Mind Your RFPs and Qs

, Posted on Feb 22

Leveling the playing field isn’t always the best approach.

Let’s start with a scenario. A man walks into his doctor’s office and tells the doctor, “I’m having pain in my foot. So, I’m going to a number of doctors to get quotes on what it will cost me to have the foot removed. I’d like you to explain your process for amputation, give me a budget, and provide three references for whom you’ve performed this work in the past. If I like what I see in your response, I will bring you in for an interview.”

Seems silly, right? Yet, it’s not too far removed from what many organizations are doing to address their own needs and in finding qualified business partners. The shortcomings of the absurdity illustrated above should be obvious:

  • The man presumes he has diagnosed his foot ailment correctly.
  • Without any professional training or experience, he has prescribed but one among many possible solutions to the problem.
  • He has not given his doctor any opportunity to perform tests, diagnose the problem, or present alternate solutions—perhaps far more effective than amputation.
  • He has given the doctor little opportunity to distinguish his qualifications from his competitors, other than cost, process and past performance.

Such is the RFP Process

So why do organizations, big and small, take a similar approach to curing what ails them, be they technology, marketing or other business challenges?

It’s understood that some governmental agencies and the like are bound by such an approach, but that doesn’t mean the process needs to be rigid and regimented. I’m sure many who issue RFPs feel like this will streamline the process and make the overall endeavor easier. Other companies take the RFP approach because it injects a level of uniformity into the process—everyone is bidding on the same scope of work, so this process will “level the playing field.”

In response to some of these assertions, allow me to offer my advice to those considering issuance of an RFP:

RFPs make things harder, not easier. Though I’m preconditioned to avoid RFPs, truth be told I have responded to them over the years. What I’ve come to discover in almost every case is that the RFPs tend to address the wrong concerns, set erroneous parameters, and dictate a course that later needs to be corrected (at great additional cost, both in terms of time and even financial resources). Think: sewing the foot back on after you’ve later discovered that the pain was actually the result of a spine misalignment.

Don’t level the playing field, expand it. What you should be looking for in finding a service provider are differentiators, not homogeneity. You will never discover the true essence of what makes a company tick or what passions motivate its employees by asking them to, in essence, fill out a form.

Put the Qs before the RFPs. Concede that you don’t know what you don’t know, which is why you’re looking to hire a service provider in the first place. Allow seasoned specialists to ask questions—their questions—to get to the right solution. Do this before you prescribe your own medication. Consider hiring a consultant to research, draft and issue the RFP (or, even better, don’t go the RFP route at all). Think: asking for the amputation before a specialist has taken an MRI, X-Ray and other diagnostic measures.

Don’t ask for a quote against a scope, ask for a scope against a problem. If all you’re looking for is the lowest bidder, the RFP should be a one-page document. “We need a solution; give us your price.” Instead, allow the metaphorical doctors to provide consult. Coming to terms on budget should be the easy part, IF you’ve identified the problem and solution correctly.

Focus on the problem, not the process. At the end of the day, your chief concern should be finding the right service provider to solve your issue. Don’t get hung up on the process. Do the extra work to vet candidates and find those who truly distinguish themselves and are tailor-made to get to the outcome you need. It’s generally not an RFP; it’s research and legwork.

That extra work on the front end will more than pay off in the long run, and you won’t have to lose a foot to cure what ails you.

Agree or disagree?

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