We’ve all heard (or used) the expression that managing some groups of people is “like herding cats”. For cat people in the reading audience, this requires little explanation. Cats do what they want, when they want, only if they want. The expression wouldn’t have caught on if it weren’t true, which means there are plenty of feline humans out there too. If you’re in procurement, I’m sure you’ve met quite a few of them.
We put a contract in place, and the “cats” buy from someone else. We establish a process, and they do whatever they like. It can be infuriating. But, if we approach our internal cats with the right attitude, they also present us with unique opportunities to improve procurement’s performance, impact and influence.
Here is some advice for those days when you find yourself unavoidably herding cats:
Independence can cause friction or spark innovation.
The thing about cats is that, unlike horses, cows, sheep, or… well… lemmings, they aren’t hardwired to travel in herds. They naturally function as independent creatures. You may care for them, but you will never own them.
Similarly, in the world of corporate spend management, people who go against the grain rarely do so just to be difficult. Even when their efforts are misguided, they are acting in what they believe are the best interests of the organization (or at least their function).
These independent people are critical thinkers and often have a singular point of view that procurement can harness for their own objectives. It is important to identify and track “cats” and forge open relationships with them.
These are the people who will give us an honest opinion about a new program or provide an independent perspective on incumbent suppliers. In a world where requests for feedback and input are often met with unsettling silence, cats can be relied upon to help us focus on what is mission-critical for the organization. As long as they are widely recognized as having an objective voice, a word of public support from a cat is often worth more than a formal endorsement by someone who routinely follows the rules.
Cats keep procurement “honest” on enterprise alignment.
Procurement likes to think that we are doing the right things for the right reasons, but it is easy to lose perspective and start serving procurement’s needs first and the organization’s needs second. If this happens frequently, our performance metrics need to be revisited. If we can rely upon anyone to keep us on track, it is our cats.
Cats are indifferent to needs, desires, and priorities aside from their own. Buy from a new supplier to save less than a percent on an annual basis? That is unlikely to be worth the disruption to their routine. Endure a counter-intuitive approval process because it aligns better with the way our eProcurement solution works? You must be kidding. If cats are going to take a step, there has to be something in it for them – not just subjectively contributing to the greater good.
Feline humans are notoriously aloof, just like their animal counterparts. Non-compliance from them can be relied upon to spotlight existing problem areas in the procurement universe.
Even when procurement’s programs and recommendations are in the best interests of the enterprise as a whole, it can be immensely helpful to monitor the frustration level of cats. The potential consequences of their non-compliance remind us to communicate results and benefits in terms that carry meaning to internal stakeholders and people who will be affected by the change.
Working with cats (rather than natural herd animals) forces procurement to remember that we should be focused on sharing incentives and motivations rather than just insisting upon control. They may not make the job easier, but if you can win over a cat, you’ve really accomplished something.