Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ruminations on RFPs 001

One cannot get the best response to a Request for Proposal (RFP) just because one believes that it will happen – although that desire must come first. A person must communicate their needs into words and actions. This is the RFP – a document that puts needs into words and actions. “We need this and that done. Could you please provide us a proposal?” If one wants a good response to an RFP then the author(s) must be pro-active in their attempt to compose a document that will be clear, understood and well received by the intended recipients of the RFP.

It is not enough that the author understands what they have assembled; it is necessary for an RFP to be effective that the recipients of the RFP have a reasonable opportunity to understand what is intended to be communicated.

Unlike with a fiction story read for enjoyment and subject to a wide variety of personal interpretation an RFP is a document that by intent is designed to solicit an active and focused reaction. The intent of an RFP is that someone will read it, understand it well enough, and be able to respond with a proposal.

An RFP is a call for someone to do something in response.

The quality of the response to an RFP will be conditioned by the quality of the RFP to begin with. To compose a poor RFP, one that leaves out information that may be essential to the understanding of the recipient, is to invite a low quality of response.

If we ask someone to do something, which is essentially what an RFP does, it asks for someone to respond, this creates a one-sided negotiation where the person asked to do something will inevitably wonder what is in it for them. “If I respond to this RFP what is the likely result that it will be to my benefit and justify the expense of my time and resources for me to respond?”

If the balance of this knee-jerk Return on Investment (ROI) analysis comes up that there will be negligible benefit to the recipient in their response to an RFP then there will be no response. The action desired and put into play by the expense of time and resources on the part of the author will go to naught as nobody will be persuaded to do what the RFP requests. Nobody will respond.

That is one extreme and it occurs where there are situations where projects are put out for bid and there are no bidders. It is not necessarily in these cases that nobody wants to do the project or would not be capable of doing it; it can quite simply be that nothing was communicated in the RFP to persuade recipients to want to respond.

In a case let us say where a public agency regularly issues RFPs that are inadequate in the content of their information and where there is a patterned reputation of not answering questions put forward by informed and qualified recipients, then the tendency is, if there is anything better to do, for the more informed and qualified recipients to ignore the RFPs. This is an example of a situation where an individual author could assemble a very competent RFP and it be ignored for the fact that the reputation of the agency is not a very good one.

There are a whole lot of highly qualified practitioners in the historic preservation industry who will not even consider to look at work from public agencies in part because of the poor quality of the RFPs combined with a reputation for difficult to survive business practices. This is not to say that there are not plenty of people that will respond to the RFPs as much as to reinforce that a poor quality of RFP invites a poor quality of response.

An RFP needs at least two elements:

-- A description of what is needed.
-- An indication of the form of the response that is desired.

These may seem like very obvious elements but it is surprising how often one or the other, or both, is not included in an RFP.

It also quite often helps to include information as to why something is being asked for.

On historic projects we very much appreciate when the author of the RFP has assembled and provides a package on the history of the site. We enjoy it even more when provided with previous investigation reports from other design teams. If the author then includes a brief summary of why they are looking to do what they are looking to do then we tend to feel an investment to help them reach their goal, simply to show that they trust to let us in on what they need to accomplish and why it is important.

A good RFP in historic preservation reinforces that all players, the author and the recipients, have the mutual respect that everyone cares about a good outcome. If you care that we care then we will care even more.

If you want an RFP to work then regardless of any other element to the communication show that you care. Do a good job to communicate the essential elements in your RFP and prove that you give a damn.

The response to a good RFP is rarely only about cost and when cost is the only driving factor of a project then the worse an RFP is constructed the more likely the better it will attract cheap -- dumb people that have no clue what they are doing but are hungry tend to go cheap. The question though is cheaper for what? Maxim here is, be careful what you ask for. Or, know what you ask for and be very clear about it.

Too many RFPs that we get for historic projects never say anything about the history of the site. The focus of the author is on their interest, what is in their trance-head, what it is that they need done, and not on the goal to attract the interest of the respondent. It is like with authors of fiction stories who do not care if anyone on the planet now or forever gets it. They get it just fine, no bother, and the remainder of us can suffer, or go do something else like deep sea fishing.

One thing that we try to do when we receive an RFP is figure out if what is being asked for is anything that we can actually do. If the initial indication that we get from an RFP is that there is no chance in hell that we will succeed in a win-win with the project, that there is in the RFP a clear indication of something being asked that we can excel at, that we can provide our best product and response, then we do not want to be involved.

I say that because when a project goes sour we usually hate it terribly, end up not liking everyone involved, and have trouble to get rightly paid. I know this the hard way from having responded to all sorts of really terrible RFPs.

Beside all that, the time taken to read, evaluate and respond to an RFP is usually a loss. The more complex, difficult, or unmanageable an RFP the greater the loss, taking into consideration that no risk advanced leads to no gain. Then again, no risk advanced rarely leads to a negative loss.

If you really want to get me with an RFP then it would have a cover letter to go something like this:

Dear Ken,

We understand that you come from a family of electricians and that you were called Sparky. We see that you have been involved in three projects closely related to Thomas Edison. Edison Barn #11 at the Edison Memorial site that you moved from Greenfield Village, your assistance in the investigation work at the Edison Memorial Tower and that schoolhouse from Edison’s iron mine that you helped save and got turned into a Hungarian cultural center when everyone else thought it was a piece of junk. In respect of this we have been referred by one of our board members, Nathaniel Woodhull to send you the attached RFP for an on-site facsimile reconstruction of Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower.

Friends of Tesla

Now, the RFP itself for this project can be terribly structured but I will certainly perk up to respond not so much due to the ego stroking as that the author took the time to figure out who they were sending the RFP to and to align their need and their project with a relevance to our perceived ability and interest.

A closer on cost... if with an RFP well made you capture the imagination of a preservationist who has a passion quite often they will go out of their way to cut their costs so low that they can't survive on the work... but they simply love to do that.

Keep in mind it is not the number of dollars that is important, it is what you get for the dollar.

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