The Power of Quiet in Your Supply Chain

The Subarctic Survival situation is a leadership assignment that every incoming class at Harvard Business School participates in designed to teach team synergy, harmony and collaboration.

It’s a situation than many of you may have participated in at one time or another.  As a group, imagine your plane has crash-landed in subarctic conditions and you only have a handful of items salvaged from the wreckage to help you survive – a compass, sleeping bag, axe, and other items that would normally be on a plane.

The object of the game is to rank the items in terms of importance to your survival.  First the students rank the items individually; then as a group.  Then they score the rankings against an expert to see how well they did.  And they videotape the group exercise to see what went right and how well they worked together.

The point of the exercise is to reach group synergy and, presumably have a better group ranking than individual rankings.  After all, two heads are better than one, right?

The results of the exercises uncovered an even more enlightening conclusion and one that should have a profound impact on how you design processes, instill change and work.

Instead of having the group consistently find a better ranking, what they found was that more often than not one or more individual people had better rankings, and in some cases, got exactly the perfect ranking.

Why would that be?

Because, as a group, they tended to value assertiveness and evaluated a suggestion by someone based on how vocal they were.  If you made a suggestion and it was not expressed loudly and forcefully, then it was likely to be discarded as a group.  Even though many of the ideas expressed by introverted folks were better and would help the group survive, they were shot down.

And this phenomenon is repeated year after year, class after class.

Now, quietly sit back and think about this for a moment.

I think you’ll agree that this should have profound impact on how you work, design processes and initiate change.

Consider collaboration.  What this research suggests is that collaboration, while a noble endeavor, is likely to suffer since the more vocal and forceful person will likely end up getting their way.

Suppose your collaborating on promotional forecasts.  What this learning tells us is that unless you design a process that ensures all participants have an equal voice, the results will be worse.

Perhaps this helps explain why team-based promotional forecasting has chronically suffered from high-side bias.  Kinda makes sense as loud and forceful people tend to be very optimistic about their ideas and projections.

Simply put, your collaborative planning process needs to ensure everyone’s opinions and views are treated equally. As an example of a promotional forecasting process that could help ensure all voices are heard, how about this:

  1. Before the group meets they document their forecast and assumptions on a piece of paper
  2. A neutral person will join the meeting
  3. At the meeting, all group members turn their sheets over and reveal their forecasts and assumptions at the same time
  4. The neutral person facilitates the discussion amongst the group to come to consensus and they weigh all participants equally and ensure all members participate (even the quiet ones)

I’ve been in a number of retail organizations and I can assure you that this is not how they do consensus, promotional forecasting.  I can also assure you that they have a high-side bias in forecasting promotions.

Please don’t think I’m saying this is the way team-based promotional forecasting should be done.  It’s not.  But the research above clearly indicates that the process you use needs to make sure all opinions and ideas are equal.

Given this research, shouldn’t you also then worry about process design and implementation being dominated by the more vocal folks?  You most certainly should.

Quiet people, for too long, have gotten a bit of a bad rap and reputation. Often they are referred to as introverts and prefer to work and think before speaking.

Yet many of the world’s greatest innovators are quiet, shy folks.  Luckily their organizations have found ways to work that allow their quietness to be heard.

Your work as a supply chain professional is never done and improvement is a journey without end, requiring the brilliance and genius of everyone – including the quite ones.

Make sure you listen to them.  After all, they might have something good to say.

Photo by Flikr user Catherine

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