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Cognition

Sharpen Your #2 Pencil. It’s RFP time.

Around here, it’s PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) season. I hear lots of stories from friends and family about the extremes of testing. Most recently, my brother-in-law demonstrated for us how he is required to respond to student questions during the test. Monotone. Neutral. Dispassionate. Not an easy task for a music teacher.

The debate around standardized testing is nothing new. I understand the arguments from both sides, but I can’t help thinking things have taken a wrong turn. Imagination, creativity, motivation– can’t be measured objectively, so support for art and music is slowly disappearing. The focus is centered more on the process rather than the end result.

Now, I’m not trying to start a debate on the subject of standardized testing. But in my role in Business Development, I can’t help but see WAY too many parallels between standardized testing and the website RFP process.

Consider the purpose of standardized testing. These tests exist to measure effectiveness of schools and maintain a level of accountability to taxpayers. We go to extremes to eliminate bias and provide equal opportunity. We try desperately to facilitate an even comparison. These motivations come from the best intentions. I see the same patterns in RFPs from large corporations and universities.

Recently we were invited to respond to, what turned out to be, easily the most rigidly structured and restrictive RFP ever to cross my path. One-on-one conversation with the client was forbidden. Instead of submitting a proposal, we filled out an online survey that was riddled with questions like, “Are you capable of preparing ___ enter-buzzword ___?”

Capable? …Well, sure but would we ever recommend doing ___ enter-buzzword ___ ? Not on your life. There wasn’t a space for a dialog in the survey. So there I was, identifying with teachers crafting course materials aimed at favorable test results. To contend for this project, I had to play to the test. “Yes, we’re capable.”

Only those who test well make it to the next round. By going to extremes to level the playing field, you may eliminate the best contenders, and hire an agency that’s great on paper.

Isn’t it important to the health of the project that the teams gel? Vendors should want to get to know your business and your stakeholders before suggesting a solution. They should ask the right questions and plenty of them. Yet the process is designed to prevent this. The opportunity to engage on a meaningful level is sacrificed in favor of a standardized test.

My advice? If you’re issuing an RFP, focus on the known constraints, and let the rest go. You want to bring out what’s unique about your potential partners, not stifle it.

  • Don’t specify project process like required types of deliverables or number of revisions. There may be efficiencies you’re not familiar with or blended approaches that could save you time and money.
  • Get to know one another. Do you want to spend hours each week working with this group?
  • Let them ask questions. Potential partners should want to learn about you before prescribing an approach.
  • Don’t ask for spec. You run the risk of a stakeholder falling madly in love with something shiny, but ultimately unachievable.
  • Give firms freedom in terms of response criteria. The way someone approaches a response might be reflective of the way they approach a redesign. Learn from it.
  • Share your budget, or at least a range. So much time is wasted tap dancing around budgets. Just talk about it just like any other project constraint and you’ll all be better off.

So rip up those Scantron forms. Plead your case with your procurement department. You’ll bring out the best in your agency contenders and your website as a result.

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