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4-Step Appreciative Inquiry Process Solves Procurement Issues

Ever been trapped in a sticky organizational challenge that won't go away? I know I have, and have dreaded those morning meetings to discuss the rudimentary problems, which apparently have no solution, or in some cases are impossible to solve without upsetting other apple carts.

Unfortunately, both the procurement and marketing teams always have inherited such issues from older practices, as often these departments began as people-centric departments and not process/documentation-oriented departments (such as engineering or finance).

However, there is hope, and the answer may lie not in what we are doing wrong, but in what we are doing right.

We have all been constantly reminded of the power of positive thinking in countless training sessions and workshops we have attended, but the Appreciative Inquiry model provides a more practical and results-oriented approach to solving problems. Successful procurement leaders have adopted this technique often to solve trivial but annoying issues. By concentrating and developing on core strengths, and removing frustrations from areas that lie outside our expertise,  these individuals can identify an effective plan for solving problems more readily.

Here is a guide to follow for effective procurement problem solving, adopted from the Appreciate Inquiry Model:

Step 1: Define

The first step is all about asking the right questions. Refrain from falling into the loop of asking how to solve the problem. If it could be solved, it would have been solved by now. Rather, ask yourself: “What is the positive outcome we want to achieve?” It sounds trifling, but often this change in approach provides significantly different answers. For example, perhaps the problem you have been facing is “How do I reduce maverick spending?” for which the answer has to do with creating more stringent processes and harsher penalties or more frequent checks. However, by asking “How do I increase contract utilization? “, which has the same bottom-line effect, you have the option of playing to your strengths and be creative in your plan.

Step 2: Discover

Next, identify the processes that actually work well and can be the cornerstones for your strategic shifts. Every company knows a few areas where they are sure of their unimpeachable record. This may be a well-designed process that has been deeply internalized by the team (like a scientific way of storing and maintaining catalogs and contracts), or maybe individual competencies of the team members (say, ability to find the right suppliers for all categories).

Step 3: Dream & Design

The next two phases go hand in hand, and they should be conducted in an iterative manner, as they require multiple discussions and idea sharing among colleagues. Now that we have defined what we want to achieve and also discovered where our skills lie, it is time to engage in a dialogue about what should be.

The discussion should now promote piggy-backing on the strengths, (for example creating a comprehensive list of catalogs with contracted vendors), which will act as a facilitator for changing human practices

I feel that the trick at this stage is to be minimalistic and not try to tackle any task that is not part of the core competency of a team. Technology is an easy way out at this phase, as an enabler as well as a collaborating mechanism among departments.

Step 4: Deploy

This stage is more about connecting the dots to guide human behavior into the appropriate channels. As mentioned above, this is the stage where both technology and collaboration come into the picture to help complement the team's core strengths. For example, this is where the company needs to adopt software that can guide the purchase requestors to the appropriate contracted vendors and approved catalogs. By focusing on their strengths, the procurement team can provide the stepping stones for operational change. 

Try it out. Then let us know your efforts fared in the comments section below. 

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