Monthly Archives: September 2020

Agile and Collaboration (Part 2)

In the volatile modern world, flexibility is essential to the survival and success of an organisation” – G. Stracusser[1]

Evaluation and Planning. L.Ruigrok (2020)

Introduction

In our previous blog we explored the features and problems associated with agile procurement approaches. The key challenges with agile procurement stem from the fact that flexibility and responsiveness are not compatible with traditional procurement approaches and associated contracts that attempt to clinically allocate risks between the parties. Similarly, agile approaches require a substantial shift away from business as usual approaches and this demands an organisational cultural shift as well as effective leadership to drive the right outcomes.

Suppliers as Custodians

Traditional, arms-length procurement approaches are suitable for low risk, non-critical procurement but where we wish to successfully implement agile procurement then we need to fundamentally reassess out business relationships. Agile demands flexibility to achieve faster time to market, better meet customer requirements, better deal with emergence, and reduce disputes. This cannot be achieved with a traditional vendor relationship. Rather, we need to change the way we look at suppliers and consider them as trusted partners or custodians of our business. No doubt this makes traditional contract managers exceptionally nervous (from both the buy and sell side) but this change in thinking is necessary for the following reasons:

  1. Bringing suppliers ‘inside the tent’ provides them with greater access to customers, rather than dealing with the contract management team as the gatekeepers. This subsequently allows for timely and more effective decisions, and ensures goods and services are fit for purpose;
  2. Integration of suppliers with common information systems, inventory management systems, risk management systems, and decision support systems provides a timely, single source of truth. As a result, decisions can be made faster and more accurately;
  3. Fixed price arrangements are very difficult to implement in agile environments. As a custodian working closely with the buyer, almost real time evaluation of supplier performance and value can be assessed. This provides a more robust remuneration governance framework than a simple cost reimbursement approach where there is no incentive to minimise costs; and
  4. When things inevitably go wrong, parties should be incentivised to ‘fix the problem and not the blame’.  As a custodian or partner, suppliers are more likely to work towards the customer’s enterprise outcomes rather than their own short-term commercial interests.

Though the above benefits are enticing, we need to be alert to the challenges associated with suppliers as custodians with; potential dilution of accountability, the risk of fiduciary duties arising, and the risks of ‘vendor lock in’.  Appropriate governance and performance management frameworks must be in place to deal with these issues.

Organisational Design

Every company that has tried to manage mainstream and disruptive businesses within a single organisation failed.’ – J. Bower and C Layton[2]

Traditional procurement is often underpinned by stovepipe organisations. This is especially so in large organisations where separate departments and business units work separately in the procurement lifecycle with; the marketing department exploring ‘features and benefits’, engineering departments developing and implementing specifications, commercial departments drafting the contracts, and finance teams crunching the numbers. These activities are typically sequential and often lead to delays, confusion, and a general lack of accountability.  For agile procurement, these stove pipe approaches are unsuitable.  As observed by Nicoletti, an ‘agile business model’ is required with agile processes that maximise the opportunities for automation.[3] In practice, this means:

  1. a single, accountable authority who is delegated decision-making for the agile procurement activity;
  2. an integrated team comprising all the necessary skills and disciplines needed for the procurement activity, including the customer;
  3. streamlined processes that are focussed on delivering an outcome rather than delivering a ‘thing’;[4] and
  4. maximising the opportunities for automation (efficiency, economy, and effectiveness).[5]

Implementing a complete agile procurement suite across the whole business would be a herculean task but there is no binary choice here.  Organisations can adopt the full raft of agile procurement approaches for those activities where it is required and roll out partially agile approaches for the remainder of the business.  For example, automation and streamlined processes could successfully be implemented across the whole enterprise but highly skilled, multidisciplinary teams may be reserved for those activities where the greatest need for flexibility is required.  Organisations facing a transition to agile procurement approaches would likely face significant challenges if they adopted a big bang approach to implementation.  The mix and skills of personnel required in a completely agile procurement environment would also introduce challenges.

Cultural Alignment

Moving to an agile procurement environment will undoubtedly require a cultural shift in many parts of the organisation.  It is rare for large organisations to have a single, homogenous culture, rather there are likely to be cultural islands.[6]  A new cultural island may be required for those business units that are required to operate in an agile fashion. Alternately, a more ambitious approach is to shift the whole organisation to an agile culture.  The latter approach is exceptionally risky even though the rewards are likely to be much higher.  What is important when adjusting culture is that expectations are managed, and change is implemented to achieve enterprise outcomes.  Expectation management requires us to recognise that:

  1. Flexibility and agility come at a price. Long term pricing arrangements, bulk purchasing rebates, and efficiencies with boilerplate processes will be eroded. Nonetheless, the loss of these benefits should be eclipsed by the value offered by an agile, customer focussed, responsive organisation;
  2. The organisation must have a greater appetite for sunk costs and rework.  Consistent with the Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant, and other innovative procurement methodologies; we should accept failures so long as failures are ‘fast, cheap, often, and smart’;[7]
  3. The full range of benefits will only be realised when buyers and suppliers work together collaboratively
  4. We must accept shorter planning cycles. Strategies are enduring but planning cycles must be shorter to deal with emergence and support agility.  Five-year plans are anathemic to agile procurement approaches. Our business cases must be regularly updated, revised, and even rejected as new information becomes available.  Continuing viability of plans must be undertaken;[8] and
  5. The organisation as a whole must be resilient and adaptable. Emergence means that people and processes must be aligned to allow the organisation to pivot as required. This can introduce challenges with change fatigue.

Conclusions

An agile organisation offers substantial benefits so long as the organisation is effectively designed with the right culture and with expectations managed accordingly.  Agile approaches will be successful if they are underpinned by small, self organising, multi-disciplinary, collaborative, high performing teams.[9] Assigning grandiose titles to these teams such as ‘tiger teams’, ‘black belts’ or ‘scrum masters’ is not important. What is important is to ensure these teams have the right people, with the right skills, and the right delegations to achieve enterprise goals. 


[1] Straçusser, Glenn Agile project management concepts applied to construction and other non-IT fields (2015) https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/agile-software-applied-to-construction-9931

[2] J. Bower and C Layton ‘Disruptive technologies – Catching the Wave’ Harvard Business Review Jan/Feb 1995 Vol 73 Iss 1.

[3] Bernardo Nicoletti  Agile Procurement: Volume I: Adding Value with Lean Processes (2018) p4.

[4] J. Millis & A. Freeman ‘Agile contracting for Australian Government agencies (2018).

[5] Bernardo Nicoletti  Agile Procurement: Volume I: Adding Value with Lean Processes (2018) p4.

[6] E. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership 4th Ed (2010), p 271.

[7] US Government ‘Innovative Contract Case Studies’ (2014) pp24-25.

[8] Managing Successful Projects with Prince2 (2017) [6.2].

[9] F. Brooks “Mythical Man Month” (1975)

Agile Procurement and Collaboration (Part 1)

“It is a bad plan that admits to no modification” – Publilius Syrus (fl. 85–43 BC)

“Becoming agile in procurement allows you to create an adaptive partner ecosystem where you adapt to needs and circumstances in a relationship rather than having contractual handcuffs on.”[1]

Introduction

Agile procurement is a hot topic as organisation’s are seeking agility and responsiveness in an exceptionally volatile environment.  Pinning down a definition of ‘agile’ in the procurement space though is illusive.  Whilst the term has its origins in the software development arena with the agile manifesto , agile procurement means many different things to many different stakeholders. This blog explores some of the definitions of agile procurement and the common themes or principles that emerge out of the literature.  One of these key recurring themes is the need for collaboration at all levels to realise the benefits of agile approaches. Successfully implementing agile approaches through collaboration is the theme of part two of this blog.

Agile in the Software Development Domain

Almost two decades ago the agile manifesto was born with the following values:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan[2]

Along with the 12 principles of agile, the aim was to avoid lengthy waterfall development approaches by adopting short development cycles, meeting customer needs, and embracing change. Whilst the agile manifesto offers a neat summary of what is arguably best practice, there is a lot of prior art that captured many of these agile principles many decades earlier.  Kelly Johnson (of Lockheed Martin Skunkworks fame) embraced the principle of ‘keep it simple’ and his 14 rules identified the need for buyer and supplier collaboration with ‘very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis’, and the use of small and skilled teams. Likewise, in Brooks’ Mythical Man Month he emphasised the need for small, agile, high-performing teams developing minimal viable products.  Like many initiatives, the agile manifesto captures best practice and builds upon it.  In all things, we should treat agile principles as exactly that; principles not rules.

Agile Procurement

The success of agile in the software domain raised questions about whether such approaches could be effectively applied in the procurement space.  No doubt, procurement practitioners wanted to reap the claimed benefits of agile approaches including:

  • Faster time to market (noting that speed and value are interlinked),
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction,
  • Dealing with change effectively, and
  • Reduced conflict and enhanced collaboration.

Can these benefits be achieved in the procurement function? The answer is ‘of course’ and agile procurement approaches have been implemented in various guises for many years.  A cost reimbursement contract with supplier and customer integrated product teams is a clear example of how procurement can be agile. Similarly Cost As an Independent Variable (CAIV) approaches support many agile features such as; a focus on collaboration with early and continuous end user participation, a focus on minimum viable products, ability to trade high level requirements, and the promotion of flexibility. Whilst these approaches have been used effectively at the project and program level, the shift to agile approaches at the enterprise level is a more recent initiative. 

When we move to the enterprise level, we need to ensure the whole organisation is aligned to agile principles and not just the procurement function.  This means focusing on strategic objectives and adopting a top down approach as observed by NaDaud:

Agile procurement addresses big picture business needs rather than automatically finding solutions comparable to what is in place and re-bidding the demand. This might result in the selection and implementation of a solution that looks completely differently than what has been done in the past but satisfies the same objective.[3]

In essence, agile procurement is nothing remarkable. Agile requires us to focus on enterprise objectives (with a strong customer emphasis), ensure our process do not slow us down, achieve outcomes rather than specify how to do things, and effectively collaborate with all stakeholders. This does not mean we have to abandon traditional sourcing strategies, rather we must be able to select agile methods when they are required.  Mitchell makes this clear in the following observation (emphasis added)

Agile procurement is the ability to satisfy all of the objectives of strategic spend management (savings, resource efficiency, risk management, supplier performance/relationship management) without the rigidity of being tied to any of the typical ways we achieve those things. [4]

Agile is not the death knell of the Kraljic Matrix or Category Management approaches. Many organisations will still maintain a section of their portfolios that will require more traditional approaches, but agile demands that deviation from boilerplate templates and traditional processes is permitted. Where we have complex emergent environments, unknown solutions, a demand for innovation, and a need for end-user participation, then the business case for pursuing agile is compelling.[5]

The Problems with Agile

A procurement delivery system that offers all the benefits of agile is enticing but we must be alert to the challenges or risks of going agile. First, we need to recognise that agile is not a free for all with an unstructured, no-liability, cost reimbursement contract where contract managers simply ‘tick and flick’ progress reports independent of any value being delivered. As Rigby, Sutherland and Takehuchi state, ‘agile is not anarchy’.[6]  With agile, there must be appropriate governance arrangements in place and a flexible commercial model that incentivises performance.  This is not just the remuneration model but also other non-price factors such as the amount of workshare and security of supply with possible guarantees for follow on work.  Herein lies a major challenge, how do we legislate for a flexible process with a contract? By design, contracts are tools that allocate risks and liabilities, provide stringent processes for managing change, and clearly articulate the contractual outcomes.  Whilst not insurmountable, we can craft contracts and commercial models to deal with agile environments and this will be explored in out next blog. Suffice to say, adopting a commercial framework that is agile friendly, requires a radical departure from traditional contracting approaches and this brings us to the next problem, culture.

For many organisations, operating in an agile environment will require a substantial shift from business as usual approaches.  Having the right culture with leadership participation is crucial for successfully implementing agile approaches.  The importance of leadership and the right culture is illustrated  in the 14th Annual State of Agile Report  which states that the top barriers to realise agile outcomes are:

  1. general organisation resistance to change,
  2. not enough leadership participation,
  3. inconsistent processes and practices across teams,
  4. organisation culture at odds with agile values, and
  5. inadequate management support and sponsorship.[7]

Rigby et al go further to claim that traditional organisation structures and C- suite activities are unsuited to agile methodologies.[8]  To successfully embark upon agile approaches, a cultural transformation with leadership support is needed.

A further challenge with agile approaches is with the skills and capacity of the team members who must make agile methods work.  One of the key organisational drivers for adopting category management and segmented purchasing (with tools such as the Kraljic matrix) is to enable procurement professionals to only be given the training and skills they need for their job.  For example, the skills needed to manage ‘non-critical items’ are quite modest compared to ‘strategic items’. Where we move to agile procurement, contract managers and procurement professionals require more formidable skills, training, and experience. Even more so, we need people with the ‘mental agility’[9] to drive value.

Conclusions

Agile procurement offers many benefits but there are risks and cost associated with adopting agile in an organisation. None of the challenges with Agile are insurmountable. Our next blog will explore practical aspects of implementing agile approaches through collaboration, cultural alignment, commercial alignment, and effective expectation management. 

For those who are interested, Dr Andrew Jacopino and myself are hosting a network session on Agile Contract Models and Performance Based Contracts as the IACCM Vibe Summit on Tuesday September 22nd, 5:40pm – 6:15pm AEST.


[1] D. Craik ‘How to be an Agile Procurement Team’ (2018)  https://www.cips.org/supply-management/analysis/2018/october/how-to-be-an-agile-team/

[2] https://agilemanifesto.org/

[3] J. Nadaud ‘Agile procurement defines next wave of success – how well do you walk the talk?’ https://journal.iaccm.com/contracting-excellence-journal/agile-procurement-defines-next-wave-of-success

[4] M. Mitchell ‘What does Agile Mean Anyway?’ (2018) https://www.determine.com/blog/what-is-agile

[5] D. Rigby, J. Sutherland and H. Takeuchi’ Embracing Agile’ Harvard Business Review (May 2016) https://hbr.org/2016/05/embracing-agile

[6] Ibid.

[7] Digital AI “14th Annual State of Agile Report” (2020)  https://explore.digital.ai/state-of-agile/14th-annual-state-of-agile-report.

[8] Rigby et al, opcit.

[9] T. Cummins ‘Agility, contracts and value: time for new thinking’ (2019) https://commitmentmatters.com/2019/09/22/agility-contracts-and-value-time-for-new-thinking/