The RFP Mentality: Are you Erecting Roadblocks to the Solutions you Need?

A couple of weeks ago there was an interesting conversation on ASAE’s “Collaborate” board about the merits and/or limitations of RFPs.  Most consultants were skeptical about the value of their participation.  Some argued that their approaches were unique to each client, crafted on the basis of in-depth understanding of individual needs and circumstances and, hence, could not fit neatly within the narrow specs of RFP’s.   

I am in complete agreement but have another, related pet peeve: the fact that the detailed specifications of RFP’s presume that the answers are largely known and that no help with diagnosis and solutions-development is needed.  Starting with answers or the wrong questions is a huge impediment that, unfortunately, is not limited to occasional requests for proposals. It is an inside-out mode of problem-solving; one that is shaped by internal assumptions rather than emerge from open discovery in the marketplace.  RFP's look for tactical help with design and implementation according to specifications rather than with rigorous discovery and innovation.  As a result they result in outcomes that are variations of current products and practices.  I am sure that many projects--building a bridge or implementing a new accounting or software system, for instance--lend themselves to RFP's.  My peeve is with RFPs that impose a commodity approach to strategic  challenges,  precluding customization, innovation and truly new outcomes.

I once responded to an RFP from a technology related association, based in Northern Virginia.  They needed consulting support to assess members’ "program preferences" and come up with a new, improved programs and benefits mix for the next year. Outcomes would also include recommendations for a new membership structure and a marketing campaign strategy. 

It was only later that I realized why responding to an RFP seemed so frustrating and futile. By starting with answers rather than strategic questions the RFP  had prescribed  an action plan that pre-determined the nature of results and blocked new types of solutions and opportunities.  This is how:

  • Diagnosis: The RFP started with assumptions about the problem facing them and the kind of solutions needed – new programs, marketing campaign, etc.  The challenge we saw was that of an association struggling with attrition and inability to stand out in a crowded market place.  Why was it struggling? How did customers view this market place and determined what was of value to them?  In a world filled to the brim with events, information, services, online subscriptions, groups and resources why would one more local venue of the same variety of programs stand out from the crowd and have enough value for executives to attend?  The RFP did not ask these questions and was not interested in digging under the symptoms to uncover the cause.
  • Goal and Approach:  Based on its own assumptions the association specified a course of action focused on product development, marketing and service re-design. Had the process started with strategic questions rather than solutions and looked to customers for answers, the project’s objectives and course of action might look completely different.  For example, a project design might be driven by a question, such as: what were the most critical problems customers grappled with and what kind of unique solutions might the association deliver that made a meaningful difference to their ability to succeed?  Instead of searching for the right mix of events, the project’s objectives might be to search for a new basis for competitive advantage and value proposition on which to build its business.

 The point here is not which approach is best but that starting with answers that dictate specifications precludes true discovery and the alternative approaches and outcomes this discovery might suggest.  Most importantly, by eschewing open discovery, the RFP process is limiting the most critical piece of the project: the customer.

  • Mode of Discovery: Because of the presumption that the association already knew the answers, the RFP was asking for a conventional and mostly nominal mode of research--surveys and occasional focus groups.  To get to what really kept customers up at night and how they actually experienced it in the course of the day, week or year, they would need to go far beyond formal, generic research to get inside their members’ thinking, see the world through their eyes, understand the relationships, motivations, values, practices and behavior that make up their context and shape decisions. This is why we would use one-on-one interviews and participant observation, among other approaches.   It was also clear to us that the association was trying to be everything to everybody, lacking a basis for prioritizing their best and most strategic customers or sufficient depth of understanding any one group.  The results were generic products members could get from myriads of other sources rather than unique and high-value solutions one “couldn’t live without.”
  • Project design & activities: The RFP included a detailed list of “tasks to be accomplished,” implying that the association knew exactly how to solve its problem, for example: 

    • Work with a task force of staff and volunteer leaders to determine member needs that should be addressed and themes for next year’s programs.

    • Develop aggressive communications strategy making sure members know about all our offerings and initiatives and understand our value

    • Implement a general membership structure and campaign.

    • Identify possible local and national funding sources

The association’s list of tasks was based on its assumptions that new products and structures would improve retention and recruitment. Yet the RFP’s selection criteria treated assumptions as facts and evaluated consultants on their ability to execute these tasks.  The path to value creation would require a different list of tasks, for example:

    1. Develop collaborative teams of stakeholders –selected members, staff, suppliers, influencers and others in members’ value network; assign them roles, authority and responsibilities for problem-solving. 

    2. Put in place joint learning processes (including staff)  to understand how members define, perceive and experience value

    3. Develop passive members into community of shared purpose; tap selected members to co-design and test solutions.

    1. Identify and develop new financial and business model
  • Outcomes: A strategic and open discovery process would likely reveal that creating value for these customers might look nothing like the association’s go-to benefits-for dues packages. For example, it could be that making delivery speedier, providing answers in real time or integrating and prioritizing disparate pieces of information for a company’s senior team  and helping them apply it was the missing piece a member needed to succeed that no one else could provide and, hence, the basis for a new value proposition. Outcomes in this case would include not only new offerings but the development of a new business model, culture and organizational capabilities. 

 Uncovering a new basis for connecting with and providing unique solutions to members, rather than better programs and services, could be a potential game changer; one that might make a difference to the association’s ability to compete. Yet by issuing an RFP that precluded even the exploration of solutions outside existing norms, the association was placing roadblocks to substantive change and reinvention. 

And here is the irony. The benefit of consulting help (internal task force or distinctive “solutions” or other innovation unit within an organization) is to jolt people from the entrenched mental habits and assumptions we all inevitably fall into without realizing it and provide a different lens for looking at the familiar landscape--uncover hidden value in existing resources; discern new opportunities that did not look like what the organization had come to recognize as “opportunities;” refocus mature organizations on what matters to the customers.  The RFP mentality squanders the value of strategic advice by turning potential innovators into implementers.  No wonder they don’t succeed in motivating those who could help the most. 

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