The increasing irrelevance of the RFP

It’s faster than the product you had before, it’s more efficient and simpler to manage but what did it do for your companies strategy? Features, Speed, Efficiency and Simplicity are easy to quantify, I think that’s maybe why we focus on them so much and they do provide incremental benefits. To IT teams these benefits may seem substantial but when measured in the context of the business impact that technology could have enabled just how significant are they and are we too focused on these somewhat isolated benefits rather then the broader business benefits?

I find RFP’s are one really interesting indicator of the maturity of IT within an organisation. I get to see a lot of these as they arrive, and I can see how much work has been done by the issuer to make sure they’ve covered every dial, widget and sprocket of the product to ensure it meets their requirements.

Most often the responses requested are about specific features or capabilities and some of these get so specific that you can tell that not only has the RFP limited the possibility for new ideas and thinking, it’s actually been written to eliminate all products except the one that the IT team have already decided that they want to buy.

The consequence of this is that as long as every vendor can tick the boxes as being compliant in the solution they are proposing then it enables the purchaser to just drive for the best price, so everyone involved in creating the RFP feels like they’ve done a great job. But as far as I’m concerned this very often leads to the situation where you bought the best product for the best price and may well have ended up with something that simply isn’t the best solution.

The irony is that many times I see in these RFP’s questions like, what’s your roadmap for the next 3 years, or what’s your strategy for the next 3 years? Fair questions, albeit not questions that any vendor is going to answer as these responses will be subject to an NDA and an RFP is public, meaning these responses can be viewed by any that are part of the RFP process.

Rarely have I ever seen a company state in their RFP what their 3 year roadmap is or their 3 year strategy for how IT will evolve to deliver new value to their business. If you state this in the RFP then you’re likely to encourage a supplier to suggest new ideas or ways of doing things that might get you there, they may even suggest ways that you could go even further than you’d imagined.

The internal people have often done what they were asked to do but have constrained themselves by their own thinking and by not considering new approaches or giving the company responding the actual business objectives. The responder now has to work within these imposed limits of knowledge and experience. Before anyone get’s defensive here, I’m simply stating that these IT teams work for one company whereas the companies responding work with many companies across many different industries which brings with it additional experience and perspective.

Companies continue to do what has worked for them in the past and aren’t allowing the responders, with their often broader ideas and insights to have any influence over their thinking. This makes no sense and unless companies seriously rethink about how they develop their RFP’s then the constraints placed on the responder will likely manifest as serious constraints to their business and the real value that IT can deliver to support their companies future strategy.

It’s time for companies to seriously rethink the RFP process, to remove the constraints and encourage innovative responses

As always comments are welcomed


  1. Most RFP’s are garbage from the providers perspective. They are typically badly constructed due to input from too many stakeholders in the customer and/or have been written by the vendor that they really want to buy. Typically also they contain badly defined objectives, poorly thought out SLAs and a price structure that makes zero sense.

    And don’t get me started on responses to detailed questions about the requirement…… If I see one more answer saying “use best practise” or “base it on your experience” then I may well explode. That is simply lazy behaviour by the customer or an indicator of a level of maturity and lack of knowledge.

    I also enjoy the “explain how you will help us innovate” and then have small box in an excel template in which to respond in less than 100 words.

    and what’s worse, they never end up buying what they tendered for….. Maybe it should be called a “Request to prove to my boss that the vendor I’ve already decided to buy from can answer the questions they wrote for me”. Not a very catchy acronym though……

    1. So clearly not just my experience then. What’s your advice to companies that are about to go through the process, as we know there are many that have to due to often outdated processes that dictate it?

      1. 1) Think before you issue!
        2) Understand what you’re trying to achieve
        3) Make sure one person owns and has read all content to ensure it aligns
        4) Be prepared to answer questions honestly and truthfully
        5) Actually understand your current status quo
        6) Use a pricing template that reflects what you are actually trying to buy
        7) Don’t ask for content that you’re never going to read
        8) Don’t use someone else’s template that you’ve downloaded from a web search

        1. I think people should also not try to be too specific, yes the responder needs to know capacities / usage etc and things that will affect the sizing of a solution, but it’s when it goes to the next level of detail, I see this particularly for storage, and starts dictating specific RAID levels that must be supported, or worse still blocksizes this is where all opportunities to do something new go out the window.

          The way I think about this (like your point 2), be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve, what the best outcomes should be and then give the responders the opportunity to provide you with options that you may have never even considered. The minute you start to dictate very specific features then you start to remove any possibility for someone to show you something innovative that you may not even have been aware of.

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