Last weekend, I took 58 minutes off my personal best marathon time (from my previous race two years ago). In doing so, I was only four minutes shy of the goal I set to reach once in my lifetime, and was able to achieve a couple reverse splits at the end (accelerating, not slowing down). Clearly, all the training paid off. But there's more to it than that. You see, I'm not a natural runner. I've worked at it for years through pain, injury and Chicago weather. The race was the culmination of these efforts trying to stay in shape and get at least somewhat decent at something that never came naturally.
It feels so great to have worked toward a combined physical/mental goal and coming within a few minutes of achieving it. There is something in the sheer physicality of learning what one's body is capable of under challenging duress -- so different than just working long days/nights in the office. Yet, if you'll let me indulge in my regular passion for a moment, procurement, I think there are some great lessons learned from all the craziness of training and marathon racing, especially in the order of magnitude improvements through not just hard work, but the right type of hard work.
To start, in preparing for the marathon this year, I started out the season in the cold winter months by putting in a base amount of miles much as a cyclist would do in the winters before a racing season as well. Back when I rode somewhat competitively in my youth, the goal was to put in at least 1,500-2,000 miles over the winter to get your legs ready for the spring. The same is true of running. Without that base, it becomes so hard to get to the next level of training without intense suffering or worse.
In procurement, the same holds. Yet we often fail to put in that "base" of miles when we're engaged in a new or expanded initiative, be it tackling a new category or something different (e.g., evaluating and implementing an eProcurement or e-invoicing system). Don't ignore the need not only to go way above the effort you think is required from a foundational effort to become an expert in a topic and then to spend a good amount of time not only engaged in continuous learning, but validating hypotheses.
That foundational work over a period of months in the cold of winter can have such an important impact on the results of an overall program. Unless you're a total natural, the notion of preparing for a race with a 16-20 week marathon training program is as ludicrous as diving head first into a new procurement area without putting in the initial base of research -- not to mention establishing rapport with other stakeholders -- even before the true heavy lifting begins.
After you've established that foundational base, you can then start to train, just as how within procurement you can go public internally with the goals of an overall program or objective. When the true training begins for a goal in sport, it's often hard to push yourself without a guide, coach or team structure. Finding the metaphorical equivalent of the "coaches" within procurement can be difficult or easy depending on what you're up to. In running, a coach does not only help you put together a plan to tackle the miles, but they ideally do so around a holistic program to avoid injury (depending on the coach, this may involve yoga, core strengthening, stability work, cross-training, etc.) I can't think of a better analogy than "avoiding injuries" for taking on more complex procurement initiatives with the input of a seasoned expert.
For complex category procurement such as marketing, print, legal, HR benefits or related areas, there are often a number of third-parties who can serve in a coaching role. The same is true when it comes to pursuing initiatives such as implementing new systems (e.g., for contract management, IACCM, to point out one member organization, can serve in a great "coaching" role). In general, these range from knowledge-driven benchmarking firms and membership organizations to service providers (e.g., consultants/BPOs) that can fill the coaching void with varying degrees of support, from walking you through a program guide to actually doing the race for/with you.
In 95% of cases, the procurement individuals we've gotten to know over the years tackling new, advanced areas and initiatives swear coach-like input is an invaluable contributor to success. Yet the irony is that they often don't think of this role in "coach" terms. However, by starting from the start to identify not just a mentor or sponsor, but a true coach, I think we can set ourselves up on the right track for success in whatever programs we're setting out to tackle. I also believe a coach is absolutely essential if we're going to achieve an order of magnitude improvement in past performance.
Here's what's on for the remainder of this series:
- Speed work and intensity
- It's not the long run (it's what happens the day or two before)
- The importance of negative splits
- Knowledge (carbo) loading