Collaboration, trust, and partnership – these would feature on any list of favorite words for organizations to describe their relationships with strategic partners.
Anyone who’s been through a Request for Proposal (RFP) recently, however, could be forgiven for questioning the sincerity of such warm sentiments. Formulaic checklists, spreadsheets and weighted criteria – these seem to care little for creating the kinds of connections that underpin successful strategic technology initiatives.
This is troubling because, in the age of cloud migration and digital transformation, success depends on much more than just technology. Culture and appetite for change, for example, are just as important.
Yet, incredibly, it’s possible to take part in and win an RFP without a single direct interaction with the customer. Some of these will turn out to be successful engagements – but many, indeed most, likely won’t.
So, is it time we prioritize putting people back into the modern RFP?
Where does the RFP come up short?
The biggest challenge for organizations that put out RFPs in pursuit of transformation, and one of their primary shortcomings, is knowing (or not knowing) what they need. It’s very difficult for anyone to communicate unmet needs for innovative solutions: you don’t know what you don’t know.
This drives many to try to translate their Mode 1 IT requirements directly to the cloud.
The trouble is they don’t translate: the service measures, technology, approach, process and culture of cloud are all very different. Imposing traditional technology restrictions negates the cloud’s agile and flexible nature, and puts a lower ceiling on possible cost savings.
For an RFP, this traditional boxed-in thinking restricts the whole future direction of the process to the ‘what’ of a solution. That box is hard to break out of once formalized into a questionnaire and checklist.
What does a modern RFP for the cloud era look like?
Instead, a well-constructed RFP for the cloud era should seek to create an iterative continuous cycle of improvement: one that allows vendors to meet you where you are, but doesn’t keep you where you are.
This is difficult to accommodate within checklists and spreadsheets, so early dialogue with potential respondents — perhaps even bringing them into the RFP writing process — is important.
This is what we mean by putting the people back into the RFP, with direct conversations that go way beyond technology to include the cultural and process fit, and — importantly — appetite and aptitude for change. During these conversations, underlying assumptions can be challenged to surface the right questions about how an organization can unlock the full value of the cloud.
In a recent RFP for a large financial services organization, we took the opportunity to shape the initial dialogue around interactive workshops with the customer.
Our approach meant ditching the PowerPoint slides and using A1 posters to diagrammatically capture and test – together with the customer – their cloud uses cases. This accelerated the process of getting to the heart of their true requirements, it developed instant affinity between the two parties through joint problem solving and provided real insight into the range of choice the customer had when it came to the cloud.
It was also an opportunity to bring in a solution director and members of the actual delivery team – a team who are involved in the day-to-day of delivering the cloud and real world transformation experience – which gave the customer immediate insight into the journey ahead.
Overall, this process made the final response to the RFP more relevant to solving the customer’s actual challenges. Weighted criteria has its place, but can come later when it will benefit from real thought leadership sharing between all parties.
Our solution-focussed approach meant breaking the RFP down into smaller pieces that work towards a proof of concept (PoC) or proof of value (PoV). Instead of being boxed into a particular solution, this allowed for low-risk and minimal-cost explorations of possible solutions. It also enables side-by-side evaluation of multiple providers in a practical scenario, versus the theoretical comparison of an RFP.
Request for solution: A new twist on the RFP
The state of the RFP is not uniform around the world. In Europe, for example, there’s growing interest in more radical changes to the RFP procurement process, in the form of a Request for Solution (RFS).
What is a Request for Solution?
As outlined in this white paper from ISG, an RFS replaces narrow and prescriptive RFPs with an open-ended and flexible approach, giving participants scope to focus on the desired end state rather than the ‘how’ of service delivery.
The white paper explains: “Under an RFS sourcing model, the customer describes the general characteristics of their IT or operational environment, overriding objectives, major concerns, and vision of the desired future state. Rather than dictate the specific terms to be adhered to, clients provide potential suppliers the flexibility to propose unique solutions.”
Advocates of the RFS say it allows for better communication of complex challenges to vendors that often don’t have a single answer – providing more scope for vendors to respond with innovative solutions that challenge traditional ways of thinking and working.
Ask better questions, get better answers
In the book, A More Beautiful Question (and on his blog), Warren Berger explores how better (and more) questions get better answers, with innovative solutions often arising from a cycle of ‘Why, What If, and How’ questions. Checklists and weighted criteria don’t get a mention.
How to improve the RFP Process
As we’ve said, the RFP isn’t going anywhere – and for good reason. But if it is to produce more successful outcomes in the cloud-era, and to do so more often, then the process needs to accommodate collaborative questioning to challenge assumptions and discover new opportunities.
Procurement processes are right to throw up barriers to entry in the name of quality control. However, alternative ways to do this that allow for higher the touchpoints between customer and vendor, will surface better solutions.
That means putting the people – the right people, at the right time – back into RFPs.