Curiosity: A Differentiating Supply Chain Competency

By April 30, 2019Power of the Profession
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Integrated. End-to-end. Cross-functional.

These are words we want to use to describe our supply chain organizations, but for many supply chain leaders these words depict a desired future state rather than the present reality of operations. Perhaps this is why our community has identified end-to-end visibility as a leading priority for their organizations. According to our research, 28% of supply chain leaders listed it as the most important capability to achieving future business goals. Another 24% of supply chain leaders cited developing a culture that is flexible and agile as their No. 1 priority.

Not only do we want to operate as and have perspective across one integrated organization, but we want decision-making to be quick and as close to real problems as possible.

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Yet how can we encourage supply chain practitioners to collaborate beyond their siloes when it is how they have traditionally operated and how we have primarily rewarded them? How can we nudge employees toward an agile, iterative mode of operation when more than a third of our community sees decision-making at the individual contributor and frontline manager level as time-consuming and bureaucratic?

Beyond the restructuring of the supply chain organization — which can be a disruptive endeavor — we should first capitalize on one of humanity’s most remarkable attributes: curiosity. At its core, curiosity is the desire to learn something new, often by seeking new information and experiences.

Recent research from Harvard Business Review found that curiosity can prevent the cognitive traps of confirmation bias and stereotyping, increase levels of creativity and innovation, reduce group conflicts, and improve communication and team performance.

Despite functional objectives and metrics, both innate and learned curiosity can drive supply chain employees to ask critical questions about how their work impacts and is impacted by other employees and customers across the value chain. Curious employees want to understand why we do things the way we do and how we can do things better.

However, when acquiring and developing talent, the supply chain organization overwhelmingly prizes functional or technical “expertise” over other competencies. Yet experts create ideas based on what has traditionally worked for them in the past, so their expertise now does not guarantee their ability to effectively problem-solve in future situations.

The fault in betting heavily on expertise is that we emphasize “the right answer, right now” and ignore the importance of exploring new ways of thinking and working in supply chain. Functional expertise and standardization are certainly important in supply chain organizations, but only if they do not impair continuous improvement and innovation.

As we see in the graphic above, only 3% of supply chain leaders view “curiosity and a willingness to embrace new tools and techniques” as a top priority to achieve future business goals. But to accomplish feats such as breaking down functional siloes or shifting role responsibilities in light of automation, leaders should take a closer look at the curiosity of their workforce and how they can promote inquisitiveness across the organization.

As a starting point, supply chain leaders should leave behind the following perspectives:

  • Supporting curiosity will slow decision-making or lead to disagreements.
  • Encouraging curiosity will lead to an organization of employees who follow their own interests, which will be more difficult for leaders to manage.
  • The efficiency of the supply chain organization trumps its ability to innovate.

Instead, they should begin to hone curiosity as a core supply chain competency by:

  • Creating opportunities for curious exploration. Encourage employees to take time away from their work to be curious. Deploy hackathons, build cross-functional supply chain centers of excellence (COEs), or define audacious business challenges for agile teams to come together and solve.
  • Hiring candidates who display natural curiosity. Incorporate interview questions that will demonstrate the natural curiosity of candidates. For example, you might ask a candidate: “In your previous role, did you ever find yourself unable to stop learning about something you had never encountered before?” A candidate who is genuinely curious will likely respond: “I just needed to know the answer.” Pay attention to the types of questions the candidate asks as well; are any of them adjacent to or outside the scope of the job?
  • Incentivizing leaders to model inquisitiveness. When facing a critical decision, encourage leaders to first ask questions before acting. Have them model curiosity and intellectual humility by owning up to when they don’t have the answer or expertise to solve a problem.
  • Emphasizing learning goals over performance goals. Reward individuals both for their performance as well as for the learning and development needed to get there.

Caroline Chumakov, Supply Chain Analyst, Gartner

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