A better world starts with asking a better question

Door Ilse Hoenderdos,
op 09 juni 2014

We are often asked why Copper8 attracts so much attention for guiding procurement. Are we a purchasing consultant? In the world of increasing vagueness within the “consulting industry” it is probably fine to sell a “product” – a tender, in that sense, is very concrete, with a defined beginning and end. Yet, anyone who knows Copper8 a little knows that this cannot be the reason. Hence the quotation marks on “consultancy industry” and “product” – we have real hesitations about how well the consulting industry is shaped. But that’s not what this blog is about.

What this blog is about is the transition to a new economy, and the importance of asking the right questions in order to accelerate the transition. Because we cannot expect that the transition to a new sustainable economy will come from a fully supply-driven model. Then we’re in peril, in the same way as solar cells: an industry in which various subsidy measures have been created since 2003 to establish an artificial demand (unsuccessfully)… This naturally comes out of the offering.

Those who can think logically think it’s easier to innovate when you know the demand is there. In the transition, we need parties who dare to ask the right questions. People offering procurement services who stick their necks out by asking the very questions that the market is perhaps not quite ready for. But what is a good question? At this level we can learn a lot from our youngest generation. Although I see many of my parent friends frustrated when their children arrive at the well known ‘why-phase; this is precisely there where the crux lies: “Why?” How difficult do parents find it to answer those annoying “why” questions, but how glad are they when they finally give the exact answer that can satisfy both parent and child?

It is precisely this dynamic we are looking at in procurement. Since the contracting authorities have become so good at interrogating the ‘what’ – molded into specifications and schedules of requirements; and of course the ‘how’ – contained in questions concerning action plans and schedules; the competitive power ultimately comes down to the price. By asking the ‘what’ or ‘how’ questions you therefore encourage no sustainable innovations. The innovation ability of market players does not lie in the connection between the ‘what’ and ‘how’, but between the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.

Examples from our practice teach that if you keep asking these ‘why’ questions it leads to redefining the question being put to the market. The initial request of one of our tasks was “Please create a BREEAM-Excellent building on the vacant lot of land behind the existing buildings” – obviously already leaning towards a solution, or the ‘what’. This question is ultimately transformed into “a resettlement task ensuring maximum respect for the existing building’s workspace created for 1200 employees with the starting points being positive energy and circular.” And even outside the built environment, by asking the ‘why’ question this leads to a better scope definition: are we looking for the cheapest furniture provider in accordance with a set of requirements, or are we looking for a furniture supplier that evolves with us and thereby works towards maximum sustainability?

However, asking the ‘why’ question is (1) not easy, (2) not easy, and (3) really not easy:

  1. As (highly) educated people we are used to, and are even trained for, thinking in terms of solutions. It is therefore a challenge to find the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’. The lesson: keep questioning like a toddler until you get there. Because only when you find a ‘why’ that fits with the mission and vision of the information-requesting party can you develop an adequate, sustainable and innovative offering. Simon Sinek became (rightly) famous for this: Start with Why.
  2. As a contracting authority you keep a distance from certainties – although I would argue that these are false certainties. By asking an open ‘why’ question, contracting authorities don’t know exactly what they’ll get – you leave space for input from real experts. You have to have confidence in the supply of the market, and yes, there is a need for courage.
  3. It is difficult to objectify why Party X wins the tender over party Y. And if you have qualitative responses rather than quantitative responses (i.e. the competitive ability of price in the ‘old’ paradigm tender)… how do you objectify then? The crux here is also where you pluck the ‘why’ string – and that brings us back to the parent’s happy moment when he has to explain ‘why’ to his toddler. When a provider touches that string, the provider scores high. Because then it’s not just a solution or a method, but the provider lives through the solution by answering the ‘why’ question. This should, of course, be captured on the side of the contracting authority in a careful assessment methodology – consisting of proper criteria, an objective committee and a clear procedure to arrive at the final scoring.

Fortunately, our experience shows that the market is mostly relieved and happy when receiving innovative procurement that hits the ‘why’ level. Because without a good question, the providers can lose their innovative solutions.

A better world starts with asking a better question, and that’s why we gladly guide tenders.

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