Becoming Anti-Fragile at Bristlecone Pulse 2018

Last week, I had the pleasure to attend Bristlecone’s fifth-annual user conference, Pulse 2018, at the highly esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where there were no Matt Damon sightings or references to Good Will Hunting, unfortunately). Bristlecone is a San Jose, California-based provider of networked procurement, sourcing, and supply chain risk management solutions geared towards driving what company leaders call “anti-fragility,” which seeks to take an organization’s operations and supply chain beyond resiliency to a more advantageous position in business markets.

Anti-fragility and being anti-fragile were main themes of Pulse 2018, with Bristlecone leaders, users, and local (MIT) academics and scientists illustrating how the continual innovation of next-generation technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI), Blockchain distributed digital ledgers, connected devices (the “Internet of Things”), and other technologies are enabling more organizations to become truly anti-fragile. Suffice it to say that there were a lot of wicked smaht people in attendance at Pulse 2018 (but no Affleck brothers).

Taking the Pulse

Karen Beale, managing partner of Sirella, a California-based strategic sales consulting firm, kicked us off with a rather unique request: take our pulses, and shout out what the word means to us. Audience members yelled out “life!” and “vitality!” which are the essence any healthy and robust procurement and supply chain management operation. Without life and vitality, an organization’s procurement and supply chains are “fragile,” or at risk of suffering a cataclysmic failure. Pulse 2018 brought together some of the brightest minds in the procurement and supply chain risk management community to celebrate how much life and vitality they have, thanks in large part to Bristlecone’s work in the function.

Karen then welcomed Naresh Hingorani, global VP of strategy and market enablement, Bristlecone, to the stage where they quite literally broke the ice for the audience of 100 practitioners, academics, industry analysts (including this one), and Bristlecone team members. According to Naresh, we’d spend the next day and a half tackling four major themes: 1) the future of supply chain and risk management, 2) the big and hard problems to solve therein, 3) the evolution of innovation models, and 4) what next-generation technologies will do for procurement and supply chain management.

Introducing Anti-Fragility

Naresh then gave us an overview of Bristlecone’s Anti-Fragility Roadmap, which includes eight pillars:

  1. Enterprises
  2. Technology
  3. Social Responsibility
  4. Collaboration
  5. Process
  6. Risk
  7. Analytics
  8. Agility

An organization becomes “anti-fragile” not just by adopting and incorporating these elements, but in linking them so that each supports and enhances the other. For example, enterprises that incorporate social responsibility (CSR) into their risk management processes and that adopt digital, automated risk management technologies are more likely to be considered anti-fragile. Furthermore, organizations that have a collaborative culture and a robust analytics capability are more likely to be agile in the event of a sudden, unexpected disruption, and to be able to minimize, manage, and even leverage to their advantage a supply chain risk. That is the essence of supply chain anti-fragility.

Organizations are almost never anti-fragile from inception, and actually, they are probably their most fragile at the beginning. As Naresh detailed, there are five stages of the anti-fragility journey

  1. Fragile –> 2. Reactive –> 3. Robust –> 4. Resilient –> 5. Anti-Fragile

The incremental steps that organizations take, including the reorientation of procurement people, the optimization and standardization of processes, the adoption of emerging technologies, and the convergence of all three elements is, collectively, how procurement and supply chain management operations set forth on their anti-fragility journey.

Anti-Fragility: A Marathon of Many Sprints

Following Naresh’s conceptual introduction, Bristlecone President and CEO, Irfan Khan took the stage to deliver his keynote address. Irfan explained the reasoning behind this year’s conference theme, anti-fragility: because supply chain disruptions can cost organizations significantly and can shutter many of them if they are not careful. A fit man, Irfan looks like he could run a marathon. It is no wonder, then, that he would liken risk management, or anti-fragility as a marathon rather than a sprint. But he challenged the very concept of what a marathon it is — not simply a series of many small races strung together, but rather, many fast races that come in intervals. Businesses need to be resilient, yes — but they also need to be agile, and to be able to cycle on and off as needed for as long as needed.

When companies and business leaders face a crisis, it can reveal who they are and whether the can be trusted. As Irfan noted, there is a close relationship between trust and monetization: if a company can be trusted, people are more willing to do business with them rather than an unknown commodity (think of how we purchase goods and services — based in large part on the reputation or past performance of a vendor). This premium we place on trust has lead us to what Irfan referred to as Customer-Centric Anti-Fragility.

Customer-Centric Anti-Fragility is a strategy focused on protecting customers while benefiting the organization — and the two develop an affinity for one another in the process. Businesses would be nothing without their customers’ loyalty and repeat business; and customers often fall in love with or simply rely on a business’s products and services, and these relationships go back decades. Imagine what would happen if a business under these circumstances violated their customers’ trust (e.g, a data breach), or inconvenienced them (e.g., product recalls), or endangered them (e.g., product-related illnesses, injury, or death).

Companies also have to have what Irfan referred to as “Competitive Stamina,” which he broke down into four key elements:

  1. Stop trying to achieve resilience; be resilient. This is the first step towards anti-fragility. Anyone can try to do something, but “trying” gives too many of us a quick and easy “out” vis-a-vis adversity. If we simply do something, we commit to seeing it through. Do or do not, there is no try, Irfan said, quoting Yoda from Star Wars.
  2. Certainty and clarity vis-a-vis calamity are valuable to stakeholders “caught” in the middle of it. When organizations are embroiled in a crisis and are struggling to work through it, having clear and accurate information on which to base decisions is a critical part of being able to respond to and ideally leverage the crisis at hand.
  3. Compete with yourself — not with others. In the game of risk management, players are competing with themselves, and are often trying to mitigate conditions and circumstances that they created or allowed into their organizations. By focusing on themselves (and not how others are responding to the same or similar crisis), organizations can focus on what they can control and can commit to improving their performance over time.
  4. Claim decisive victories. There is an old proverb that states, perhaps incorrectly, that there are two characters that make up the Chinese word for crisis – danger, and opportunity. A more recent take on the proverb, attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, is: never let a good crisis go to waste. Organizations that are anti-fragile are more likely to be able to take advantage of market crises (for example, by seizing on supply gluts, low prices, or by delivering innovative market solutions, etc.) than those that are fragile or reactive, and emerge from crises as market leaders or innovators.

Final Thoughts

The day-and-a-half-long event was chock full of fantastic case studies and success stories delivered by innovative, forward-leaning procurement and supply management professionals that embrace modern and emerging business technologies to transform and become anti-fragile. The trials, tribulations, and rewards of these presenters gave credence to what many other organizations experience today and will continue to experience moving forward. As teams digitally transform their operations with AI, Blockchain, IoT, and cloud-based, mobile-first applications, many are becoming anti-fragile and are better able withstand the shifting headwinds of today’s turbulent market conditions.


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