What Procurement Can Learn From the New England Patriots

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My colleague Peter Smith penned a great article earlier this week on what procurement can learn from Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks and their amazing come-from-behind win against the Green Bay Packers. The Seahawks will face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl XLIX – what should be a terrific game. As I write this article from my home near Boston, I thought it’d be good to provide another perspective– this time from the Patriot’s point of view. I know: big eye roll from fans of the other 31 teams and the all Patriot’s haters. Don’t attach too much of your ego to any team, it’s just a game right? Rather, let’s learn from one game and apply it to another, namely the Great Game of Procurement.

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Focus on the System With a Big “S”

The Patriots are arguably the best team in football because of the overall system that has been established. Yes, they have Tom Brady, but it is not a team of superstars even though it has hosted many who’ve moved through the organization. There have been 5 different running backs who had the day’s longest yardage this season. Similarly, great procurement organizations aren’t so based on a charismatic CPO or superstar category manager. In 2008, Brady missed the season with a knee injury, but Matt Cassell filled in and threw for over 3,500 yards. He then was promptly traded to the Kansas City Chiefs who paid him $63 million dollars. The Patriots are very good at buying low and selling high. At the end of the day, football teams have become a business. Owner Robert Kraft is a nice guy, but you need to perform. The sub-text to “it’s a business” is really about the importance of accountability (and clear KPIs) and gaining alignment top down and side-to-side.

Leadership Does Matter

This idea of letting results do the talking is no more embodied than in Patriot’s head coach Bill Belichick, who will undoubtedly lock up dozens of records before his entry into the hall of fame. People find him very guarded and even surly – and he has a lot of haters. But, he gets results, and his players love him because he is not just the lead architect of the system but also instills in his players the work ethic and the mental rigor required to play the best individually and in the broader system. He wants every player to establish mastery so that on the field everyone can respond to any type of condition (the Patriots are masters of using weather to their advantage). He wants each player on the field to think strategically like him and lead one other on the field. Tom Brady is the embodiment of that. In procurement organizations, like any other, great leaders are not great based on what they themselves do individually, but the leadership that they can instill in others within procurement and with their internal/external stakeholders.

Hire For Aptitude and Attitude, But Train For Results

Belichick saw something in a lanky Tom Brady that he liked when he chose him in 2000 as the 199th pick in the NFL draft. As he said,"The thing with Brady was really the traits: his work ethic, his intelligence, his decision-making. I think a lot of the draft process is [about] not where the player is right now, but where the player will be a year from now. I don't think I've ever seen a player improve as much as Tom did. That's certainly a big credit to his work ethic and his determination."

Brady now has 3 super bowl rings, 2 MVP awards, 10 Pro Bowl trips, and numerous all-time NFL records. Many procurement groups spend way too much time trying to find the purple squirrel when they should be looking for a diamond in the rough. The Patriots look for players who are willing to learn, to work hard and to execute. CPOs are no different in what they are looking for.

Be Innovative

Innovation is not just a term reserved for creating new products. It’s also about being creative and thinking outside the box. Using an arcane rule about receiver eligibility led to 4-5 plays that the Patriots ran to perfection in their win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, "It was clearly deception,” to which Belichick retorted, "We had 6 eligible receivers on the field, but only 5 were eligible.”

In this vein, certainly there is some creativity in tax efficient supply chain strategies using trading companies in low tax countries, but we won’t dive into that. I guess they call it “gaming the system” for a reason. So, let’s not dwell on this, or deflated balls, or “spygate” (good market intelligence!), or favorable snowplowing. Rather, focus on having a really good playbook (e.g., supply risk playbooks, category playbooks, negotiation playbooks, etc.) and really good players who can execute them. If you are reading this blog, you already are biased toward finding market intelligence and new ideas/innovations that are not coming from other sources.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense – and Vice Versa

The biggest innovations aren’t usually completely new ideas, but often refinement of others. For example, the Patriots are hugely successful due to their strong use of a no huddle offense used in conjunction with a West Coast Offense (which has a corollary lesson of “play to your strengths” when you have Rob Gronkowski at tight end) pioneered by the San Francisco 49ers. When competitors are always scrambling as you are bringing the next innovation to market or locking up key supply, you can help shift the game in your favor. For procurement organizations, this means being very proactive with your stakeholders and your suppliers to help guide the conversation and to set the table of influence rather than waiting to be invited to it. Your ability to be a gate opener (rather than gatekeeper) and proactively scour supply markets and emerging suppliers to tap innovation and bring value to your firm is the real strategic advantage to the firm – not just “doing deals and paying bills.”

There’s a key point here: Offense and defense are inextricably linked. Your gain is the other guys’ loss regardless who has the ball. As such prevention is actually a proactive strategy and many great organizations (sports and business alike) use defense as a weapon. But, not by being on your heels. For example, supply risk management is not really just a defensive strategy, but rather a proactive strategy that sees problems before you have to “go on the defensive.” And the market intelligence that you need to do it also lets you see opportunities on the revenue/growth side.

Don’t Tip Your Hand and Show Your Cards

Many of the best firms don’t talk publicly about what they’re doing (and nobody is tighter-lipped than Belichick and his players), so if you want to find out some “next practices” and forward looking trends, you can’t just read a report or attend a conference, but rather engage a broader set of diverse communities and talk to people who really know what’s going on.

We’ll end this here, but I would like to wish Seattle fans well and look forward to what should be a very exciting game that will hopefully bring out the best in both teams.

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