Improve Your RFP Process

"Vendors don't respond to RFPs to lose and always think their solution should come out on top.”"

–Sheila Fernley

What is PMO?

The project management office (PMO) in a business or professional enterprise is the department or group that defines and maintains the standards of process generally related to project management within the organization.

In order to better understand potential risks, it is helpful to identify the causes and potential effects.

Contact Information

450 North Sam Houston
Parkway East, #125
Houston, Texas 77060
1-800-210-3215 or
info@isphere.net

social
www.isphere.net

Introduction

If you find that vendors frequently submit records requests at the end of a Request for Proposal process, or even more frustrating, contest the outcome of your RFPs, a skilled project manager and business analyst may be the solution you are looking for.

It isn't uncommon for one or more vendors that are not selected to move on to the next phase of a Request for Proposal to question the selection process. Although organizations may associate the need for a project manager and business analyst with project implementation, this can be a costly mistake. The success of an IT project where a complex solution is purchased through an exhaustive RFP process begins with defining the right requirements and skillfully managing the RFP process. If brought in prior to the RFP being developed, an experienced project manager and business analyst can help their client define the right solution, reduce costs associated with RFP records requests, reduce the likelihood of vendor accusations, and create a defensible case should a contested RFP end up in litigation.

This white paper examines approaches to the Request for Proposal process that strive to make the process as objective and defensible as possible.

A case study of a client engagement is included that illustrates key factors for implementing a successful RFP process.

All opinions in this white paper should be considered commentary in nature and are not intended to be legal advice.

Wedding Plans

Consider this scenario: A young professional couple is engaged to be married. They both come from large families and plan to invite 200 guests to their wedding. The couple have a vision of what their wedding should look like. Although they will certainly be involved in making decisions, they both have full-time jobs and neither is a professional wedding planner. A wedding planner is a professional who assists with designing, planning, and managing weddings. They manage the wedding budget, attendee list, invitations and RSVPs, secure venues, secure service providers, prepare contracts, procure and oversee decorations, coordinate deliveries, develop a back-up plan, manage schedules, and in some cases prepare legal documents for destination weddings.

The couple couldn't possibly expect to hire a wedding planner right before the big day and expect that their wedding would take place without a hitch. A professional wedding planner would need to be hired well in advance to oversee such a large, detailed, and important event. The couple decides that the expense of a wedding planner is worth it, if they can eliminate the stress and aggravation, and ensure the perfect wedding day.

In the same vein, it's not that clients can't organize and manage an RFP, but in most cases the internal person designated to oversee the RFP and the internal project team members are not business analysts or project managers. They have full time jobs and shouldn't be expected to take on the full-time job of developing and managing the RFP. It is not uncommon to learn that some of the internal stakeholders have never even participated in an RFP, much less defined requirements, developed project plans, risk logs, and RFP evaluation tools. It's important to recognize the need for an RFP expert. Ask yourself, "Do I have 40 hours or more a week to focus on the RFP process?" and "Do I have the expertise to develop the RFP and manage the RFP process?"

Inherent RFP Challenges

Like a wedding, there are many details that must be carefully planned and managed, if the RFP process is to be successful and defensible. Consider for the following areas where potential problems can arise, resulting in complaints, unnecessary records requests, and contested RFPS.

Causes Potential Effects Potential Risks
Not having well documented RFP processes, policies, and templates. Unorganized and inconsistent RFP solicitations. Complaints and contested RFPs. Violation of laws and/or policies. Litigation.
No appointed internal RFP lead. Unorganized RFP solicitation. Poor communication internally and with vendors. Complaints and contested RFPs. Violation of laws and/or policies.
No full-time RFP business analyst and project manager. Purpose and requirements not well defined. Project plan not followed and critical timelines not met. Complaints and contested RFPs. Violation of laws and/or policies. Canceled and reissued RFPs.
Solicitation not advertised effectively. Qualified vendors don't respond. Perceived by some vendors as a non-competitive solicitation. Complaints and contested RFPs. Litigation.
Q&A not shared with all vendors. Perceived by some vendors as a non-competitive solicitation. Complaints and contested RFPs. Litigation.
Unrealistic timeline. Deadlines missed by vendors with potentially good solutions. Not enough time for vendors to prepare adequately for proposal preparation and/or vendor demonstrations. Not enough time for evaluators to evaluate proposals. Complaints and contested RFPs.
Unclear statement of need. Qualified vendors don't respond. Unqualified vendors do respond. Complaints and contested RFPs. Canceled and reissued RFPs. Wrong or ineffective solutions.
Poorly written requirements Vendor confusion. Incomplete or poorly written proposal responses. Evaluator confusion. Complaints and contested RFPs. Canceled and reissued RFPs. Wrong or ineffective solutions.
Unorganized RFP document. Vendor confusion. Vendors don't respond to all requirements. Incomplete or poorly written proposal responses. Evaluator confusion. Complaints and contested RFPs. Canceled and reissued RFPs.
Confusing evaluation criteria and/or methods. Unfair evaluation. Vendor confusion. Poor responses. Low scores from all vendors. Evaluator confusion. Complaints and contested RFPs. Violation of laws and/or policies. Litigation
Ineffective evaluation planning and proposal/ demonstration evaluation. Unfair evaluation. Some evaluators are not qualified to evaluate certain criteria. Potential evaluator favoritism. Unclear evaluator expectations. Unclear vendor expectations. Complaints and contested RFPs. Violation of laws and/or policies. Litigation.
Ineffective evaluation tools. Unfair evaluation. Incorrect and inconsistent scores. Difficult, if not impossible to justify. Difficult to compare vendor scores. Difficult to select top vendors. Complaints and contested RFPs. Violation of laws and/or policies. Litigation.
Excluding an evaluation criteria (i.e., financial proposal score) when the evaluation criteria is stated in the RFP. Unfair evaluation. Difficult, if not impossible to justify. Complaints and contested RFPs. Violation of laws and/or policies. Litigation.
Failure to properly document the process and outcomes. Perceived by some vendors as biased evaluation and vendor selection. Difficult, if not impossible to justify. Complaints and contested RFPs. Violation of laws and/or policies. Litigation.

Characteristics of a Defensible RFP

Although a skilled business analyst and project manager, brought in early in the RFP process, can reduce the risk of complaints and an RFP being contested, no one can guarantee that the outcome of an RFP won't end up in litigation. Should a vendor take legal action regarding the outcome of an RFP, a business analyst and project manager know how to develop a solid RFP, manage the RFP process, and manage the fair evaluation and scoring of vendor proposals and demonstrations. Some of the key characteristics of a defensible RFP include:

  • A well documented and proven RFP process, with supporting policies and templates. Rules and deadlines are not broken.
  • RFP language that clearly states that the RFP is not a binding agreement and in no way guarantees a contract with any vendor responding to the RFP solicitation document. An organization's legal department can craft such language, which should be included in every RFP.
  • Clear, fair, and attainable evaluation criteria that is spelled out in the RFP and adhered to when evaluating and selecting vendors. The selection of vendors who will move to the demonstration phase of the RFP process and the vendor who will be awarded the work must be selected based on the criteria stated in the RFP.
  • Transparency, which includes information disclosure, clarity, and accuracy. Disclosure refers to sharing the same information to internal stakeholders, all vendors responding to the RFP, and the general public. Clarity refers to decisions and efforts to clearly state requirements and expectations, to limit and explain acronyms, and to limit the use of complicated scoring procedures. Accuracy refers decisions and efforts to not bias, embellish or distort facts with regard to RFP related communications.
  • Scoring tools and evaluation processes that lend themselves to easily capturing and validating scores and converting raw scores to points. Scoring sheets created in Excel allow for data validation of cells where scores will be entered and cells to be locked, which reduce the chance of scoring errors. Scores that are then captured and entered into a scoring matrix for comparison and ranking purposes should be validated by at least one other person. Complicated weighted scoring formulas should be avoided, and can result in scoring errors and biases.
  • Demonstrations, not presentations. Demonstrations of features and functionality that are disclosed in advanced can be objectively scored, while scoring presentations can be very subjective. Create effective rubrics and scoring sheets for the vendor demonstration phase of the RFP. Set clear vendor demonstration expectations in advance (content and time segments for each criteria area to be demonstrated).
  • Reference surveys. Developing and sending an online reference survey, where vendor references rate key areas creates a simple method for capturing and scoring reference responses that can easily be converted to points. Such a survey also removes any perception or accusation of bias. Hint:A vendor reference may ask another colleague to complete the survey, so include 3 questions that are not scored:
    1)A vendor reference may
    2)Title of the person completing the survey, and
    3) Organization name.
  • Organize documentation and document, document, document (in print and PDF format). Scores are not the only records that will be needed should an RFP be contested. Other documents include, but are not limited to, meeting sign-in sheets, lists of evaluators, project plans, status reports, rubrics, scoring matrices, templates, vendor and evaluator instructions, and vendor questions and answers. Electronic signatures on online scoring sheets, initials and vendor names in the footer of each page of the scoring sheets can help to verify that scores were not altered. PDF versions of printed documents make it easy for Procurement, if and when a records request is made, to locate and send records to the requesting entity.
  • Having two vendors submit a Best and Final Offer (BAFO). If two vendors scores are close, this will not only be perceived as unbiased, but will create competition.

Case Study

In September 2015 a large Texas urban school district hired an iSphere project manager to oversee their RFP process for a new instructional management system (IMS) that would replace the district's existing IMS. The project manager was hired after the requirements were written and the RFP solicitation was advertised. The person who wrote the requirements was on extended leave, but the project manager did find out that that person had no experience gathering requirements or writing an RFP.

Prior to developing the rubric and scoring sheet that would be used to evaluate the proposals, the project manager recommended to Procurement that each evaluator be assigned to score only the sections of the proposals that were within their area of expertise. The project manager was told that the evaluators had to score the entire proposal (all criteria sections). When the proposal evaluators began reviewing and scoring the proposals two things became evident, 1) scores were skewed, because some evaluators did not have the background or knowledge needed to score certain sections (i.e., Technology Specifications) and 2) the requirements would result in a system that would not meet the needs of the district. In November, during the demonstration phase of the RFP, the vendors were notified that the RFP had been canceled.

The district's project lead and project management team acknowledged that iSphere's project manager was the "best project manager" that they had ever worked with. The district also recognized the need to have the project manager involved early in the planning, requirements gathering, and RFP writing.

In December 2015 the RFP process was started over with the same iSphere project manager. This time the project manager began by developing the statement of need and the four purposes of what would be an innovative learning positioning system (LPS). The project manager reviewed the district's newly adopted 5-year strategic plan, did research on what made up an effective LPS, reviewed the questions and answers from the previous two demonstrations, and interviewed internal stakeholders. New requirements were written and approved by the executive committee and the project management team. A new RFP schedule and project plan were created, and the LPS RFP was written.

The district assigned a different Procurement team to the LPS RFP project. The district's Procurement Office adopted many of the processes and tools created by iSphere's project manager. This time the evaluators were allowed to score only the criteria sections of the proposals that were within their area of expertise. Several other recommendations were followed and several "lessons learned" changes were made to the RFP process and tools. The district went on to select two top vendors who were asked to respond to a set of "clarifying" questions and to provide Best and Final Offer. Selecting two top vendors to move to the BAFO phase not only created a competitive situation, but provided additional documented support for any potential contested award.

Conclusion

Hiring a project manager early on, prior to the RFP planning stage, can help to develop a clear statement of need, create the right requirements, and build an evaluation plan that is defensible and that will lead to the selection of the best solution for the client. Bringing on a project manager early in the RFP process can also help avoid costly mistakes and pitfalls that can expose a client to unnecessary legal action.