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RFP objectivity a myth? Who cares? Concensus is what counts

RFPs are supposed to be about transparency, fairness and objectivity. These values are especially important in the following cases:

  1. Public Accountability. Government or other public sector organizations must be able to demonstrate that public money is being is being well spent. If the mayor's brother in law wins a bridge building contract, the mayor needs huge stack of RFP documents to bog down opponents until the next electoral cycle.
  2. Job Security. When responsibility for a big decision lands on someone's desk, the career risks are daunting. A bureaucratic, turgid and mind numbingly dull RFP can be flourished as proof of diligence in a subsequent court hearing for unfair dismissal.

Conducting an RFP with sophisticated weighting and scoring can be seen as attempt to graft an objective and scientific methodology onto an inherently subjective process. There is justification for this view. The process of scoring answers and assigning weightings is unavoidably subjective, so perhaps the result is to fragment one large irrational decision into many smaller irrational decisions. In the worst case, this means that the final decision may be poor because of the compromises thus entailed. However, even if this stark analysis is correct, arguably, it doesn't matter.

Advocates of the structured RFP process focus on the benefits listed in the first point above: objectivity, accuracy etc. However, in many situations the second point, consensus, may be more important.

Large purchasing decisions always involve disruption. Existing relationships or specialist skills may be nullified, and staff, feeling threatened, can be recalcitrant in their adaptation. In the recent past, a common solution to this problem was to hire a bunch of well qualified and very expensive "Change Management" consultants. Whilst helping to stem the flood of under employed psychology graduates is a noble act, it must be admitted that there is an alternative. That is, simply, to avoid upsetting people in the first place by taking account of their opinions.

Whilst the structured RFP process may not always deliver on the promise of analytical rigour, it can, if used thoughtfully, enable organizations to make disruptive changes that are greeted with enthusiasm rather than resistance. In terms of overall project success, it's very better for everyone to agree on buying the second best product rather than civil war breaking out over the implementation of the best product.

The crucial concept here is "divide and conquer". An important decision for selecting a complex product or service must be decomposed into a hierarchy of component parts. In SupplierSelect, that means sections, sub sections and questions of an RFP survey. No one person will have mastery of all these components, so responsibility must be delegated to experts in each area. Responsibility can cascade. A top level section of an RFP, e.g. "Operations" can be devolved to a Director. Sub sections of that can then be developed to department heads, and so on down to the 6 month intern that's become expert in some arcane facet of the business. A side effect of this approach is that vendors are going be much happier answering an RFP that is obviously written by people that know what they're talking about.

Devolving the decision making process greatly improves the chances of successful implementation because more people are committed to the the project. A typical example is an IT automation project. Such projects can be very threatening to people because existing processes are disrupted, and some staff have the lurking fear that they might be replaced by a computer. Technical differences can be marginal. A database is a big improvement on a warehouse of archived documents whether it's Oracle, IBM or MySQL.

SupplierSelect has been providing online RFP platforms for years. We've also had to answer our fair share of RFPs, generally copy/paste boilerplate horror shows. We're not cheerleaders for the glorious RFP. In fact we sometimes see our job as trying to make an unpleasant inevitability less painful. But we have seen some excellent project managers run very effective RFPs. Their characteristics:

  1. They recognize that most important factor in project success is enthusiastic adoption of change. They view the RFP as a way to engage with staff and generate that enthusiasm.
  2. Humility. They're not afraid to defer to the expertise of their colleagues
  3. Confidence. Many vendors know a lot more about what they're selling than the buyer. A good RFP project leader will give vendors scope to educate the buyer, rather than being defensive.
  4. Laziness. It's said that laziness is the cardinal virtue for a computer programmer (they automate everything, so make fewer mistakes). It's similar for RFP management. Lazy managers delegate to expert staff. And of course they look for fearsomely efficient RFP management software like SupplierSelect.

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