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Procurement Perspectives: The art of problem solving in today’s volatile environment

Stephen Bauld
Procurement Perspectives: The art of problem solving in today’s volatile environment

There is an old proverb that there are none so blind as those who will not see.

I will recast that insight into terms more indicative of good organizational performance in procurement as well as other aspects of an organization.

The ability to undertake a proper critical assessment of the situation facing the organization is essential to having the proper perspective on its problems.

In carrying out a post-mortem of a failed organization, it is common to find that even though the problems with the organization were very visible, somehow the leadership of the organization failed to perceive them.

They simply lacked the ability to make a critical assessment of its situation. When a change happens out of the blue, a person should stand back and ask, how did this happen? How could I not have anticipated what would happen?

Even if the change is favuorable, that person should strive never to be taken by surprise in such a way again. There may be very good reasons for being taken by surprise a first time. It is hard to find a good reason for being taken by surprise in the same way a second time.

Essentially, there are two aspects to such a critical assessment, assessing the problem and assessing the performance of members of the organization in terms of their effectiveness in dealing with the problem.

In terms of critical assessment of the problem, the most important rule is not to overreact to a situation. Even where the problem appears insurmountable on first glance, it is essential not to make a snap decision. The first goal is to gather all the relevant facts so that rational decisions may be made. The following questions are indicative of the type of information that is required.

What is the nature of the problem? What threat does it impose? How imminent are they? What are the probable consequences if each threat comes to pass? What is the probability of this happening? Can anything be done to mitigate those consequences? If so, what and how?

Is there a plan for correcting or eliminating the problem? If not, can one be developed and if so within what time frame? Whose skills are needed to devise such a plan? Has any draft plan been properly evaluated? What is the timeframe for implementation?

Who within the organization is performing well? Who appears to be in need of further assistance? Is anyone performing badly? What is the nature of the deficiency? Is it really serious? Would curing it undermine other aspects of performance? What steps should be taken to deal with this problem? Why is it believed that taking those steps will improve the situation?

What resources are required to deal with the problem, are they at hand? If not, where can they be acquired and at what cost? Is that cost less than the cost of suffering each of the previously identified threats?

Is there a problem with communications? Is information flowing properly or do there appear to be bottlenecks that are slowing down the flow? Can these be corrected, and if so how?

Signs of immediate action may be necessary to restore confidence within the organization. However, it is unwise to rush to a final judgment.

If a problem has taken years to develop it is unlikely to be solved overnight. Always remember that it is more difficult to retract a wrong answer than it is to justify delay in giving the right one.

Critical assessment also includes assessing the performance of individuals in connection with the problem.

Barking out orders and harsh criticism is not the same as critical assessment. In most cases, critical assessment requires constructive criticism, the provision of critical feedback that assists the person who is subject to that criticism to improve their performance by taking specific corrective measures.

Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

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