Unconscious incompetence and how the retailer might learn to do better

I’ve taken a massive step recently. Well, perhaps ‘step’ isn’t the right word. More like a big change of gear. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound quite as poetic though. Either way, I have started to learn to drive.

I can see the look of horror on your face. Yes, people can make it to their mid-twenties without the ability to drive a car. Now, you might be thinking that perhaps he walks everywhere, runs or cycles. If only the truth was so athletic. Where I live there are buses so regularly that ‘missing’ a bus just isn’t a possibility.

However, I am making the leap. Or maybe not ‘leap’. No, let’s not start on this again. I’m moving out of the city centre and into what might as well be the Siberian Wilderness, where the ability to drive a car is second only to breathing on the list of necessities.

So, yes, I am learning to drive. My instructor? Well, that would be my mother-in-law – as if it wasn’t nerve racking enough. All joking aside she is a wonderful instructor and she said something the other day that inspired the way I now think about learning.

I had just eased my way out of a closed junction without stalling or seriously injuring anyone (minor injuries don’t count) and she said that, since I was now capable of completing such manoeuvres, I had reached a state of ‘conscious competence’.

Thank you very much! I thought.

Wait… what does that even mean?

What it meant, I later found out, was that I understood how to do something, but demonstrating the new skill required concentration and some analysis on my part. I was then told that this was stage three in the ‘Four stages of competency’. That’s not bad, I thought. Only one stage to go.

The fourth, and final, stage was ‘unconscious competence’. This is where the individual is able to perform a task almost as if it was second nature and without any real thinking at all.

Competency of engagement with suppliers

So, where am I going with this? Well, what about if we consider where a private brand retailer might fit in this journey when it comes to supplier engagement? Now, I must point out that I am not calling retailers incompetent - conscious, unconscious or otherwise. Someone else came up with the matrix, I’m merely following their example.

Stage one: unconscious incompetence

How many private brand retailers are stranded in the first stage – ‘unconscious incompetence’ – when it comes to their supplier engagement? It’s not necessarily their fault. They don’t recognise the usefulness of the new skill and as such, don’t understand their own incompetence. To progress there must be a realisation that the retailer needs to improve. More importantly, the retailer must also acknowledge that, in order to improve their supplier relationships, they need to learn how to engage them. Remember, as my colleague David Taylor discussed, managing supplier relationships is not the same as supplier engagement.

Back to my driving example: by living in the city centre I was not completely aware of how much more freedom I would have by learning to drive or the steps involved in becoming a fully-fledged driver.

Stage two: conscious incompetence

In order to move onto the second stage, the retailer must understand that they do not currently have the skill, but recognise its importance. While they remain ‘incompetent’ in their supplier engagement, the retailer has now realised this fact and looks to improve. This realisation can be the result of negative publicity, a downturn in supplier relations, or even the failure of a data collection campaign. There may be nothing negative; it may be a realisation of what could be achieved, quicker, more accurately or more right-first-time with engaged suppliers. Whatever the catalyst, the retailer understands that to turn their fortunes around they must engage with their suppliers and help them.

It is at this point that the learning curve becomes steeper.

In my case, while I had a glimpse at life as a driver, I also became very aware of how incompetent I really was behind the wheel. I needed to learn how to drive.

Stage three: conscious competence

Working alongside S4RB, the retailer is putting together a plan: Project Engage! Built around the three pillars of good supplier engagement: communications, support and transparency. This might be an initial contact accuracy campaign, a survey of supplier compliance responding to the latest Governmental legislation or driving suppliers towards a new self-help portal.

Sticking to the plan and implementing Project Engage has made the retailer increasingly competent in supplier engagement. By improving engagement, the retailer has improved the contact accuracy of their supplier information, confirmed legislation compliance and even improved their data collection campaigns. Motivation and understanding are improved and the private brand team and their suppliers achieve more, together.

They are learning the skills, but also experiencing the successes, necessary to make supplier engagement an unconscious way of doing business rather than a conscious strategy. Much like how I am learning how to change gear, respond to appropriate road conditions and check my mirrors (always the mirrors!)

Stage four: unconscious competence

Great! The retailer has improved their supplier engagement and their efforts are already having terrific results. No longer are their data collection campaigns falling short of the mark. Instead, by using effective supplier engagement their campaigns are a resounding success.

But reaching stage four is more than just the do-ing. It is true understanding of supplier engagement. The retailer no longer has to ask themselves, “How can I improve my supplier relationships?” or “Should I be engaging my suppliers?”

The questions are no longer explicitly asked. Instead, the retailer knows the right answer and has already implemented a strategy to do just that. The retailer engages their suppliers – it’s a mind-set and they have adopted it successfully to each part of their business-as-usual interaction with suppliers.

More importantly, adopting such a mind-set has helped them to improve their supplier relationships and to achieve more, together.

Happy ending

We all like a happy ending. Well, most of us do (I’m thinking Stephen King). And the good news is folks, I am actually finishing writing this having driven to work this morning and planning to drive home later. I passed my driving test two weeks ago.

The retailer will see success by following this learning matrix too.

Find out more about how supplier engagement helps retailers to achieve their goals.

Tags: Supplier engagement

Alex Fitchett

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