll up to the goals and the vision. In my example above, one of the goals is cycle times. Then, the strategy, objective, and tactics would read as follows.

            Goal: Establish reasonable and predictable procurement timeframes.

            Strategy: Reduce the procurement cycle times by streamlining the process.

Objective: Alter the order or eliminate redundant steps to reduce time by 40% by a given date.

Tactic: Map the process, identify redundancy, eliminate steps, implement on a specific date. 

Creating these objectives will help measure the effectiveness of the strategy once implemented.  When implementing a strategic plan, it is critical to measure your progress towards achieving the goals. 

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without 

strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu

The fifth step is effective communication. The strategic plan should also include a communication plan that establishes who the stakeholders are and the relevant detail and frequency.  The method used for communication plays a vital role in the success of the strategic initiative.  Communicate often with those stakeholders is imperative.  This will help all interested parties stay informed and take any necessary action. 

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

The sixth step is to measure progress.  Don’t expect a perfect plan.  Measure progress and adjust when necessary.  Staying flexible with the plan and focusing on the goals will pay dividends.  Measuring progress also helps keep accountability for the ultimate results and keeps you moving in the direction of the vision.

“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” 
― 
Franklin D. Roosevelt

The seventh step is to reassess and adjust.  This seventh step includes reassessing the vision and goals.  When implementing long-term plans, it is impossible to predict all the conditions and circumstances that one may encounter.  Remaining flexible to adjust to new needs and be willing to revisit the goals is an essential step in the strategic planning process.  

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

 – George Bernard Shaw

To sum up, strategic planning is a process that continues to evolve with time.  It is essential to remain flexible to accommodate future conditions that may not have been anticipated in the original planning process.  

Three Skills to Conquer The Modern Day Frontier

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Procurement professionals’ role continues to evolve with the increase of technology and automation.    The pandemic presented us with a wake-up call on preparedness.  Technology and automation were no longer an option to function and stay relevant in the midst of it all.  As electronic systems replace manual processes, procurement professionals will need to strengthen or acquire different skills to complement the changes. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will likely accelerate the pace of change as more innovation penetrates procurement and supply chain.

There is no denying that we need to understand the process and how everything works together in procurement.  Many procurement professionals have excelled in this area.  But teams that thrive when presented with adversity require more than process sequence.  The much talked about seat at the table has been the topic of many conversations, presentations, and even conferences.  There have been pockets of progress in this area.  But the advancement has not been sufficient to make this concept universally accepted in all organizations.  

The pandemic shone the light on the role of procurement professionals.  It was an opportunity for many to leave the anonymity of the back-office function.  Those that were ready stepped up.  Problems compounded for those unprepared to lead the organization through a crisis that called for the availability of supplies in a field of scarcity.  As we reflect, problem-solving skills, communication, and relationships were vital skills to overcome the issues organizations were facing.  

The “Modern Day Frontier” is where science and art collide in the area of AI. We have come a long way in data analytics to aid in the decision-making process.  Such advancements need the complement of the human factor to prioritize and determine the value of the information.  It is an opportunity to enhance the skills where no machine has yet made a debut.  The human brain is the most sophisticated organ capable of imagination, human care, and emotion. No machine has yet replicated these qualities.  The human factor will always be a required element to any successful organization.

Soft skills has not been the top priority in most fields.   Such skills like leadership, connecting, and learning to establish good relationships are imperative for the procurement professional today and tomorrow. Teams that are in the continued pursuit of growth, innovation, and relationship building generally have a strong leader.  Making small shifts today to acquire the skills necessary to thrive in the future will pay vast dividends.  

“Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or position.” —Brian Tracy

Leadership – Leadership was is and remains a valuable skill, especially in the heat of the pandemic.  Staying calm and bringing clarity to the next steps was an asset during the crisis. Driving and maintaining the engagement of employees required the emotional maturity of a good leader.  Division, doubt, and fear were prevalent in most environments. Strong leaders were able to leverage diverse teams’ talents and not give in to the negativity and division highlighted that plagued many communities around the country.  And while achieving the highest performance of a work-from-home team, they were still able to influence the organization to not stray from the procurement mission.  As innovation continues to impact the world of procurement, leadership will become even more relevant at all levels in the organization by guiding it through the shifts and pivots.  

The Most Important Thing In Communication Is Hearing What Isn’t Said.”

Peter  Drucker

Communication – Communication is a skill necessary for all. Good communication skills include the ability to connect with others by listening attentively to understand rather than focus on your message.  Problem-solving requires the use of good communication skills.  It is crucial to consider the art of a good question because the quality of the information obtained depends significantly on the quality of the question.   When you communicate to understand and ask the right questions, you will also enhance your negotiation skills.  Understanding what others are seeking can help you develop options for more successful negotiations.  

“Even the Lone Ranger didn’t do it alone.”—Harvey MacKay

Relationship building – Building relationships with internal and external stakeholders, is not something that I see relegated to AI in the foreseeable future.  Supplier relationships, end-user relationships, and the professional network had a massive impact on the entities’ solutions during the beginning of the pandemic.  The extent to which procurement professionals develop their professional relationships can influence and increase their options available to solve problems.  Relationship building is a core function of the procurement professional and one of the skills required to access innovative ideas and solutions on behalf of their organization.

To summarize, as we look to the procurement profession’s future, these are three skills that the procurement professional will need to be successful in the job.  Leadership, communication, and relationship building are not skills that will be automated or absorbed by AI, at least in the foreseeable future.  It is the time to start preparing for the future of procurement and be ready to conquer the modern-day frontier.

The Three Things Leaders Should Do To Help their Teams Readjust Post-COVID-19

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Some organizations are gradually welcoming back employees to begin the process of “today’s normal.” Leaders should recognize that it’s been a year since the world shut down for business.  A year is enough time to anchor new habits.  There is hope in the air and eagerness to see the pandemic as a thing of the past.  Many people had a year to find new ways of performing the work without stepping foot in the office.  For this reason, people may need some time to recover and readjust.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” –Socrates

Except for frontline personnel and essential services, we were all sheltered in place.  To shelter in place meant total isolation for some people.  For others, it meant designing ad-hoc workspaces, distractions,  and sharing technology.  Regardless of the situation, these shifts presented challenges that may have lasting consequences.

Change in an instant.  After the immediate shock of the unthinkable, many found ways to stay connected while others’ felt their walls close in on them.  Parents became teachers until schools ramped up to virtual learning. Working from home blurred the line between family and work environments.  In some cases, technology and internet bandwidth challenged the family members’ effectiveness in fulfilling their role as employees or students.  

We postponed or cancelled celebrations like graduations, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, childbirth, engagements, baptisms, and others.  Participation or not in less happy events also impacted people emotionally.   It is possible that the inability to participate fully in these types of events and make lasting memories further contributed to the increased stress. 

Changed workforce. Some organizations are starting to require employees’ physical presence at the office and leaders should keep in mind that employees may bring new worries and issues to the workplace.  The “go back to the office” is not a general mandate.  Given that organizations decide what’s best for them, their decisions impact employees’ lives, particularly if those decisions do not align.  If schools and childcare centers are closed,  the employee required to report back to work has to look at their options.  There is a solution to every problem, but solutions become more accessible when we have the calmness and clarity of mind to look for them. Stress diminishes our ability to be creative.

If the leader stayed in touch with team members, the leader would now be in a position to understand everyone’s ability to reintegrate into work culture, both physically and emotionally. Without such insight, it will be challenging to successfully manage the transition back to the office or have unrealistic expectations. 

Zoom fatigue. Many employees may have reached the point of Zoom overload. People’s personalities are a factor. Introverts and extroverts handled probably handled the virtual interaction year differently.  Introverts might be overwhelmed when extroverts crave a higher frequency of those connections. It is essential to understand that people may be in different areas emotionally when going back to the office.  So, as organizations start requiring the physical presence at the office, the leader should consider doing the following:  

  1. Listen to Understand.  Open the line of communication with the intent to listen.  Now more than ever, is communication a critical skill of the leader, particularly listening skills. It’s not about solving the problems for each individual, but about understanding their perspective.  After all, they have had a year to form new habits.  People have to unlearn and relearn their jobs to an extent.  It is hard to move forward when you don’t feel heard.  It would be advantageous to provide the forum to talk about the past year to understand what additional challenges, if any, employees are bringing to the workplace.
  2. Promote Calmness.  The leader should not contribute to the high stress already generated during the pandemic.  Mental health professionals are saying that depression and suicide have skyrocketed during the past year.  Stress shuts down parts of the brain necessary for creative problem-solving.  I am not advocating to start a day with a yoga session at the office, but some simple breathing exercises might do the trick.  Breathing sends signals to the amygdala and the emotional centers that it is safe and calm, helping activate the brain’s creative center.
  3. Define Change as Part of Reality. The probability that things will change is high.  The leader should plan for the discomfort of change by providing clarity as organizations move forward to establish the new normal.  Constantly readjusting is not easy. But a realistic approach to change will help the team to expect and deal with the changes as necessary.

The three strategies mentioned above are by no means a comprehensive list of things that leaders should do.  The pandemic has and continues to affect people personally, professionally, and emotionally and it may take a while until many can bring stability to their daily routine.  Organizations will need to deal with the human factor, to help recover from a year of constant change and uncertainty.  If your organization had a culture of collaboration where people performed at their highest level, it might take some time to bring it back to what it was.  But it may have a higher chance of bouncing back than those organizations that were already struggling with the lack of engagement.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” –Theodore Roosevelt

Leaders have a significant role in restoring the organization’s culture and helping people readjust to the “future normal.” It is essential to recognize that in this process, people have to build their infrastructure of support to that which enables them to send their kids to school, childcare confidently, and focus on giving their best to the organization.

The 3 Resources for which you should ask funding early in a Transformation Initiative

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

The 3 Resources for which you should ask funding early in a Transformation Initiative

I spent about 75% of my 27-year public service career leading transformations. I enjoyed seeing progress in the organization and the people’s development and how it positioned the procurement function within the entity.  That growth brought positioned Procurement well within the entity.  Having a voice and a seat at the table made the journey worth traveling.  One can attribute the success of the transformation to the collective efforts of the team.  The team lived the daily struggle of getting out of their comfort zones.  They also experienced individual rewards with the changes.  Each individual’s standards measured personal and professional growth.  

“Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” —John F. Kennedy

My team and I learned many lessons. Some were less painful than others.  Those painful lessons help us build strength; even though some may have been unnecessary.  Those situations help build grace and courage. There was higher awareness that everyone reacts differently to change, and despite their desire for things to remain the same, the organization no longer provides the value that it once did.  It also gave us courage to continue down the transformation path despite the opposition. 

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

The process of transformation requires a lot from people, particularly procurement professionals already overloaded with work.  Perhaps stamina is a valuable ally for anyone going through a transformation process.  Often, the leadership of organizations doesn’t fully understand the energy and effort required to go through a transformation process.  There is usually a long list of demands and a brief timeframe to accomplish them. Paradoxically, the group expected to produce under a new definition of value has not benefited from new tools or resources to create such value.

Whenever I went to a new agency, I faced similar circumstances to those I had seen before.   In most cases, upper management assumed that the procurement personnel were not working as hard as they should have or were not fit for the job.  Rarely did upper management acknowledge the lack of investment made on the procurement group. It was not uncommon that those who wanted the procurement organization to transform did not understand that they needed to think about the function differently. The changes that come with transformation have an impact both internally and externally. 

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

I learned the hard way to ask for resources upfront, even when I did not know with certainty what I needed.  Why? Because there is a very narrow window after the transformation announcement to obtain approval for the resources required.  If you wait too long after that, it is much more challenging.  Prioritizing the request for enablers that required financial investment and budget dollars is essential.  There are three areas that I focused my attention on right away.  These were training, staffing, and technology.

  • Training – I found that securing a budget for training in a transformation initiative is not as tricky if requested upfront.  In many instances, upper management recognizes that the current staff will require some type of training at a minimum since, in most cases, there had been little to no offered.  If personnel are not up to speed with best practices in the field or have a network of colleagues they can reach out to, it’s hard for them to develop.  Membership to relevant professional organizations like NIGP and the local chapter can be part of their educational experience and network development.  
  • Staffing – Organizations tend to be unwilling to recognize “understaffing” as one reason for the slow procurement process speed.  The end-user and upper management do not fully understand the time impact of specific regulations on the procurement function.  There is a disconnect between the expectations of the time that procurement should take and the effort required to meet the expectations.  While it may be acceptable to guestimate the original request for staffing budget, the leader must make an effort to justify the number of positions requested or the redesign of the existing job descriptions if they no longer serve the organization well.  Staffing is a hard sell and requires sufficient analysis and justification.  Ensuring that salaries are competitive and positions offer growth opportunities will increase the chances of attracting talented individuals to the organization.
  • Technology – Many organizations already have some type of technology primarily related to the financial aspect of procurement.  However, the procurement team often does not have the features necessary in existing systems to ensure their success.  The need for new technology or the optimization of existing technology will become evident once the leader has had a chance to evaluate daily tasks’ efficiency and determine whether there is a need for automation or the need for additional technology.   Depending on the situation, this might be the most significant investment. Therefore, it is crucial to plan the functional requirements well to maximize the benefits to the operation.

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” —Woodrow Wilson

I should note that upper management support is a critical component of a transformation initiative.  Once changes start rolling out, end-users and stakeholders will experience the discomfort of change.  It is then that upper management support will become critical to the success of the transformation.  The Human Resources Director and the Technology Director’s support and commitment are crucial as the early request for funding are to these areas.  Any strategy associated with personnel and technology depends significantly on the support received by the people responsible for these two areas in the entity. 

Change is not easy, and those who advocate for change generally expect someone else to make the changes.  When the tables change, those advocates will feel the discomfort of adjusting to changes as anyone interacting with the procurement function will need to make adjustments. The best way that I found to handle this challenge is through communication.  Communicating change should be done with as much transparency as possible.  A well-developed communication plan should include a strategy that considers each layer within the organization and adjusts the communication accordingly. 

To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often” – Winston Churchill

In summary, some enablers do not require additional budget but are necessary for a transformation.  When the organization makes a high investment, particularly in staffing and technology, it will expect a high return. Those enabling resources that require an investment of money should be requested upfront while the initiative is still fresh in everyone’s mind.  Early requests will increase the likelihood of obtaining the resources needed to effectively make the necessary changes and elevate the procurement team’s performance.

About the Author: Lourdes Coss is a former Chief Procurement Officer living her purpose. She’s the author of “Procurement Methods: Effective Techniques” and uses the lessons of her 27 years career in government procurement and transformation to coach, train, and provide consulting to leaders and aspiring leaders in the profession. Post-Pandemic, you may find her in a café writing her next book.

Procurement Month: Reflect, Act, and Celebrate

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Happy Procurement Month!  During the month of March, procurement professionals celebrate each other and the procurement profession.  This year, we celebrate the leadership and ingenuity of many procurement professionals.  Procurement has been at the forefront of the pandemic, and its value became more apparent to those who considered procurement a back-office function. 

“Money is of no value; it cannot spend itself. All depends on the skill of the spender.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson

After a year of Zoom calls, pivots, and remote work, not yet over, we reflect on many procurement professionals’ actions, leadership, and resilience. Many quickly adapted to new circumstances and fulfilled their mission in their respective organizations.  While the experience may have brought a higher level of stress and uncertainty, it also presented opportunities to add value and provide solutions to those on the frontlines.  

In some organizations, procurement suddenly emerged from the “back office” to do what it does best, provide solutions that enable the organization to deliver the necessary services to the community.  Many of those that stepped up to the occasion will see the reward through a more active role in their organization.  

Procurement professionals should seize the opportunity to step forward and be part of the solution.  Those that see the opportunity are probably working on strategies to minimize the effect of a future crisis in the organizations that they serve.  Some procurement professionals are already collaborating to establish contracts that can help reduce the impact of an emergency or unexpected condition.  One such group is the Continuity of Supply Initiative (CoSi). CoSi is a collaborative effort seeking to encourage the implementation of resilient contracts for the benefit of government organizations.

As many ponder how to build resiliency in the process and the supply chain, procurement professionals are called to take action.  There isn’t a single solution.  The answer is going to take the collaborative effort of all parties involved.  This task is not one that procurement professionals can solve alone.  The collaboration of technical experts, finance, legal, and suppliers will be necessary to implement feasible, transparent strategies and provide a competitive environment. 

“In today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to re-invent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility; that’s it. Because nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, somebody else will replicate it.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO, and president of Amazon

I see this as an opportunity to re-think the way we have done things.  Yes, it may be time to re-invent the wheel!  It is a matter of staying agile to respond to the ever-changing environment while fulfilling procurement’s core objective.  The mission has not changed, in my opinion.  How the services are delivered may be different.  How can procurement perform under other circumstances?  Many procurement professionals demonstrated their ability to adapt to the conditions, particularly those equipped with the tools to do so.  Those organizations that did not offer procurement the tools to quickly pivot to a remote environment undoubtedly learn the lesson. I’d like to think that we are leaving this pandemic behind us, but we should not forget that this is not the last crisis.  Mother nature has a way of reminding us that from time to time.  

“You will not find difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

I believe that it will take a holistic approach to achieve the resiliency to which many in the field are referring.  Public and private sectors felt the impact of the supply chain disruption.  A challenge that procurement has been dealing with is the absence of adequate technical specifications or explicit scopes to procure the goods or services more effectively. Some procurement professionals’ challenges include inefficient processes, lack of sufficient data, decentralized procurement efforts, maverick spend, and minimal market research and analysis. Besides, some organizations cannot attract the right talent or develop the talent they already have.  Combining all of these old problems makes it even more challenging to take on the task of creating a more resilient supply chain and procurement process that can withstand the type of crisis that we have been experiencing since last year. 

Some organizations take an ad hoc approach to improvements.  This strategy is rarely successful due to other unresolved problems.  It is better than doing nothing, but it doesn’t guard the process against the vulnerability seen very early in the pandemic.  The procurement issues will not be resolved at once but considered in any initiative undertaken to prevent more surprises in the next crisis.

“Put a good person in a bad system, and the bad system wins, no contest.”  ~ W. Edwards Deming

Several experts and procurement associations advise on the adoption of best practices like (1) centralizing the procurement function to more effectively leverage effort and resources; (2) establishing a center for excellence where intelligence gathered through market research, spend analysis, and historical information maintained systematically;(3) implement category management to develop expertise within the procurement group; and, (4)  developing the procurement team by equipping them with the tools necessary to offer solutions.  Procurement professionals are much more than gatekeepers. They can be the resident procurement consultant that help deliver results to the organization. 

In summary, the pandemic highlighted the relevance of the procurement function.  It is an opportunity to become the organization’s strategic partner and be well-positioned in the organization with a seat at the table. It is up to each procurement executive to take advantage of the opportunity.

About the Author: Lourdes Coss is a former Chief Procurement Officer living her purpose. She’s the author of “Procurement Methods: Effective Techniques” and uses the lessons of her 27 years career in government procurement and transformation to coach, train, and provide consulting to leaders and aspiring leaders in the profession. Post-Pandemic, you may find her in a café writing her next book.