Dirty little secrets and RFPs
I have a confession to make. I have never worked in procurement. But I have dealt with requests for proposal (RFPs) all my life.
Because I sat in teams in many a bank that needed a thing the bank couldn’t build themselves so we had to go out to market for it and, of course, we did so in a way that took twice as long as learning and then building the thing ourselves would have done and ten times as long as it would take our partners to build the thing.
I have sat in committees inside a variety of banks, reviewing RFPs, both the drafting of and the selection post the drafting. So much reviewing.
And when I have not worked for banks but sold to them, I have been at the receiving end of 2,500 line spreadsheets as a tech vendor and worked through them cursing my fate, especially knowing what I know about how RFPs come to be and how they are read once received.
And here is what I know.
RFP processes are most often about risk-aversion and internal politics.
They are about risk-mitigation and responsibility evasion.
They are about creating a process whereby, if things go wrong it is nobody’s fault, really. They are about the fact that these two department heads are not aligned and, rather than working that out, the organisation uses the RFP process as a way of creating a time-box for resolution. Forcing them to talk and play nice. Or institutionalising the problem.
Ask me about that time that channels and IT didn’t manage to solve the issue they were fighting over and we ended up having a separate payments gateway and payments transformation programme resulting in two RPFs I could barely tell apart and a bunch of vendors tearing their hair out unable to understand what they were missing. And the selection committees sitting back to back with largely overlapping members going, “wait, which one is this one”?
If you ever wondered why a new set of stakeholders appeared three weeks into a selection process or why there were 17 different people on the client side during your demo, now you know.
If you ever wondered why there are three seemingly identical questions in the RFP, some questions that don’t seem relevant at all and at least one question that seems to assume some technological advancements of the last ten years have not happened, your answer is RFPs are almost always Frankenstein documents.
They are more often than not made of recycled staple parts of old RFPs, watered-down requirements and vague business objectives written by people who didn’t fully understand them and reviewed by people who couldn’t be bothered to read through all the questions; but I am sure it will be fine, they thought, as long as our key questions are included it doesn’t really matter what else is in there.
Only it does.
Because the vendor has no idea what is important but badly phrased, recycled but polished to great clarity over the years, trivial but written by a pedant or what.
Word to the wise, by the way. If an RFP reads well, is smooth, focussed and doesn’t feel like body parts stitched together, your competitor wrote it. You are dead in the water.
Is there no chance that you are dealing with a procurement department that has its act together, I hear you ask. Of course there is. In fact, I saw a decent, coherent, to-the-point RFP not so long ago. It was a marvel. I wanted to frame it. I will be telling generations to come about it. Like the duckbilled platypus, unlikely and yet possible.
Which is what makes your garden variety RFP so irritating. Because it is pervasive when the alternative is both possible and infinitely better.
I have another bitter truth for you.
Nobody on the bank side reads a full RFP end to end. Not when they are preparing it. Not when you submit it.
People will review their bits. The bits they care about. What to them are the important bits. Only you have no idea what those bits are and they are often not the bits you may think.
How do you write a document nobody will ever properly read?
You won’t like the answer.
You answer it in sequence.
You answer it in full.
You answer it like every question is the only one anyone will ever read. Because it might be.
How do you produce a good RFP, may be a better question.
And it has a short answer.
You go back. Reshape procurement, the process, the risk matrix, the articulation of business value and your sordid office politics that play their own shadow theatre in your document and you shake up the review committee structure.
Do you really need a committee?
Do you really need answers to 3,800 questions to make a choice?
Do you know what you are trying to achieve, why, by when and at what price – monetary, opportunity cost and risk acceptance?
Then, once you’ve achieved a small set of miraculous and much needed change, you go to the market with your ask – and yes sure it can look like an RFP, if it must – and make a choice that meets your needs and accept responsibility for your business vision and the choices you made to get you there.
Like a grown up.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!