Friday Rant — What If You Had Only One Shot to Get Everything Right?

The comment exchange on series of posts I authored a couple of weeks back on Ketera's new strategy got me thinking more broadly -- what happens when you have one shot to get everything right? It's a fascinating concept if you stop to think about it for a minute. And that's because if we look at the efforts within our procurement and operations organizations -- not to mention those of providers in the Spend Management market -- most initial efforts fail. Maybe we don't call them failures. No, perhaps we describe them as "learning experiences". Or in some cases, "investments" is a more appropriate label. Or -- and this is my personal favorite -- we write them off as "pilot projects" if we're getting started in a new area.

Even if they're not failures in the most basic sense, we nearly always adjust our course along the way after we get started. The old CEO of FreeMarkets, Glen Meakem, used to have this saying that executing on a plan was like sailing. You never exactly went from Point A to Point B. Rather you "tacked" back and forth taking advantage of the prevailing winds to get to the destination as quickly as possible. And you adjusted course accordingly as changes and opportunities presented themselves -- not to mention as you learned what was working and what was not.

Consider how difficult getting things right the first time can be? How many P2P initiatives inside companies -- especially ERP-driven ones -- have come off without a hitch and on-budget from the start? Or what percentage of category managers have been able to implement 100% -- or very close to 100% -- of the actual savings they identified through their sourcing efforts. Or think about all those global sourcing initiatives you've been a part of. Have all of them met expectations from a cost, quality and supplier performance perspective the first time. I'd wager not. But what if you had only one chance to get an initiative right with little or no modification to a strategy? What would you do from an insurance stand point to make sure everything was as close to an absolute given as possible? It's a fascinating concept.

Perhaps I'd start with setting expectations at as reasonable a level for an initiative as possible. After all, you can become deeply involved in a successful project only to have it called a failure if things don't work according to the expectations you've set internally. Along similar lines, I'd also invest the time, as I learned from my consulting days, to get everyone -- and I mean everyone -- on board with a concept and idea before I formally shared it. The socialization of concepts can go a long way when it comes to perception. On balance, if team members or management feels like they own the idea -- or at least their views are incorporated into it -- it's unlikely they'll let it hang out on the proverbial clothesline to dry.

Next, I'd try to control as many variables as possible, even if it meant sub-optimizing the ultimate upside and return. For example, if it was a commodity management strategy, I'd invest aggressively in hedging or transferring risk to suppliers, even if it cost me in the long run in higher prices (which it often does). But these approaches take away potential variability. As does on-shoring technology development, implementation and integration versus moving it to some far away place (either on an outsourced basis or in a captive shared services environment, for that matter). Of course you pay for this. But such actions ultimately reduce the chance of failure.

When it comes to working with internal and third-party resources to get the job done, I'd also choose the most conservative and experienced partners as well. Perhaps they'd be less likely to take risks, but when it comes to avoiding failure as a goal versus maximizing returns, tried and true is better than aggressive and experimental. I'd also invest significant time in internal and customer change management -- and general stakeholder handholding for that matter. You learn over the years that over communication is a critical enabler of success in just about any endeavor with many moving parts. But so few individuals and companies do it well.

Without question, you've probably already come to the conclusion that most of these suggestions involve taking potential returns off the table. For example, the more you invest in conservative approaches, the more hands you need to shake and the more you need to keep activities centralized, the less likely you are to have a truly bang-up success story on your hands at the end of the initiative if you're measuring in absolute terms. But at the same time, you'll also have that much of a greater chance to achieve your intended and originally communicated result -- succeeding when you have one shot to get it right. And regardless of how you label the outcome, we rarely have the luxury to do anything over.

Jason Busch

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