By Andy Beth Miller

When I learned I would be interviewing Dr. Stefan Schaper for this article, I was floored. This is because, as acting CEO of Schaper-Tech, an innovation and technology consulting firm he created in 2019, Schaper’s main focus surrounds helping guide others in evolving and growing in the main areas of TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving), design thinking, and agile methods.

The fact that he holds an MBA and PhD only elevated him further in my esteem, so I was understandably anxious to get his wisdom and guidance with next steps post-COVID. Because if ever there was a time to pick a professional problem-solver’s brain, it’s mid pandemic, staring down a long tunnel at the future unknown.

In this year of real upheaval, I couldn’t help but ask Schaper where he saw the realm of procurement standing at present. According to Schaper, the bar is set pretty low, and there is much room to grow: “Many parts of the procurement process are still pretty much old style: People work with spreadsheets and ERP systems; people meet with vendors and negotiate. Compared to other parts of the business, the level of innovation is relatively low.”

So what does this mean? Are we doomed, or is this an invitation for innovation? Schaper claims the latter:

This means there is a lot of potential for disruption. We are in an age of technological change. AI, Big Data and other developments are knocking on the door…

–Schaper

And how shall we answer, I inquired? In the midst of chaos and a global pandemic—following a year of constant shifts we’ve had to adjust to daily—how are we to open this proverbial to progress in the best way possible?

Ironically, Schaper suggests taking a figural step back to look to the past, then taking stock of what has come before in order to ultimately move forward: “I believe we can learn from the past: millions of years ago, the Earth was dominated by huge dinosaurs. They ruled the planet and lived over 150 millions of years. Then, suddenly an asteroid hit the Earth and the following crisis changed the history forever: mammals were more flexible to adopt to the new conditions and started a new era.”

As I listen, I can see where he is going with this clearly, and I am instantly on board with this more-than-apt analogy already. “I see the current pandemic as such an event. Many ‘dinosaurs,’ including those in procurement, will come into trouble. [In contrast], the most adopted organizations will profit from the current situation.”

Now, as I have aged, I have definitely been compared to a dinosaur in several areas, especially by my millennial nieces and nephews. While these instances were mostly bemoaning my lack of knowledge and zero cool factor regarding the current “in” trends like Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and more social media whose names I haven’t quite mastered the lingo for (is Tweet really considered a verb nowadays?), I know enough to understand that being categorized as a dinosaur is NEVER a good look on anybody. So I, like you I am sure, determined immediately to avoid extinction (or aging out) at all costs.

In fact, a panic seized me a bit as Schaper explained the rapid-fire changes that are inevitably going to come to procurement. After all, in his own words, they are already “knocking at the door.” I want us to be prepared as best we can—prepared and ready to adapt—so I ask Schaper for a crash course on what’s coming next.

He kindly obliged, graciously putting it in laymen’s terms: “I see mainly two big trends which will change procurement: Increasing degree of automation (automated negotiations, redlining processes, compliance checks, automated repetitive tasks and so on), and increasing demand for control (this means stronger transparency on process, prices for items depending on geography, compliance to environmental standards etc).”

Schaper quickly followed up this dual enlightenment with the gentle warning that progress of any sort is bound to be met with various obstacles along the way. And while we have certainly gotten used to the bumpy ride that is 2020 already, Schaper offers some insight to help us best navigate the “new normal” to come. Mainly, he points to people as the answer to what ails us.

The obstacles are the same as in any change process. The people should be in the center of attention

–Schaper
And as we—the people—drive this change, in his own words, Schaper encourages us to hedge our bets for success by ushering in innovation through experimentation: “My personal opinion is: experiment as much as possible! And involve open-minded people into those experiments.”After voicing how critical this open-minded character trait is within your team, he further expounds that “ [since] digitization is often perceived as a threat similar [to] a Lean Program, [by] doing experiments, iterating, and demanding feedback, you can get easy feedback.” It is this constant communication—this feedback—that will help fuel (and forge)—the path forward. As we continue to discuss the coming disruption that lies ahead, I ask Schaper if he has any mentors that have come before him, or any particular quotes that he carries in his back pocket as he pioneers his way into the coming procurement frontier. it is no surprise to me when Schaper, a biologist by education, brings up the master of all things adaptation: Charles Darwin.“I will [often refer to] Charles Darwin in his famous book ‘The Origin of Species’: ‘It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.’”Clearly, adaption appears to be the word of the day, and the days to come. I end our discussion by asking Schaper if he has any last pearls of wisdom for us all as we “get ready” for all that is to come. He must have sensed my silent cry for affirmation and wish for a shot of courage somehow, as he simply yet confidently urges me (and you) to take courage, resisting the urge to cower in the face of change—even if that change looks and feels like a roller coaster ride.

Many innovators have the tendency to focus on the technology, but the people in the organization drive the change. This requires involvement, communication, and often, cultural change.

–Schaper

“Don’t see the upcoming changes as a threat,” he says, before offering an alternative tactic, one requiring us to empower ourselves by stepping out of the passenger’s seat and stepping up the grab the steering wheel. “Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do, but look which tools are best adopted to solve the challenges you face. Then test, experiment, get data and iterate!”

I find myself emboldened by Schaper’s words. There is an authority to his demeanor, and raw truth to his advice, that both serve to allay many of my fears that were brought to the table today. Somehow, throughout the course of one single interview, many of my own trepidations and wild imaginings of the worst have been tamed, replaced by a newfound sense of direction amid the disruption.

And as we move forward and heed the good doctor’s advice—boldly stepping into the driver’s seat to take charge and move out—I still suspect they’ll be heart palpitations and more than a few pairs of sweaty palms white-knuckling that steering wheel. And that’s okay; it’s all going to be.