Can Appreciative Inquiry Work for Purchasing?
Most purchasing professionals have never heard of appreciative inquiry. It is a systematic discovery process to search for what is best or positive in an organization or its strengths. These strengths are then improved upon to create an even stronger and more dynamic organization. Implementing change remains positive and thus springs from an organization’s strengths, not its weaknesses, or deficiencies.
Editor’s note: This article is part of the MyPurchasingCenter content archive. It was originally published in 2015 and appears here without revision.
All too often in my purchasing career, I have experienced a new purchasing leader or consultant, who comes from an outside company, then sweeps into a purchasing department and castigates purchasing professionals for, “doing everything wrong, unlike their former company, that did everything right.” This negative reactive approach to change often results in people becoming even more resistant to change. Traditional reactive methods to implementing change emphasize fixing what is broken or weak in an organization. This approach almost never works and causes even more fear.
One of the tools of appreciative inquiry is the sharing of stories about an organization. Employees are asked to describe a time when they were really engaged and excited about their work. Employees are asked to list what was great or memorable about the time. The themes or actions that the organization used are carefully studied and grouped. Common themes of these stories may evolve or confirm a major strength of an organization. These strengths then become skill springboards from which the organization needs to use and embellish.
I previously discussed the storytelling techniques in a Buyers Meeting Point blog.
As a review, here are some of the advantages of storytelling:
- The brain stores information by stories.
- Stories are humanizing and stimulate creativity.
- Storytelling improves listening skills.
- Storytelling builds a team culture.
- It encourages collaboration.
Appreciative inquiry takes storytelling to the next level. The memorable stories and positive results become the dynamic building blocks of an organization’s competitive edge. It makes the vision or mission become actualized or reach their full potential!
Here is an example: One of the strengths of a purchasing organization that I led was sourcing and the use of cross-functional teams. The vast majority of the team members felt good about the sourcing decision and the transition plan to the selected supplier. A systematic methodology was used and modified as needed. Team members were well equipped to defend the selection and present the reasoning to other non-team members. Most members could defend and justify the selection and did it consistently and with enthusiasm. To my surprise the non-purchasing team members were even better at justifying the selection. The metrics almost always supported the supplier selection.
I, like many purchasing professionals, was initially very skeptical of the appreciative inquiry approach. Who has the time for it? Purchasing spends an inordinate amount of time fixing what is broken like expediting orders, handling bad quality parts, fixing bad suppliers, chasing down supply chain interruptions and overall upsets. These are all in the realm of fixing what is broke. The fact is that purchasing spends too much time as a firefighters putting out fires. Living in this type of hectic atmosphere or culture does not encourage a different positive approach to change. In fact, it encourages skepticism and the avoiding of risk.
In conclusion, appreciative inquiry can be a useful approach for positive change in purchasing. The challenge to purchasing is to make the time to discover the strengths of the purchasing organization. It requires patience and the gathering of memorable stories. Purchasing should build on its strengths rather than tear down its image by constantly fixing what is “broke.” In purchasing you are what you are perceived. Too often purchasing is viewed, as the harried firefighter who can never put out all the fires. Appreciative inquiry is a good approach to start to change this negative traditional image.