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A Buyer’s Guide to Buying: the hidden steps

Submitted by on Monday, 20 January 2020

People don’t really want to buy anything. We’d much rather maintain our status quo if possible: it’s worked; it’s comfortable; it’s normalized; we’re set up to keep on keepin’ on. Indeed, the goal of a buyer is to solve a problem with the least ‘cost’, using the least resources (money, time, human power, culture, etc.) and causing the least disruption. And a purchasing decision is far, far more than good information, collaboration, or good decision making practices.

Adding, choosing, buying anything new means change to the status quo, always fraught with risks that are unknowable before a purchase is made. Indeed, a buying decision is a change management problem before it’s a solution choice issue. And the ‘cost’ of bringing in something new must not exceed the ‘cost’ of maintaining the status quo. How can you know this before making a purchase?

CASE STUDY

Years ago, I was a consultant at KPMG training a team of Senior Partners in my Buying Facilitation® model. My contact, Dave, called to say he’d not returned my call because they’d received their first RFP from Boeing (who’d always used Arthur Anderson as their consulting partner) and a group of them were madly trying to compose an impressive proposal.

“What’s stopping them from using AA again this time?” I asked. Dave didn’t have an answer and said he’d find out. He called back to say Boeing was indeed going to use AA again, but had sent them the RFP because they needed a second bid. (Note: do YOU know how often that happens?)

With my assistance, they stopped writing the proposal and instead sent a letter saying since Boeing would be using AA, we wouldn’t be submitting a proposal. Instead we offered them a couple of pages of my Facilitative Questions (a new form of question I invented that works with brain function to discover criteria) which led them to discover how to avoid resistance and disruption during the large-scale, global change they were seeking.  This included how to

  • avoid disruption and resistance during implementation,
  • recognize and involve the complete set of stakeholders from the beginning to ensure the entire fact pattern was collected and the success criteria designed to elicit buy-in,
  • notice, manage, and avoid the project/change risks,
  • maintain the change over time.

KPMG knew it was risky to approach the RFP as we did, but since they weren’t getting the job anyway, they decided it was a good risk to take as the questions exhibited their ability to lead. And it was indeed a good risk: Boeing called after a couple of months to give them the job (without a proposal or price discussion, I might add).

“When we saw your questions, we realized we never even considered those sorts of issues and just assumed our vendors would handle that stuff. And we consistently had problems in those areas you mentioned but never knew it was possible to avoid them. We just didn’t know what we didn’t know, and didn’t know how to include those elements in our RFP. When AA came in to start the project, they had no plans to manage anything but the exact end-result specs we asked for. From your questions, we know now that a few extra steps can be taken at the start of a project to ensure buy in and trouble-free adoption. We certainly didn’t know it was possible to set up the right components from the beginning to avoid the problems later on. Realizing the size of this project and the numbers of people and teams involved, we don’t have tolerance for any dysfunction, so we fired AA. Can you come in and start from the beginning and factor in all of the items you mentioned in your letter?

Whether an individual or part of a Buying Team, somehow buying choices get narrowed down to one. How do you do that? And is there anything you could have included in your decision process to assure your selection comes with minimum disruption and maximum buy in for after you’ve made your selection?

WHY WE BUY ANYTHING

Outside of small personal items, the only time we consider buying anything is when we’re absolutely certain we can’t fix a problem any other way AND we have comprehensive buy-in. The risk of the new causing imbalance is just too high. ‘Need’, price, features and benefits are important, of course, but secondary; purchasing something new must maintain the status quo as well – problematic since anything new faces the possibility of disrupting the equilibrium. It’s a systems thing.

Every person, group, family, company, is a systemTo maintain themselves, systems need balance (homeostasis) and work hard to ensure its norms and values are carried forth through actions. (For those unfamiliar, this is called Systems Congruence). The last thing a system wants to do, the challenge we all face when we recognize something needs to change, is how to bring in an unfamiliar element (certainly a risk) and maintain our status quo. And the time it takes for all the elements that will touch the final solution to agree to something new and know how to integrate it, is the time it takes to choose.

It’s not about price or features until it is; it’s about the dynamics of change. And without taking these steps, the risk of resistance is high as it puts the system out of balance.

One thing is certain: before any decision to buy anything occurs, a set of ‘soft’ criteria – rules, norms, beliefs of the underlying system, if you will – must be met that go beyond the tactical – factual – specifics of the requirements. We get so focused on ‘hard’ criteria we put every buying decision at risk, including:

  • environment not able to integrate or use the new adequately and causes disruption;
  • environment not ready to accommodate change congruently causing relationship and output problems;
  • goal that initiated the purchase in jeopardy;
  • resistance when implementation causes change that hasn’t been accounted for.

Regardless of the need or the efficacy of a new solution, if the risk of disruption to the system is higher than the need for change, no purchase can be made. But as you’ll see, it’s possible to change without resistance or disruption.

WHAT WE LEAVE OUT WHEN IT’S TIME TO BUY

In the Boeing story, the Buying Team’s RFP focused on the facts, the outcomes, of what they thought would solve their problem, but overlooked the ‘soft’ issues – the systemic issues. It’s the same problem with individual purchasers: Have you ever thought about how you decide to buy THIS one instead of THAT one? Have you specified your criteria to ensure the new will fit with the old – and a way to notice when there is an integration issue? Have you captured the specific steps you’ll need to do something different than your normalized habits?

An online search for ‘buying process’ explains the conventional approach: recognize a need, research and evaluate the choices (price, features, etc.), and buy. Seems so simple. But it’s not simple at all.

For smaller decisions, weighting and evaluating features and choices works just fine. But sometimes, especially when Buying Teams must choose a new item or vendor, or something wholly different that shifts the intent of the status quo, is required, we don’t always address the unconscious elements that cause us to accept or reject choices. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. But sometimes it does.

For those times there’s less leeway for error, for when implementation can be fragile (i.e. there’s resistance to change before any decisions have been made), or when numbers of people will be involved, it’s possible to manage those unconscious elements upfront. Sure, facts, needs, features and outcomes are necessary. But the non-obvious data points may lurk without recognition until they come back to bite us or harm performance. Here are the challenges: We:

  • compare the purchase of a new solution against what’s already there, but might forget to add in how to manage what happens when the new criteria changes our outcomes, actions, job descriptions, management needs, downtime, learning curve;
  • seek to find something equal-ish to what’s being replaced without considering how the new will alter our status quo over time or how it will change performance in unexpected ways; 
  • gather initial data only from obvious stakeholders without expanding the group to those who will ultimately touch the final solution, and face resistance;
  • have feelings about a choice if our jobs or ego-needs will be affected, causing unspoken resistance that comes out through sabotage or interference;
  • sometimes acquiesce to a group’s choice and hold hidden biases that will rear their heads later or cause an ineffective decision making;
  • resist a purchase due to an ‘intuitive’ feeling (fear of change, dislike of implementation practices being discussed, distrust of vendor being selected, etc.) that makes the status quo feel safer, and procrastinate making a decision.

There are actually specific steps to all buying decisions that take into account the full panoply of criteria – hard and soft – to make congruent buying decisions. Along with the practical and factual details, these steps make conscious the unconscious elements that ensure a successful conclusion, regardless of the size or price of the purchase or the complexity of the implementation.

STEPS TO BUYING

Note that if everything were working perfectly there would be no need to buy anything. In fact, people only buy when they cannot fix a problem with a known solution. Making a purchase is the last thing anyone wants to do. But when it’s necessary, the outcome must include the maintenance of Systems Congruence, or the cost of failure is too high.

I’ve put together steps below to address systems functionality, more factors than merely need, price, or vendor selection. [Note: for those interested, I’ve written a book on this: Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell] By including all steps, you’ll discover the unconscious factors, the risk factors, the change management factors, so they can be addressed, either individually or with the Buying Team, as part of the actual purchasing decision. Take a look.

  • Specified Outcome: What is the status quo you’re trying to change? While this might seem simple, and come to you defined by a user, this is far from simple. It requires:

a. The entire stakeholder team be included so they can discuss all of the elements that caused the problem, and understand why it hasn’t been fixed until now. The love of the existing processes? The habits incurred by many? The attitude of being ‘good-enough’? Whatever is in here is the reason a new solution is needed now. If this is an unknown, a solution might be purchased that doesn’t address the baseline problem. (i.e. If there is a ‘rules’ problem and it hasn’t been resolved, the same problem will occur with the new solution.)

Often the same factors that have kept the problem in place will cause implementation or acceptance and use issues: the entire group of folks who will use the purchase must understand all possible problems and outcomes. Of course this will bias the ultimate choice to purchase.

b. If any stakeholders are left out from the early stages, it will be harder and more disruptive later on when they join. When I urged British Airways to include their HR manager in a large software rollout, they said “OH! We always forget her, and then need to play catch up when she needs things changed.” Precisely.

  • Status Quo: It’s rare that a problem exists, or a new enhancement needed, without there being something in the status quo that has, or must be, changed and will resist when it’s threatened. The only way to discover the precise factors is by leading the stakeholder team through a thorough examination of how they got where they are.
  • Criteria: What criteria need to be met for the problem to be resolved? Again, all stakeholders must work together to figure the criteria out and reach agreement as to how to manage it before going forward to list the criteria for a purchase. Here are some criteria that my clients manage before putting out an RFP or moving forward with a project:

a. Minimal disruption: How will the new replace the old to ensure minimum disruption? What needs to be in place, or accepted, or shifted?

b. Buy In: Who needs to be involved to implement efficiently? Who needs to buy-in?

c. Resource cost: Who will analyze the resource cost of the new to make sure anything new will cost less than maintaining the status quo? And how will this be gauged when weighting choices?

d. Disruption management: What disruption will take place when the new is brought in? No, really. The stakeholders MUST know this: What EXACTLY will be the disruption and how will it be mitigated? By whom? How will you prepare the people, groups, situations that will be effected? What does that look like? This must be handled specifically, point by point, by all stakeholders or you face resistance or non use.

  • Workarounds: Until everything known is tried and failed, it is irresponsible to consider bringing something New in as the risk is too high for disruption. Of course all new purchases create disruption. But the New must match the norms and carry the rules of the system.

When considering fixing the problem, what options have been tried already from within the existing structure of choices? What stopped these workarounds from working well-enough to not need something from outside? What would a new option need to do differently than the workarounds that have been tried? Did the trials and choices of the workarounds come from the entire stakeholder team?

  • Problem Recognition: It’s not until all of the above have been addressed is there a clear understanding of what needs to be purchased. Sometimes Buying Teams are given a fact sheet, or send out an RFP, blithely assuming it’s accurate, only to have the end result fail when one or two stakeholders scream because they were never contacted, or didn’t understand the consequences for them. This is a huge problem in Buying Teams. Sometimes folks do research, make calls, meet with vendors, without having handled steps 1-3 and can’t figure out why they’re getting such resistance.
  • Research: When the entire fact pattern is understood, when all stakeholders are aware of the consequences to them when the new is purchased, when there is agreement they can’t fix the problem themselves, it’s time to do initial research. Delegate out different research modalities among the different stakeholders. We know that different people get different searches as per their past history, so assign several folks to the same topic. But also research other departments, friends, reliable vendors.
  • Evaluation: The entire stakeholder team must buy in to the new. Until there is agreement that the new matches the values and norms of the underlying system, and the cost of bringing it in is known and addressed, there will be no purchase.

Purchasing a service or an item is relatively easy. The difficult part is making sure the new fits into the status quo with minimal disruption and cost. Add the systems element to your buying decisions to ensure an easy integration and use. Otherwise, you might end up failing when you don’t need to.

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Sharon Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®author NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell), listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. Sharon Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharondrewmorgen.com. She can be reached at sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com.