Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) appear to be increasingly ignored by the consulting firms that receive them, and most tellingly, by the organizations that issue them. While we do respond to all client inquiries, and want to do so helpfully and graciously, we rarely follow the requested format of the RFP. We need to put our expertise on display if we are going to win the business and most RFPs prevent it. In addition, our experience is that many organizations make their decision about who to hire for reasons not expressed in the RFP. In my conversations with other organizational development firms, I find we are far from alone in our response.
Here are our reasons:
It is a rare organization that can articulate its objectives well enough to put them in an RFP. Too often, the organization puts presenting issues in the RFP, but it is the real and hidden issues that really need to be addressed and that ultimately drive the decision of who to hire, regardless of what the RFP says.
The expectations in the RFP are usually greater than the organization is prepared to pay to achieve. When this happens some of the most competent firms are immediately overpriced, and the hiring organizations signs the cheapest operator–someone who needs the work rather than someone who can perform the work. All too often the result is not achieving the objectives of the RFP and poisoning the organization’s opinion of consulting in general.
Many RFPs seek a contractor rather than a consultant without realizing it. Contracting work is good and is a staple of what we do, but it usually comes after we have worked with our client(s) to figure out what needs to be done. Many organizations put out their RFPs with extremely specific sets of objectives and strictures on the work. This is good when there is specific work to be done that addresses a problem. It is not good when the organization is trying to figure out what the problem is and how it might be addressed. Simply put, consulting usually comes before contracting and many RFPs expect the reverse.
Many RFPs expect the consultant to check their expertise at the door. A lot of consulting expertise is inquiry, research, probing, conversation, and developing ideas beside those closest to the issues. The RFP process holds prospective consultants at such a distance that they cannot do their most important work, again diminishing the value of following through on the RFP. How can an RFP achieve its purpose if it declares that breakthrough strategies are unwelcome? Or worse, if it declares that it wants the consultant to do what the organization has already repeatedly done and failed, but this time to do it successfully?
The RFP is a consumptive rather than collaborative approach to organizational development. Yes, too many consulting firms are also consumer oriented which means the organization and the consultant use each other mutually for their own ends. The attitude seems to be ”no-one got hurt,” so we assume this is the normal course. But when organization and consultant treat each other as disposable and interchangeable, how can creative, contextualized work get done that grows a specific organization within its specific market with its unique niche? This is not a call to return to collusion. We only have to look to Arthur Anderson and Enron to see how destructive that can be. But the RFP process needs to provide opportunity to develop trust so that the real work can be identified and completed–done on time, according to the objectives, and at the cost the organization is prepared to pay.
We are happy to consider the RFPs that come our way, but our integrity does not let us respond to those that come to us in the form of balls and chains. We would rather receive packets of seeds.
-mark l vincent