Tag Archives: procurement stakeholders

What To Do When Stakeholder Management Gets Tough

Everyone has encountered difficult customers or stakeholders when running a procurement exercise. It’s how we choose to deal with them that can define success or failure for our tenders.

By zoff / Shutterstock

Recently I’ve been running a recruitment process at work, using the oft-derided and disliked ‘competency-based’ questions as part of the interviews. One question in particular got me thinking about my own experiences in procurement. That of dealing with a difficult stakeholder or customer relationship.

We’ve all had them, even if they didn’t necessarily feel like that at the time. Whether it’s the end user who keeps changing their mind about what they want, or the stakeholder who believes their opinion is more important than everyone else’s. And then there’s the supplier who believes they know better than you, that your process is flawed or you’re asking the wrong questions, and that they have the key to fixing it.

These aren’t necessarily difficult or challenging relationships all the time. Good stakeholder management encourages input from all sides, but there are times that opinions are unhelpful, unwelcome or downright wrong. And when this is the case, but the stakeholder remains convinced that they are correct, the relationship can prove to be make or break for the success of the exercise.

Path of Least Resistance

This brings me back to the original question that got me thinking in the first place. The question continues by looking for more detail on how the relationship was dealt with and what the outcome was. The aim of the question is to dig a little deeper into the competency of ‘influence’ and establish how the candidate managed the situation to a successful conclusion.

But as anyone who has encountered this issue in the past knows, success isn’t always a guarantee (more on this shortly). A good outcome may not necessarily be a bell-ringing, trumpeter-blowing success for the tender. Sometimes the best outcome is no outcome at all, a compromise, or a solution that follows the path of least resistance in order to preserve a much-needed relationship for the future.

And that is the tale that I want to tell now. Instead of focusing on the theory, I wanted to share a story from my own procurement experience where hard lessons were learned and gaining the realisation that not all relationships are destined to be easy.

Introducing: The Engineer

DISCLAIMER: The people in this story ARE actually real and any resemblance to anyone you know is because you have probably met someone just like this! I have, however, changed names and kept details deliberately vague to protect identities.

Picture this. A young graduate procurement trainee, a bit green, a bit wet behind the ears. New job, new suit, new city. Yes, you’ve guessed it – it’s me! If you’re picturing something similar to a parent’s photo of their children on their first day of school, that’s probably what I looked like to tell the truth.

I hadn’t been in procurement very long at all, having fallen into the profession while looking for graduate roles around the UK. It was all a bit new to me, but I’d delivered a couple of projects and was getting the hang of what was required. I’d started to build up a good foundation of knowledge and some solid, supportive relationships across the business.

That was until I met The Engineer. The Engineer had a reputation that preceded him – hard to pin down, hard to please, just generally hard to work with.

Colleagues more experienced than I (this is where the warning signs should have come in that I was getting the dubious please of this particular contract!) told stories of a nice guy, but someone with very little time for procurement and procurement/tender activities. The department was a roadblock, the processes too cumbersome. He knew plenty of guys who could provide the goods quicker and cheaper. That was, after all, “what we’ve always done around here”.

A Challenging Time

My experience wasn’t any different to what I expected after these friendly warnings. Meetings came and meetings went and the only thing that changed was the date on the calendar. The Engineer was respectful and professional at all times in his demeanour towards me, but he seemed determined to shred the procurement process.

Specifications were blocked as too vague, or not meeting the needs of the department. There were complaints about opening this up to suppliers who had been used in the past as it was felt their products were inferior. In hindsight there are plenty things I could have done differently – brought in more senior team members (I didn’t want to compound my newness by seeming like I couldn’t handle this), or change tact to put it on him to drive it forward. But, as they say, hindsight is always 20:20.

Eventually we reached an unspoken agreement and understanding that gave us a resolution of sorts. We both realised that nothing was going to change, either in the product demands or the procurement process. The contract was eventually put in place with a good supplier and the goods were delivered in good time. It wasn’t the utopic procurement outcome I had envisioned, but it wasn’t too bad. And boy, did I learn a lot!

An Interview-Worthy Response?

No matter what you do or where you go, you’ll find relationships like this to deal with. It’s ultimately how you deal with them that you need to decide on. Each relationship will be different and your response to them will differ in line with this. It’s important to remember that no matter how hard the relationship, it still needs to be worked at, possibly even harder for the particularly challenging ones.

They may not provide you with a gold-plated, interview-worthy example, but these interactions can help you further down the line and it all helps with your personal development. Just remember, no matter how hard it is, don’t burn those bridges. They may be the ones you need to cross in the future.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article and the series of articles on the challenges facing public sector procurement in 2019. Leave your comments below, or get in touch directly, I’m always happy to chat!

Stakeholders Are Your Customers. Ignore Them At Your Peril

If you fail to meet the expectations of key influencers, projects will be delayed, will only be partially workable or at worst, doomed.

Stakeholders can and will influence the outcome of your project, especially if they are likely to be directly affected by it. If we fail to meet the expectations of key influencers, projects will be delayed, will only be partially workable or at worst, doomed.  

Who are your stakeholders?

Stakeholders are any of those individuals that can impact your activities by:

  • removing obstacles and championing  your goals
  • by slowing down or blocking your activities  
  • influencing others about your project –positively or negatively

Many of your stakeholders may not initially be obvious.   They can be:

  • End-users of the product or service
  • Line managers, executives and support staff
  • Procurement team members and co-opted subject matter experts 
  • Suppliers and their subcontractors
  • Government agencies and the media
  • Customers and society at large

Why is stakeholder management so difficult?

Stakeholders have conflicting priorities and often are not working towards the same goal. Personal ambitions may trump the company vision.  You may be the messenger bearing bad news or saying no to their proposals. Seasoned procurement people use their persuasive skills to win support from stakeholders.  This can be the difference between success and failure.

Because stakeholders will change over time, we need a systematic approach to identify and prioritize those influencers.  A stakeholder map is a simple analysis tool we can use to identify which key people have to be won over.

A simple shareholder map

This map provides a guideline on how to manage stakeholders based on their interest and their influence:

Figure 1   The stakeholder analysis grid

The Greens

Stakeholders with a high level of influence in your specific project and who also have a high level of commitment and support must attract the most focus.   They are usually easily identified and are easy to engage. They usually include line managers and end-users.  Ensure you continue to maintain their support through good communication and monitoring their needs. These people can be used to influence others.

The Oranges

This is an important group to manage and may include senior management, e.g. CEO or GM. Keep them satisfied.   Increasing their interest or commitment to your project through regular updates can be very helpful.

The Browns

These customers are your supporters. Keep them informed, their enthusiasm may be infectious and they may have more influence in the future.  Less time is needed to maintain this group. 

The Purples

External stakeholders such as the media and government may fall into this group so it is not necessary to spend too much time there. But keep them in the loop and monitor them as they may move into another group!

Identify all key stakeholders and plot them in the grid in Figure 1. 

Steps to follow to ensure success of any initiative:

  • Concentrate your time on working with key stakeholders who can make or break the initiative. Make sure every stakeholder has an appropriate way to participate and offer input.
  • Understand and manage their expectations. Identify any potential adversaries early in the process and manage them directly by allocating key tasks to them. Persuade those people who may not be immediately supportive. 
  • Under-promise and over-deliver.  Think like a salesperson.
  • Keep everyone well-informed and build strong relationships with the people who support the project.  Recognise and reward positive behaviours to preserve the relationship and buy continued support. 

Dealing with difficult stakeholders

The first step is to clearly identify those stakeholders and work out what motivates them and what is causing their resistance. Ignoring difficult stakeholder behaviour is not recommended; take time to immediately identify the cause of their objections and the underlying issues. People want to feel understood and feel that their opinions matter.

Engage directly with the person directly without others present. This leads to more clear and calm conversations. Actively listen to what they have to say and don’t close communication channels because you don’t like what you hear.   Remain fair, objective, and professional, and remember to keep the project objectives within focus. Try to find common ground by asking open-ended questions.  

Why projects fail: communication is the key

Lack of frequent and accurate communication to and from stakeholders is probably one of the main reasons for the failure of projects.   Another is not listening to the needs and concerns of the key stakeholders, both internal and external. 

When to communicate with stakeholders

  • before the launch of a project to get buy-in. Early engagement is important.
  • at regular progress meetings held to keep everyone updated. Report back on progress (or lack of it) and milestones achieved.
  • before implementation to ensure alignment with the process and the proposed solution
  • at the end of a project to establish lessons learned

Stakeholder management is the process that we use to identify key stakeholders and win their support.  We use the analysis grid to prioritize them by influence and commitment. Understanding what motivates them is the first step to getting them on board.    

Weaning Stakeholders off the Procurement Welfare Programme

Where does procurement’s remit start and end? As these lines get more and more blurred, it might be time for procurement to take charge and start the painful weaning process.

By RGallianos/ Shutterstock

Time and again the procurement profession has asked for a “seat at the table” and the opportunity to be seen as a strategic business partner. In some cases, requests have been accepted and change has been forthcoming. In other cases, change is proving more difficult to put in place.

However, in this ever-shifting landscape of change and, perhaps in its eagerness to be accepted, procurement may have stepped outside of its remit. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing, but there is strong argument to suggest that what procurement has done is create a rod for its own back.

Public procurement, and procurement as a whole, already has its hands full with the myriad tasks it takes to get a good tender out to the market. Research and analysis, supplier engagement and internal stakeholder management all take time. And that’s not to mention the contract management that should be carried out post-award too.

But there’s a sneaking feeling that the lines around procurement’s remit are becoming a little too blurred, and that stakeholders are getting a little too used to the procurement ‘welfare programme’. And it’s perhaps time to start the painful weaning process.

The Welfare Programme

It’s worth examining in a bit more detail what we mean when we call it a ‘welfare programme’. Traditionally, procurement has been viewed as a transactional function, responsible for the preparation, issue, evaluation and award of tenders. It was a process-driven role with little or no strategic responsibility.

More recently procurement has been moving to become more of a strategic business partner, with objectives aligned with organisational strategy. More importantly, the function also has a role in setting these overall strategic objectives. However, this is where the issue lies.

As procurement has stepped up and been involved in strategy, its remit and responsibility has spread in line with this. And unfortunately, this has led to situations where professionals are undertaking tasks that have never resided in the procurement sphere.

Procurement should absolutely be getting involved with the writing of specifications, ensuring they are fit for purpose and allow for openness and transparency in the process. But the role should be one of challenging specifications, not actively writing the whole document. The same goes for short-notice or last minute tenders. Why take on all the time pressure ourselves when we’re presented with a requirement that we know, from the start, cannot be completed in the appropriate timescales?

The Budget Burden

From a personal point of view, this issue has been keenly felt in the public sector. Budgetary issues should come as a surprise to no-one (have you been living in a cave?!) and have pretty much been talked to death. The issue doesn’t just lie within procurement, but across the whole organisation. With resources stretched, departments will look to manage their workloads and focus on the most important and strategic tasks.

This means, inevitably, that certain tasks get passed around like hot potatoes and other tasks get left until the last minute.

Procurement, keen to be involved and to remove the (most would say ridiculous) notion of being a roadblock, has become like the school kid desperately trying to get in with the ‘cool kids’. For assignments, lunch money and extra credit read short-notice tenders, reining in non-contract spend and writing specifications. In the willingness to be a partner, the profession has lost its ability to push back on these tasks.

The question is, how does public sector procurement start the difficult process of weaning its stakeholders off this support programme?

Weaning your Stakeholders

The answer isn’t an easy one, but it does actually have a positive outcome all round. It stems from being able to push back, but in a positive way. For example, for specifications, rather than an outright no, ask what help your stakeholders need, whilst making it clear that the responsibility is still on them to write the document.

To assist with resourcing, put monthly (or more regular if required) meetings in the diary to discuss upcoming requirements. Procurement will be able to bring information to the table in the shape of work coming up for retender, plus what procurement resources are likely to be available.

For the most part, it’s about helping strategically define the best route for the organisation to get what it needs. There are stakeholders who still aren’t fully au-fait with the available procurement routes and how they can potentially save time. Not every procurement exercise needs to go through a full tender, taking the 6-9 months it can do to deliver an outcome. The public sector has the ability to use things like Prior Information Notices (PIN), Contract Notices and frameworks to help reduce timelines AND still deliver a good procurement outcome.

It’s neither rocket science nor a quick fix, but it’s vital to get it right and strike the right balance between helpful and put upon. Procurement may have a seat at the table now, but it’s now up to us to earn the respect we deserve for sitting there.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article and the upcoming series of articles on the challenges facing public sector procurement in 2019. Leave your comments below, or get in touch directly, I’m always happy to chat!