RFPs: The pain of our existence

Call it an “inside joke,” but we all had a good chuckle around the gordongroup water cooler at “RFP: Recipe For Pain,” a blog post by web project manager Tiffani Jones Brown (http://thingsthatarebrown.com/blog/2010/09/rfp-recipe-for-pain/).

Snarky title aside, Brown does highlight some real, recurring problems with Requests for Proposals, aka RFPs, aka the “tendering process”—problems that, unfortunately, we encounter regularly as well. The first is that most RFPs dictate both design and execution requirements for the project: as Brown puts it, “You will make X design with X features and X pages using X technology.” But think about that in practical terms.

Essentially, RFPs exist because their authors know they need help: “Let’s face it—making websites (or designing annual reports, etc.) is really not our forte. Why don’t we hire people who specialize in this stuff?” Too often, our clients see the need for outside expertise, but draft an RFP in which all the major decisions have already been made—by non-experts. If nothing else, this severely limits the value-for-money we can deliver; but truth be told, it can also drain the fun factor out of the project, too. We’re a creative agency—this is how we get our kicks!

The second problem is that RFPs ask for detailed timelines and workplans. Not an unreasonable request on the surface, but again, this highlights the importance of expertise. Clients are not always well equipped to identify the full scope of the work, and we can’t possibly know the full scope either without spending some time on research and consultation—which we simply aren’t able to do until we’ve already won the contract and initiated the project.

In order to comply with the RFP, we’re forced to commit ourselves to a workplan that may well turn out to be a poor fit for the job. In our clients’ defence, these problems arise for understandable reasons. The types of organizations that issue RFPs, such as government departments and not-for-profits, are usually required to be highly transparent and accountable in all their business dealings. RFPs must be as structured as possible so that the “playing field is level,” and competing bidders aren’t evaluated in any subjective way.

(Although it does seem strange that they want to avoid seeming to “prefer” one bidder’s solution over the others—isn’t that the whole point?) If anything, both problems highlight the need for clear-cut planning for RFPs. And at gordongroup, we are very much in favour of planning! But to all our clients: it’s SO much better if we plan together.

While we like it when clients form project authorities or committees to attack the problem, it’s much more valuable for us when these groups focus on exploring the problem and its causes, rather than on attempting to choose the right solution.

As well, we have built extensive research and consultation phases into our standard work process, which goes into every proposal we write. During these phases we try to get clients to reframe the project in terms of needs, goals, and especially the unknowns or grey areas.

When they walk through the subject matter one more time, with our expert outside perspective, they tend to see the issues in a whole new light. In a perfect world, the contractor would be free to use creativity and expertise to come up with the best solution, without being handcuffed by overly restrictive terms. And, of course, there’s the flip side to this: the client could trust that contractors weren’t using their expertise as an advantage to write their own ticket. In the end, the success of the RFP process all comes down to trust—and at gordongroup we work to earn it.