Friday Rant: Procurement Similarities to Taking an Hour Off Your PR (Part 2)

In the first installment of this Friday Rant, I explored a couple of key tips I picked up from taking nearly an hour off my personal best (PR) marathon time a couple weeks ago. I believe these lessons are analogous to tips we can apply to procurement "training" as well, especially when we want to achieve something that may seem impossible on the first go-round (or the second time we're trying to achieve something with a step-change improvement over the first result). Picking up where we left off, I'll dive right into the concept of "speed work and intensity" for procurement initiatives.

If you're truly trying to run a marathon (not just complete it), one of the keys to proper training is speed work. During my first marathon a couple of years ago, the closest I came to speed work during training was the speed with which I jumped in an ice bath after completing painful long runs. Yet speed work is not about recovery – it's about intensity. If you want to take the metaphorical equivalent of roughly an hour off your marathon time as I did, it's essential.

In running training, speed work is about intensity and recovery. In my training, I hit the treadmill once a week and did a series of 12 intervals for two minutes at a fast pace and slight incline with anywhere between 30 seconds and a minute in between them to recover (at either a walk or slow jog pace). The notion of "recovery" in this case is a bit overstated. You don't fully recover in between them, especially in the shorter 30-second rest period. Yet by doing them over and over, you condition your body to get used to having to recover over a prolonged period of time. By the end of 45 minutes on the treadmill (including a warm-up), you're totally spent. You're essentially training as a sprinter during this time even though you ultimately apply this training to the opposite.

Intervals in procurement training are about two things. First, the intensity of study. You need to get super smart in the nuances of what you're up to, diving in as if you were a "sprinter" or true subject matter expert (SME) honing your skills in a given area. If you're studying up on a new category, this will mean learning as much as you can from industry-specific publications, journals, events and the like. If you're focusing on P2P systems, it will mean reading and learning about them as if you were a CIO, not a procurement leader (thinking about, for example, systems integration from an overall architectural perspective).

But just as you go deep in the subject matter during intense periods of learning, you need to be able to apply this to the overall task at hand. This will mean translating the SME, or geek speak, to a business language your colleagues can understand. But it also means being ready for a sprinting duel if someone on your team (or a supplier) challenges you to go fast and deep on a moment's notice. Speed work helps you be primed and ready for the challenge whenever such a need for intense depth comes up.

The next analogous lesson I'll bring up is the misunderstood "long run." Those new to marathon training view the infamous long-run, which builds to as much as 20 or more miles once a week during a training period, as the quintessential part of distance training. Yet those who've trained for more than one marathon, or those with good coaching from the start, know that it's not just about putting in the miles on a long run each Sunday. It's about the work that goes in ahead of time on the Friday or Saturday during a fast-paced run at the pace you want to run in the actual marathon of between 50-60% of the actual long run distance. This grueling regime trains you to start and get through the slower-paced long run tired, and in doing so, teaches your system to learn to sustain operations at level when it's already worn down.

In pursuing a procurement initiative, be it sourcing a new complex category or implementation of a system, we often place far too much emphasis on the "event" itself in the case of the former, and the negotiation and specific strategy development for the latter. Yet what will precisely enable the better outcome your after is the immediate heavy lifting that must come first, in the same manner that when you want to get the most out of a long run, you through the gauntlet down the day or two before.

In the case of getting involved in a new complex services procurement category, this will be becoming intensively familiar with all of the nuances that drive cost and value (and how benchmarking actual past performance relative to peers and the current market conditions) before writing an actual RFP or inviting suppliers in for a comprehensive bake-off.

This intensive, up-front effort will show up in the level of detail that comes through in the actual "long-run" sustained effort during the pre-negotiation and negotiation phases of contracting. It will also hone your ability to sell a particular outcome you're after to the business when unexpected situations/questions arise from stakeholders (as they always do, just as in the case of an actual marathon, you're forced to deal with unexpected things later in the race – leg cramps, joint pain, etc.)

We'll conclude this series with two additional lessons: the importance of negative splits and how knowledge loading is like carbohydrate loading before the actual event.

- Jason Busch

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