Managing Procurement’s ‘Optics’ by Kelly Barner

Posted on October 15, 2012


If you live in the United States, you can’t get away from coverage of the coming presidential election. Regardless of which candidate you identify with, or if you are one of the few remaining undecideds, you are concerned with three things: what your candidate promises to do, what the other candidate promises to do, and the ‘optics’ of it all.

This term for the impression created by an appearance or statement is relatively new, and has been traced to a 1978 Wall Street Journal article about then President Jimmy Carter’s policies on inflation[1]. “Optics originally referred to the branch of physics that deals with the properties and phenomena of light, thus being inextricably bound to sight. It is now being used as a political buzzword for public perception, whether constituents view an action as acceptable or unacceptable. Appearance trumps analysis.[2]

Although this use of the term may be new, the concept is not, and the idea that appearances are be more important than intent or substance transcends modes of communication. Although it is a visual analogy, optics relates to how you look as well as how you sound. Any group or individual that has a strategic plan to put in place needs to be concerned with both. Procurement needs to maintain the right kind of optics in order to be regarded with respect by internal stakeholders and suppliers. Whether it is fair or not, we can accomplish far more by projecting strength and confidence than we can with good results alone.

Each procurement group has optics that they should be aware of actively managing. A procurement group can be on task and meet all performance milestones, but if the perception in the rest of the organization is otherwise, they may face opposition when they least expect it. Even worse, they may not be aware of what perceptions actually exist.

There are plenty of examples of people throughout history who successfully managed their optics, but two of the best come from world leaders during WWII – FDR and King George VI.

Keeping Up Appearances

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was completely paralyzed from the waist down due to polio, but the extent of his condition was concealed from the public to avoid giving the impression of weakness in a wartime president. “Roosevelt was very rarely photographed while sitting in his wheelchair, and his public appearances were choreographed in such a way as to avoid having the press cover his arrival and departure at public events which would have involved his having to get in or out of a car.[3]

FDR was one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history, carrying 60.8% of the vote and 48 states when elected for his second term, but this did not change his decision to keep his condition a secret. Granted, working with finance and operational stakeholders does not carry the same stakes as collaborating with Stalin, but it is equally important to consider procurement’s positioning. We must demand equal regard by executive leaders, not in words, but by behaving as though equality is the natural order for departments working together.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

King George VI suffered from a stammering condition – never an ideal situation in a leader, but particularly challenging at a time when radio was a growing form of communication. When he had to make a critical radio address announcing Britian’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939, he

worked with an elocution teacher to overcome his stammer: a story recently made famous by the 2010 movie, ‘The King’s Speech’.

The stammer King George VI struggled with was a communication barrier. He was difficult to understand and was unable to project the image he desired, which was one of determination and clarity of thought. But it is not necessary to have a physical challenge in order to have trouble coming across as purposeful and confident. Being overly affected by the rank of your executive audience or unsure of how your message will be received can cause procurement leaders to falter in their presentation of results or a proposed course of action. As George VI learned, only through preparation can you deliver the right message with the necessary tone and assertion.

The truth about optics is that we have them whether we are actively managing them or not. Any procurement group will accept the need to communicate results properly, but the focus is typically on the accuracy and thoroughness of the reports and accompanying documentation. We must not forget that delivery and presentation are just as critical for the expectations they set of our capabilities and contribution. How we look and sound are factored into the way our value is assessed just as much as the amount of spend we bring under management or the savings we negotiate.

1. Ben Zimmer, ‘On Language: Optics’ NY Times: 4 March 2010.

2. Michael J. Sheehan, ‘Good Optics/Bad Optics’ Wordmall: 4 June 2011.

3. ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralytic illness’ Wikipedia.’s_paralytic_illness


Editor’s Note: Buyers Meeting Point’s Kelly Barner has her MBA as well as an MS in Library and Information Science, and is a 2012 Supply & Demand Chain Executive ‘Pro to Know’.  Be sure to check out her weekly update on the PI Window on Business on Blog Talk Radio every Monday at 12:00 noon EST.


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