Successfully Partnering with Suppliers
By Steve Woodruff
There are only two ways to partner with your outsource training suppliers: Successfully or unsuccessfully.
In my 20+ years in our corner of the industry, I’ve seen a lot of both; and I’m quite certain that “successfully” is the far better path to take for career advancement! “Unsuccessfully” leads to lost time, wasted money, loads of frustration, and a blow to professional reputation.
So how do you partner successfully with outside resources when working on training initiatives? First, we need to embrace two very top-level perspectives:
- Working with outside suppliers is a subset of that crucial area of professional development called “collaboration skills” that will determine success in ALL your future roles.
- The Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – always applies. Supplier-partners are not servants or enemies – they are people.
As a training professional, you will likely be involved in a series of projects that must be managed; such as workshop design, Plan of Action meeting planning, learning system development, etc. Many of these projects involve collaboration with internal resources (managers, marketers, lawyers, operations staff, etc.), and some will include outside resources (training suppliers).
This dynamic requires one best practice above all others: being proactive.
Orchestrating the completion of a complex, collaborative project means that someone has to take charge, and create plans, processes and communications protocols. Randomness and “go wherever the wind blows” is the enemy of all project/supplier management success.
It is not the supplier’s job to run the project. It is their job to execute a defined part of the project. The trainer/project manager has to occupy the driver’s seat. You are the customer, and you set the direction and program the GPS.
Suppliers have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and can often provide very valuable perspectives in shaping the project plan. It’s very smart to leverage all that a supplier has to offer – but you still have to take the wheel and drive things forward. And that implies that you have a specific goal (or outcome) at your destination.
Set the (Business) Goal
In training, we talk a lot about learning objectives. Perched above learning objectives, however, is the business goal – the rationale for even doing the project. The proactive project manager has to help all the stakeholders – internal and external – actually articulate this goal by diving deep into the following questions:
- What is the actual reason for doing this training – what is driving the real or perceived need here?
- What is the shift – the behavior change(s) – that we are seeking by this initiative? How will success therefore be measured?
- How is this training going to lead to on-the-ground improved business effectiveness?
Suppliers will do their best work, and apply their considerable expertise and creativity, when they can envision with you what the actual business need is. The goal is not just to deliver a half-day of training. It’s to __________________ (what)? Getting all parties to agree on a one sentence summary brings welcome clarity and accountability to the relationship.
Once the goal is clearly set, it’s time to create a detailed plan.
Co-Create a Structured (Yet Flexible) Project Plan
Unrealistic or poorly-thought-out plans doom many projects to failure, and disrupt client-supplier relationships far too often. Your supplier-partners generally have a realistic view of what the cycles of development will take time-wise. And, your internal colleagues should be able to help sketch out what the cycles of input and review will take during the process. Bring all of that together into a comprehensive outline that fits the given time constraints.
This roadmap needs to be shared with all contributors and stakeholders up front to ensure that there is across-the- board buy-in. Nobody likes disruptive surprises.
However, be prepared to be flexible. Murphy’s Law is still in force. Changes can and WILL happen. Discuss with your supplier-partners how you will deal with timeline changes, scope creep, and other curve balls. Map out a Plan B if, for instance, the launch of an upcoming drug is put on a fast-track to FDA approval. And, be sure that you have predefined escalation and approval structure, which implies that a communication structure has been put in place.
Establish Clarity of Communications
If bad planning has caused many unsuccessful supplier engagements, bad communications has certainly done more than its share of damage. The most vital thing to set up is a locked-in project manager (PM) to PM protocol, where one person on the supplier side is responsible for executing the day-to-day work with one PM on the client side. Since the trainer or training manager is typically serving as the PM, that means all communications must be funneled through this structure.
I always recommend that each project have a designated PM on the client side, reporting to a supervisor or business owner (who is in charge of making financial and business decisions) – and, that the very same structure be established on the supplier side.
The reason for this is that project plans quickly spin out of control when “rogue” communications are happening between different stakeholders. Let’s say a marketing director picks up the phone and talks to the owner of the supplier company (an old friend) and suggests some change or add-on mid-way through a project. Agreement is reached on this change, but no one informs the PMs or other resources involved – even though this change may impact the timeline and the budget by 25 percent!
Chaos ensues, as project plans are suddenly scrambled and finger-pointing begins in earnest. Plus, when the altered version comes up for review, it has to be re-done because key messaging was left out.
Sound crazy? This undisciplined communication happens all the time. Which is why a structured communication plan must be created and enforced throughout the relationship.
Of course, no supplier-client relationship is perfect, and no project runs flawlessly. That’s why rapid and ongoing accountability is vital.
Most suppliers truly want to do a great job for their clients. They want feedback, and they’d prefer to hear it sooner rather than later. If a project starts to go off the rails, intervention may be necessary. If supplier performance is sub-standard and the supplier PM is not responsive, it is best to immediately escalate this to the business owner level so that corrective action can be taken. Sometimes the ball has been dropped inadvertently and a brief communication is all that’s needed to fix it. When expectations are not met and the wound is allowed to fester, however, the client-supplier relationship may suffer permanently.
While it is imperative to have ongoing accountability, it is also a recommended practice to have a postmortem meeting at the end of any project to discuss what went right, and what can be improved. This level of communication generally leads to healthier ongoing partnerships with suppliers.
Remember, suppliers are people just like you: They want to succeed. They want to work with you for the long-term. And, you never know – they may even hire you one day!
Set. Create. Drive. Establish. Define. Escalate. Maintain. Intervene. These are proactive verbs. This is the kind of collaboration you’ll engage in for the rest of your career. Successfully partnering with suppliers sets you up for success in all your future endeavors.
Steve Woodruff is president of Impactiviti. Email Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.