One of the biggest conundrums that companies encounter when they are reviewing Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that they are interested in bidding on is whether the RFP is for a real project, or whether it’s a fishing expedition for ideas to be implemented by an existing vendor or internally. The problem that companies run into is that they want to wow the prospect, they want to show that they have good ideas and can provide unique insight and value to the customer, but they don’t want to give those ideas away and they don’t want to waste their time by putting effort into coming up with those ideas for a project that doesn’t exist or for a client that isn’t ready to commit.

For us, this boils down to Innovation vs. Inspiration. If the RFP is asking for potential solutions to a clearly defined concept, challenge or goal, then that is Innovation (and good). But if the RFP is vague in its needs and throwing around a wishlist of ideas (wants) without a coherent concept, they are clearly looking for Inspiration (and bad).

We believe the situation boils down to whether the company issuing the RFP has established their requirements and are seeking innovative ways to fulfill those needs, or whether they are looking for inspiration and ideas of what they should or could be doing.

How can you tell if it’s seeking Innovation or Inspiration?

We’ll be the first to admit that we’ve spent lots of time and effort on projects that sucked us in, but turned out to be Requests for Inspiration. There is little more frustrating than hearing a few weeks after your submission that they decided to stick with their current vendor, not go forward with the project, or have delayed the project until they’ve done more research. It’s even more frustrating when you don’t hear from them for two months, and only after you contact them to find out what happened, hearing the above responses. At that moment you know you’ve been had and you can’t help but feel frustrated and disappointed.

You can usually tell this by the information, or lack of information, that they provide in the RFP, and sometimes by the seemingly random insertion of buzzwords and industry jargon. And no, it’s not a matter of how much information they put into the RFP, but the type of information that it contains.

Are they asking you targeted questions, seeking potential answers to specific questions?

Are they providing you with the necessary information to enable you to respond with detailed solutions?

Are they providing you with facts, figures, statistics and background information that you’ll need to properly evaluate their RFP?

And simply,

Did they do their own homework before asking you to invest your time and effort?

If in the process of starting your proposal you find yourself actually defining the project (as opposed to defining your solution) you’ve clearly determined that they are seeking Inspiration, not Innovation.

Organizations must invest their time and effort… before asking Companies to invest theirs

In an earlier article we wrote 6 steps to writing a better RFP; there is a reason why the first step is to do your research and define what you are seeking. We also wrote that not all RFPs are worth a proposal. Beyond setting the stage for the project, enabling a hopeful apples to apples competitive bid process, and getting your internal ducks in a row, doing your homework shows to the companies that are preparing to spend lots of non-billable hours that you are serious about your project and serious about hiring a partner to work with you.

As an organization soliciting bids, it is important that you clearly articulate your vision of the perfect proposal and proposing firm for your project.

What are you seeking to accomplish?

What are the boundaries that the firm must work within in their proposed solution?

What are the factors that will influence your decision in selecting a proposal?

What are the constraints within your project (financial, technical, political, etc.)?

Is there a defined project or solution request here or are you simply seeking information and ideas for free?

In closing, it’s important for organizations to acknowledge that companies put a lot of time and effort into creating proposals, all of it non-billable, in the interests of winning your business. It is unfair of you to put forward a Request for Inspiration, and in the long run, could hurt your reputation in the industry as well as the quality of future RFP responses.