The CPO – a novel about procurement (part 3 of our review)

In part 2 of our review, I laid into the lack of interesting characterisation in "The CPO", the first ever novel with a procurement leader as the principal character and procurement as the central topic. Written by five A.T. Kearney consultants, it describes how Thomas Sutter  leaves his role in the German automotive industry to lead the procurement function of a US consumer goods company.

But the book also has many strong points, so today we'll focus on those.

Heartland, Sutter’s new employer, is an organisation that is pretty backward in terms of its approach to procurement. That situation was well-drawn and convincing - many of us will have come across firms at a similar level of maturity. They have a procurement function, but it is largely transactional, bullied by operational management, and without a voice at the top table. All this is painted credibly.

Then what the book does well is describe the issues facing a CPO trying to drive procurement transformation in that environment. I was reading in pretty critical mode given my increasing frustration with the lead character (see part 2) but actually, the procurement advice and analysis was generally spot on.

There is a lot of very good material about how to win hearts and minds. Unlike our preconceptions of how A. T. Kearney might approach this, it is far from simply a description of implementing a 7 step Category Management process. It does however give a good explanation of some of those reasonably standard approaches - which would still be a step forward for many organisations.

But it also gets into how interactions and personal dynamics between procurement and key stakeholders tend to work, and the need for skills like persuasion, listening and empathy as well as the technical procurement techniques. Whilst I wasn't sure many organisations would fork out for the conference we mentioned yesterday , the thinking around how to get stakeholders on board with the procurement goals (actually the organisation’s goals) was very good.

So overall, high marks for describing and suggesting solutions to both the technical procurement challenges and the people issues that a new CPO in a transformational situation would have to face.

I was also pleased  to see passing reference to some advanced procurement and sourcing thinking - for instance, Chapter 29 covers "market informed sourcing" (as we call it) or “collaborative optimization” as the authors do. The firm uses this to carry out very complex sourcing exercises in the logistics area, with great success. This inclusion is perhaps understandable as Kearney's are one of the leading consulting firms in terms of driving the use of software from the leaders in this field like Trade Extensions, BravoSolution and CombineNet.

There is also interesting discussion of appropriate organisational structures for procurement in a complex organisation like Heartland, and mention of analytical tools such as regression-based price analysis  – so even senior procurement folk are likely to get something  new out of the book.

Overall, these positives more than balance the weaknesses and make it a very decent first attempt at a procurement novel. If there is a next time, my suggestions would be to make the lead character a bit more interesting, try and get a bit more excitement perhaps outside the procurement story, but don't lose that strong  core procurement content.

And yes, that now forms the template for another idea on my long list of books I want to write. But it might have to come after my current draft - a Dan Brown type thriller about the procurement secrets of the ancient Egyptians, how they translate to a major top secret defence contract in the modern world, and how a glamorous young procurement manager (Italian maybe?)  gets caught up in a world of secret societies, espionage, ruthless politicians and billionaire media moguls, with only a middle-aged yet fearless and very athletic blogger standing alongside her to save the procurement world.

The film rights are available now, very reasonable offers will be considered...

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