Tag Archives: agile procurement

Design Thinking Applied To Procurement

Don’t reinvent the wheel, apply design thinking tools to help you plan your next procurement.


Agile processes and design thinking are not fads, they are here to stay. During a three day design sprint that I participated in recently. I was bombarded with many different models designed to stimulate creativity. The result was a continual stripping down of our ideas until they were polished and on target.

Using these tools to break down our assumptions and continually test and probe ourselves for new answers was both exhausting and inspiring. Tools to aid design thinking don’t have to be high tech, new or complex to be effective. They are simple and freely available, so why aren’t we utlising them more in procurement?

Design thinking in action

Here are some of the design thinking exercises that I have used recently in my work:

  • Lightning Demos: before a workshop set the attendees homework to discover relevant tools or examples of either how your problem has been dealt with elsewhere, and/or things you’ve interacted with in your daily life that you find easy to use e.g. pay wave credit card for ease of transacting, a website you’ve used, etc.
  • ‘How Might We…’: takes challenges and poses them as questions.
  • User Journey Maps: These help to build empathy and understanding. Start with how your user first encounters your business / product and map out their experience end to end.
  • Crazy Eights: You fold your A4 piece of paper into eight sections and set the timer for eight minutes. Try and think of any solution possible, no matter how out there.
  • Game theory: Using cards to stimulate combinations of thinking differently e.g. event cards, theme cards, product idea cards. Draw one each from the pile and see what ideas it generates.
  • The Five Whys: the idea is to keep interrogating the cause of the problem to ensure any solution has dug to the actual root cause. In the example below often the response would end at fixing the leak.
  • Personas: Another empathy building tool. Build up a detailed persona of the core or target user and use them when designing ideas.
  • SCAMPER: The acronym represents seven techniques for idea generation: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate and Reverse
  • Dot voting: With an overwhelming amount of post it notes and ideas, each person gets two dot stickers to place on the post it note that they feel is the most important and contributes to addressing the problem statement.
  • Decision matrix: Because everyone loves a four box diagram in procurement. This Is a great way to clear on priorities, especially if there are a lot of dot stickers!

Want to find out more? Google has made their design sprint kit free, its open source and available for anyone to use. You can find further information about each design thinking tool cited above by visiting their website.

How can you apply these to your procurement project?

Many internal customers come with pre-formed solutions and ideas of how to solve the problem or opportunity they wish to approach the market about. The design thinking exercises are quick ways to ensure that the right solution is being reached for. If the customer is not willing to participate, you can do these by yourself.Test for new ways to solve the issue and test that the problem or opportunity has been correctly identified in the first place.

Ditch the 400 page strategy

The Lean Canvas is where we can start to bring all the creative thinking together on one page. It should be clear, concise and make a convincing case for change. There are many free examples online. The lean canvas can be used to replace the traditional procurement plan document for low risk procurements. It can also cut down a category management paper to it’s essence, making the perfect executive summary for others to digest at a glance.

This sounds bonkers

Are people really doing this? Yes! My current workplace is central government agency and we are using the lean canvas approach in the place of traditional procurement plans.The co-design process can replace tenders effectively. The theory of change model is the perfect framework to accelerate an idea and unlock its true impact.

Get inspired and start thinking outside of the procurement box!

This article is solely the work of the author. Any views expressed in it are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect official policy of the New Zealand government or of any government agency.

Agile Procurement Through the Ages…

Agile principles are all about the decision-making process. What changes should you implement to drive greater value at higher speed?

At IBM, we understand agile as a set of principles and values that when thoughtfully considered across the business, enable quality decision making, empower teams, and delight customers.

In procurement, the Category Manager’s role is to enable their internal customers by eliminating any disruption or friction within the business while also managing cost using their category knowledge and procurement skillset. The key here is the category managers’ ability to have deep category knowledge paired with a breadth of understanding for all internal customer profiles and needs.

As a category manager, team members must build a consultative skill set that allows them to identify pain points, use time wisely, and seek feedback. The result is a category manager who works towards customer needs rather than contract expiration dates and the latest price benchmarks. As a guide, we should seek to digitise and automate as much as possible regarding benchmarking, negotiations, RFx process’, contracting, etc., allowing us to give the appropriate attention to discovering internal customer needs including service levels, pain points, and demand.

What we did before vs. what we do now!

Previously, IBM, like most large companies, hosted a heavily layered procurement organisation requiring multiple sign offs and complex processes in order for decisions to be made. Agile principles are all about the decision-making process. Our leadership knew we needed to make some major changes resulting in fewer layers of management, accountable teams with decision making authority, and greater collaboration across the business, allowing them to drive value for our customers at the speeds they expect.

In a traditional procurement organisation, the category manager’s role is to identify where the savings opportunity is and act accordingly. They do this while following age old processes and having little to no interaction with internal customers. Many organisations seek to use poorly participated customer surveys to get a sense of how well category managers are serving their customers.

Yet, the best way is to open the channels of communication and collaborate with the business, whether it be face-to-face or virtually, allowing category managers to make the right decisions.

While cost reductions are still a priority for nearly all organisations, we found that when we work closely and listen to customers, we can eliminate the costs associated with under and over delivering across the business, which in turn, results in lasting cost savings.

The journey

To achieve this transformation, it takes strong displays from leadership of all the principles and values agile organisations are known for, establishing a belief system across the business encouraging category managers to ask ‘why’ when performing a task their internal customers do not care for or need to be successful. Implementing an agile belief system into a large organisation requires a major cultural change that takes time and patience from all parties.

In this new space, the role of a category manager has quickly evolved from contract and cost management to a crucial role that links business needs to the external marketplace for a specific category of goods. To achieve success in this role, category managers must interact daily with internal customers and evaluate each moment of their time spent not serving their customer’s needs.

Even so, many procurement organisations are too deep into spreadsheets and other manual processes to be ready for such an agile way of working. These manual processes make it impossible for category managers to have the time capacity to be a true advocate and trusted advisor for the business. To lift category managers’ heads from the clutter, organisations must invest in digitising their procurement processes where possible and identify the areas where they are not ready and get ready!

This article was written by Shawn Busby, Global Category Lead- IBM and Norman Braddock, Sourcing Consultant – IBM.