RFPs: The Least Creative Way to Hire People

by Greg Hoy

33 Reader Comments

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  1. Greg hi, I agree with your comments completely. I suspect it is because most rfp’s come from non creative people! Don’t you? people who can’t let the natural course of the creative process flow. Do you not think the same issue could be said about education and how schools kill creativity generally! You can see a great speach on this from Sir Ken Robinson here at TED http://bit.ly/iLfWCX Duncan
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  2. As someone who issues and assesses RFPs, don’t get me wrong - I hear you on the arbitrary hoops you have to jump through and how much it costs you to jump therein. But you have to realise, it wasn’t like one day GSA woke up and decided to replace the golf course with Takashi’s Castle. There was a long and sordid history of hookers and blow on yachts in international waters (yes it really happened). There are still large multinationals who flaunt the RFP requirements because “nobody got fired for hiring X” only to turn around and issue 200% change requests for things you thought were included. There are still tiny design houses who rush across town on bike to jam something in a box with minutes to spare (what does that say about the way you work?)... even worse they do it online and I pull up the access logs to show they didn’t even have the page open before the deadline. The golf course sucks. You might act honorably and it might make you more creative and make us happier. But some huge multinational might also be there with a contract to sell our soul to the devil. And that’s a risk we can no longer take.
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  3. Hi Greg, Great article, and I’ve said many of the same things on “our blog”:http://blog.confluentforms.com/p/all-about-requests-for-proposals-rfps.html . That might come across as somewhat funny since I’m also the owner of “the RFP Database”:http://www.rfpdb.com . Sure, there is a ton of stupidity in the RFP process (you can “drink to it”:http://blog.confluentforms.com/2011/03/requests-for-proposals-rfp-drinking.html ), but if you know how to play the game, know how to play the odds, know how to be selective, and know how to submit a proposal that demonstrates how incredibly perfect you are for the project, the RFP can be used for Good.

    David
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  4. I’ve been on both sides of the table, having worked for consulting companies responding to RFP’s and for corporations issuing RFPs. You have to learn to play the game: answer the RFP exactly as specified; if you don’t like the rules, then don’t play. When reviewing responses, it’s much easier to have similar things to compare; we’re usually looking at capabilities, experience, price, and original thinking. I realize that last one is hard to express in 10 pt Arial, but, when I’ve been on the other side and responding to RFPs, we always did exactly what was requested -and- a more creative, original response. Yes, it’s hard to do two things and you may feel like you don’t have enough time, it’s a black box process, etc. ...but it’s the name of the game. You aren’t going to change it, so learn to deal with it. Corporate policy is slow to change and winning contracts with such companies can lead to years of work for a creative agency. Bite the bullet.
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  5. I occasionally respond to an RFP, but for the most part I have found them to be a waste of time. A few examples as to why: -Companies (or gov’t departments) that go through the motions of issuing an RFP because it is part of their specifications, but who intend to hire the same folks who did it the last 10 years anyway. -Companies who intend to hire the lowest bidder regardless of any of the other info (bios, portfolios, etc) required. -I received an RFP once for a web design project that went on for three pages of required info, including a detailed plan for testing on multiple browsers, usability testing protocols, creative philosophy, etc. I was excited at first because I thought this must be for a really big, important project. Then I saw the line that said they had a budget of $2,000. I would have taken $500 worth of my time just to respond to the RFP. -For a time I subscribed to a service that allowed me access to RFPs for all state government departments throughout the state of North Carolina. If there had been a consistent protocol for RFPs, it would have been worth my while to bid on some of the projects. But it wasn’t worth my time to, say, prepare an RFP on specially-purchased paper (to meet their requirement of a minimum of 30% post-consumer waste), and then be disqualified because I missed the line saying “no paper clips”.
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  6. The RFP process will never go away as long as corporations rely on committees to make decisions. RFP’s have nothing at all to do with hiring the “best” designer or developer for a project. Their purpose is to provide the company managers who will oversee the project a tentative grasp of the complexities involved. How does a designer or developer deal with RFP’s? Don’t respond unless it’s a project you really want to do. Instead, be an upstanding professional and send a thank you note with a brief explanation why you don’t respond to RFP’s. As long as creative professionals respond to RFP’s, companies will have no reason to rethink the process.  Change only occurs when options are removed.
    I digress ... The following statement by mrmambois is utterly false in today’s market: “Winning contracts with such companies can lead to years of work for a creative agency.”  Fifteen years ago this statement was marginally accurate. However, it has and will forever be the king of sales pitches, “we’re looking to establish a long-term relationship with a creative vendor.”  Complete horse shit.
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  7. Firstly, the article was a pleasure to read. Secondly, I think it is a pipe dream. How third party businesses issue their tenders will always be down to the sometimes petty process involved in any given company or government organisation. I guess establishing relationships and garnering work that way would be ideal but not always possible.
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  8. As an example of a state law forcing use of the competitive bid/RFP process, this section from the Florida Statutes (http://vurl.me/BVVC) requires it for projects over a certain dollar amount threshold.
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  9. I used to wrangle together proposals for a few construction companies back in the day, so I know this process very well. What I find interesting is that exact list of requirements you mentioned were in all of the RFPs I answered. For a construction company. Although one could argue that these are a standard set of questions, I still find it sad that people are using the same set of standards to gauge the creation of a website as they are to getting a parking garage built. It’s a if someone in the 1950’s created the perfect RFP and it’s been circulating around the world since then. People just keep changing the RFP number.
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  10. As someone who acts in a contracting officer’s technical representative for the federal government, with industry experience on the other side responding to government RFPs, I think you should take a step back and breathe for a moment. No one wants a creative response to an RFP. You’ve confused being creative with using creativity to _design_. I wouldn’t think designers would be excellent at RFPs unless they had some systems engineering or were programmers, and left the creative design behind. The mindset isn’t for designers, it is for understanding the process and repeating it. More being a programmer and the RFP is the API if you want an analogy. The RFP is a chance to respond with the the architectural design of your business model or plans or experience, not for exposing your company’s individual creativity. The federal acquisition regulations (FAR) spells out how thinks are contracted by the federal government. It is boring, droll stuff. It is supposed to be factual. However, it is often said that people don’t agree on the facts, and understanding that point helps not only in analysis of RFPs, but creating them as well. I’d write more, but this is definitely a conversation better handled over beer. :)
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  11. I suspected I’d have a fair amount of agreement from my contemporaries, so your perspective is very helpful. When you say: bq. The mindset isn’t for designers That’s my point. We’re designers. We recently received an RFP from a potential client that left the door wide open for us to respond in any way we see fit. So while the end game was the same, the process with which we’re able to demonstrate our capabilities is refreshingly wide open. That was encouraging. bq. The RFP is a chance to respond with the the architectural design of your business model or plans or experience, not for exposing your company’s individual creativity. We absolutely provide process and experience details as a matter of course. But if the opportunity is for any kind of creative pursuit, wouldn’t the ability for a party to convey such creative thinking in the context of a proposal be advantageous? Or would you simply rely on a company’s past work to demonstrate creative problem solving? bq. I’d write more, but this is definitely a conversation better handled over beer. :) I’d love that opportunity some day. Plus, I happen to like beer.
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  12. bq. You aren’t going to change it, so learn to deal with it. Corporate policy is slow to change and winning contracts with such companies can lead to years of work for a creative agency. Bite the bullet. I agree with Paul Burton’s comment. It doesn’t lead to years of work. And who says it can’t be changed? I find that notion depressing.
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  13. bq. As long as creative professionals respond to RFP’s, companies will have no reason to rethink the process. Change only occurs when options are removed. I received an email from someone articulating this sentiment as well. I agree with it.
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  14. Excellent article Greg, I agree completely. With regards to government entities and RFPs, in New Zealand at least it appears to be a requirement, seemingly all part of the democratic process. Any entity as an agent of a democratically elected government cannot be seen to be favouring any particular commercial entity over another. All taxpayers on an even footing. Thanks also for the parenting advice - reminded my to lighten up on my kids :)
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  15. My very limited understanding of Federal procurement regulations is that under certain circumstances, a sole source contract may be awarded when (https://www.acquisition.gov/far/current/html/Subpart 6_3.html#wp1086841): 1. Only one responsible source and no other supplies or services will satisfy agency requirements.
    2. Unusual and compelling urgency.
    3. Industrial mobilization; engineering, developmental, or research capability; or expert services.
    4. International agreement.
    5. Authorized or required by statute.
    6. National security.
    7. Public interest. Otherwise, you’re pretty much dealing with sealed bids (a contracting officer issues an Invitation for Bids and lowest bid gets the contract) or contract negotiating (contracting officer issues a Request for Proposals; allows increased flexibility in awarding a contract). I also wonder if your examples of RFPs peculiar stipulations are due less to the prescriptive nature of regulations but instead point more to the ignorance (or perhaps laziness?) of contracting officers that issue the RFPs? Regardless, having come from the agency-side of things to a quasi-federal agency, I don’t envy vendors who now have to put these RFPs together.
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  16. The Big Jim Camper was a great thrill and I was forced to play with it wearing one of those horrid Christmas sweaters from Grandma that caused incessant itching. Every RFP I receive takes me back to that itchy sweater - Grandma’s best intentions not withstanding it was simply irritating.
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  17. Greg, just a quick note to let you know that I agree with your comments for most sources issuing RFP’s. However, you have to really look at it a bit more closely. One person commented here that there was a recent RFP from someone that was left “wide open” and was thus refreshing. We at NineSigma routinely issue RFP’s seeking people and technologies on our Client’s behalf with great results. We give lots of leeway to submitters to just attach qualifications they have available, and we even have a dedicated helpdesk to answer any questions respondents may have. The RFP is the initial vehicle to allow possible respondents to see what our clients are looking for and what’s in it for them. It is the start of a dialog!
    Best regards, Andy Zynga
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  18. We were once eliminated from an RFP process for asking too many questions.  “Funny story.”:http://www.imagescape.com/blog/strange-reason-be-shown-door/
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  19. This post resonated with me because the process as it is most often deployed simply doesn’t serve anyone—agency or client—very well. And too often, it reduces creative thinking to a portfolio beauty contest—my business partner highlighted this issue in a <a >”>post on our blog</a>—which further sabotages the possibility for a good outcome. Here’s a idea that could work for those organizations that are required to solicit bids via RFP: perform some due diligence before requesting proposals. Review websites and portfolios first. Then conduct interviews with only those firms whose work you like; use this stage to gauge team chemistry, to ask questions about projects they’ve worked on and the agency’s creative process, and to discuss budgets so that you can put together a reasonable RFP. You should be able to narrow the field to 2-3 firms—and then ask only those to respond to the RFP. You’ll be able to eliminate a lot of needless work on both ends, and the responses will be more thoughtful and specific to your project. Once you’ve evaluated the “intangibles” and narrowed the field to pre-qualified candidates, the RFP can be simple and focus on quantitative information, like schedules, project scopes and budgets—which will make it both easier to respond to and easier to compare. In other words, win-win.
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  20. I think there’s a certain amount of laziness on the part of those issuing RFPs; I also believe they are a hanger-on from a pre-digital era. When an RFP requests my company background, my bio, and samples of my work, I’m tempted send them a piece of paper with nothing on it but the address of my website, since all the questions they are asking are answered there.
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  21. I have mixed feelings about RFPs. I can understand why they exist and the necessity for them as a means to stop blatant nepotism and favoritism but then, on the other hand, they take a lot of time to answer and, yes, often squash creativity. The thing that perhaps annoys me the most though is how often they are conducted by companies as a mandatory exercise when in reality they already have a preferred developer (sometime’s even their own in-house teams!) and then find reasons to pick them regardless.
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  22. I think RFP’s are perhaps a good idea for some industries, however, not the creative one! I think this should be a separate process altogether, decided by each individual company, as they will know exactly the kind of people they are looking for, and what they want to get from them.
    I think PDF’s should definitely be allowed to be uploaded. If the people being hired are expected to be creative every day in the role they are applying for, then surely they need to let their creativity shine in their application. RFP’s definitely hold designers back.
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  23. Greg, thank you for the great post. My background is actually architecture, and we would spend in excess of $100,000 on a big chase - with absolutely nothing in return if you didn’t hit the arbitrary marks on the RFP scales. And, it wasn’t just our firm, it’s the faulted industry. Now in web design / development full-time, I know exactly where you’re coming from. I’m not sure if it’s a learned sixth sense, or a direct reaction to the pain, but sticking your finger in the light socket does have it’s prolonged impacts. I’m a big fan of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto - http://www.winwithoutpitching.com/manifesto which goes hand in hand with No Spec Work, and also attacks the issue of creatives doing work in an RFP world. You mentioned starting a movement, once you guys are ready to push, we’ve all got your back.
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  24. I be of the same mind with your commentary completely. I suspect it is for the reason that the largest part rfp’s turn up from non creative family
    There was a long and sordid history of hookers and blow on yachts in international waters.There are still tiny design houses who rush across town on bike to jam something in a box with minutes to spare.I occasionally respond to an RFP, but for the most part I have found them to be a waste of time
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  25. I sat on both sides of the table and it is hard to be yourself even if you know how the other side of the table is thinking! Thanks for this blog it really was nice to read!
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  26. I worked 8 years for a design architecture firm, in the marketing department. I know from RFPs. From the government forms that allow for no creativity, to the well formed RFPs that have exacting information requirements, but also allow you to “market” yourself. I still look over other people’s marketing materials by first checking if the binding is good enough. However, on the other side, what’s more creative than a design competition, eh? A 3 month, multistage, unpaid, design competition… There are worse alternatives out there.
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  27. The person or organization that is issuing the RFP is looking to solve a problem, and establish a price or cost to that end. As creatives, we are often trying to deliver Value - what the client needs, when they need it at a market price. Cost and Value are two very different things, and may be a cause of this consternation. This dynamic works in reverse also. After the contract is signed, the client often discovers that their RFP is deficient because of budget/cost/time concerns - and they may not have thought out nor listened to the creatives value proposition. The good organizations consult with the contractor and amend the contract, and adjust the budget. This could be avoided if they listen to creatives before the contract is written.
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  28. I’m not sure I understand the point of the article.  It sounds like you are complaining about poorly written RFP’s and no so much the actual process.  I used to work for the US Dept of Def, and we wrote a lot of RFPs mostly for IT type systems.  We’ve received some very creative and some very poor proposals.  I think a lot of it has to do with the RFP itself.  The US Gov’t has a HUGE guide to acquiring things.  It’s called the FAR (Federal Acquistion Regulation).  Check out the table of contents here: http://farsite.hill.af.mil/vffara.htm It will take you 20 minutes just to read the table of contents.  As large as the FAR is, it is actually quite helpful.  It provides a framework for just about every type of purchase.  From a full and open competition, where everyone and their brother can submit a proposal in the sense of fairness to a directed purchase at a price to be negotiated later because it’s so urget we need it right now to support a war.  There is also a distinction to be made when evaluating proposals.  Not every RFP is for the cheapest thing.  Meaning, not every award has to be made to the lowest price offer (known as the Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA)).  The team doing the evaluation is allowed to do what is called a best value trade-off, which allows the Gov’t to make a decision to pay for something they didn’t specifically ask for, but that the offeror described in such a way as to make it worth them winning over the proposal that met the basic requirements and was cheaper.  Again in the spirit of fairness, when the US Gov’t solicits an RFP, it has to provide evaluation criteria and the guide it will use to “Grade” each proposal (it’s like getting both the essay questions, and the process that the teacher will use to grade you).  If a best value proposal is requested, then the gov’t must also tell the offerors which factors are more important to others, and how the trade off will be graded.  It takes a lot of time and thought to put these RFPs together.  If you push for anything, I think you should push people to spend time writing better requirements and RFP’s, and think through how they will evaluate the proposals that they receive. Sorry for the rambling.
    Greg PS - Did you know that the Gov’t can allow Proposal Preparation costs to be submitted for reimbursement?  PPS - I like beer too.
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  29. I currently work for a law firm in Ohio, but there was a time when I workecd for an engineering consulting firm in Florida.  In Florida, there are laws governing the RFP process, particularly when it comes to design-build projects for state or municipal facilities, structures, roadways, etc.  Florida Statute Title 19-287.055 is called the Competitive Consulting Negotiation Act.  This law has two basic purposes: 1. Promotion of fair and open competition
    Reduces opportunity and appearance of favoritism
     Inspires public confidence that contracts are awarded equitably
     Uniform procedures and documentation are essential to curb
    improprieties and ensure ethical process
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  30. Thank you for posting your interesting article, I hope such organisations have been able to read it (and understand it). Early this year, I tried my first real RFP… and sure it was an ‘interesting’ experience, but for sure, I will never fill up such request again. When you start reading their 24 pages reference document, only one page for the description of the work, 23 pages of many contractual requirements and conditions. That merely scares the designer that I am for the rest of the day, and the only thing you want to do is leaving this stuff behind. So many conditions for only ten type of layouts?, which are usually the one they maybe did one or two years ago… no reflexion, without any consideration about what they could really need, do, imagine, etc. Well, as I promised myself to do it, I did it, completing all these details about ourselves, like if we were dangerous people to work with. As we are mainly ‘visual people’, it’s not easy to write and present ourselves in a language which are not ours. When they let me know about the differences between the costing of every proposals, there was over 215% difference between the lowest and highest quote (and most of them where based from the same country!). I don’t say it’s so surprising but still, the lowest quotes worried me as much the RFP request after all. And when your require some feedback about your proposal… Silence is the word ! (of course you’ve agreed on this when you’ve signed such offer ;-) I had good experiences and relationships with organisations requesting an offer based on a first meeting, in order to see, if we can best meet their requirements, and to me that’s a good point to start with, to first see if we can go along and make evolve a project together.
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  31. I used to be a “Certified Government Contractor”...which meant I was fairly skilled at sifting through BS. Although the RFP process is extremely daunting for a “newbie”, just remember that 85% of the requirements are there because the Government got burned in the past at some point with a similar job request. With that said, the contracting officers, and COTRs, and everyone involved are there to “help” you. More often than not, you’ll find you (as the expert) are needed to re-write the specs they provide. If that’s the case, just remember they are only people, and relationship DOES have it’s advantages…even though they say the decision is strictly objective. In summary, give RFPs their due diligence, BUT don’t waste your time if you can’t perform EVERYTHING in the requirements, or can find someone who can…cost effectively.
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  32. One issue with RFPs without the ability to discuss with the client is that unless we talk to the major movers/shakers, it’s hard to clarify what’s really needed, and thus the real scope of the job. I’ve found that sometimes a potential client will include something based on not fully understood language (but in reality they don’t need it), and sometimes things are left out. This isn’t surprising, since we can’t assume that potential web clients are fully conversant with industry jargon, let alone the technology, nor are they always fully aware of all the things they *could * do, but a conversation would have sorted this out in short order.
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  33. ??I have always been curious about whether there are state or federal laws that require a bid process for government agencies. I couldn’t find any substantive information to support that for this article, so if you work for a government agency and can shed some light on this for us, please add your two cents in the comments area.?? Here is the regulation for the European Union (sorry, I don’t know the rules for -to me- foreign countries like the USA): http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/internal_market/businesses/public_procurement/l22009_en.htm
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