The pathological proposal process

By Marc McDougall

What really is wrong with the proposal?

Isn’t it the case that when clients have some sort of need they will express that need in a formally written RFP for which service providers can then fire back a proposal and give the client a concrete understanding of what they will do, how long it will take, and how much it will cost?

Seems like it would be then quite easy for the person looking to hire the freelancer to simply select whoever best meets their needs in the proposal, right?

RFP (n.) :- A Request For Proposal is a document that solicits proposal, often made through a bidding process, by an agency or company interested in procurement of a commodity, service, or valuable asset, to potential suppliers to submit business proposals. (Source: Wikipedia)

At a glance, everything seems to have a simple explanation, though once you take the time to examine it honestly, you realize that there is much more than meets the eye…

In my time freelancing (about six years at the time of writing this) I’ve realized that the proposal process is inherently flawed and often represents an all-too-often logical, idealized understanding of a project, when people actually fund projects for highly emotional, often irrational reasons.

“We want a new website because our site’s aesthetic is dated” is often the the publicly-listed reason for a project.

In reality, you’re looking to pay someone $50,000 to do something because you don’t want to lose your budget for next year.  You also want to look good in front of your boss, and take a stab at advancing your own career by leading the charge on a sexy new website.  There’s an emotional need for approval mixed in (often a relic from some strange, but all-too-human parental dynamic), and the fear of living without the assurance of that padding in the budget next year  that’s really driving the need for the project.

HELP WANTED: I’m afraid that I’ll lose my job if we don’t see a substantial lift in sales over the next 6 months, and I want to pay someone that will make sure I look like I did everything I could.— Nobody, ever.

Despite these being the true drivers of creative projects everywhere, you’ll never see them listed on an RFP.

It’s this emotional and complicated undertow of reasons and justifications that gets ignored in the proposal process, replaced by a lengthy, nonsensical RFP that is eventually awarded to the provider that most adequately satisfies the emotional needs of a person in need of the provider’s help anyway.

In a nutshell, the proposal process overlooks the very human nature of these kinds of projects.  At the end of the day, I suppose it would be well suited for solving the problems of a computer, but it’s completely inappropriate for the way humans interact with each other.

Okay sure — proposals suck, but what else can we do?

Burn them. Burn them all!!!! *Cackles madly*

Blair Enns talks about a profoundly-simple alternative in his book Win Without Pitching, a marvelous justification for replacing proposals (and the pathological proposal process of firing over a time estimate & price) with a series of conversations.

Proposals don’t take into account the many things that are necessary in the successful completion of a traditional creative project.  Things like…

  • Getting stakeholder expectations aligned.
  • Getting people emotionally invested in the outcome.
  • Getting the people in the company that’s hiring you to actually like you.
  • Understanding the emotional & financial pain involved in the project going wrong.
  • Understanding the financial risk in taking on the project.
  • Having conversations with those people to see if you’re a good fit and that you can actually work together and communicate properly (or to find out that your personalities clash).

These are the things that are handled naturally when we get involved in an organic, human conversation with someone with an unmet need.

Instead of looking a list of requirements, you can talk about them and understand why they’re there, all the while building rapport with the people responsible for the project, so that they’ll eventually divulge the true motivation for the project.  An added a side effect of this is the people with whom you are talking often tend to like you more because they’ve had more conversations with you and (assuming that you have compatible personalities) can work together.

…and people buy from people they like.

Conversations enable you to make a decision as to whether or not it would be healthy & mutually profitable to engage together.  It’s very difficult (read: impossible) to understand what problems exist and need to be solved in a project with even a single conversation and, in my experience, it takes weeks sometimes months to really get to the root of the motivation.

What I’m saying here is that the proposal process is in many ways pathological.  It’s a sort of medication that people use to placate their deeply seated emotional fears about inadequacy or approval-seeking behavior, or some other emotional needs not being met.

They don’t want to deal with that, so instead they put together some sort of RFP and they hope that the logical reasons that are being pushed out to the world will just be blindly accepted by providers. Then, when all is said and done,  they will select someone based on their emotional mind anyway, now armed with a lengthy proposal that acts as a convenient shield to justify their highly-emotional decision to upper management who are playing their own version of same game with the board of directors.  How clever indeed!

It’s pathological because it turns a blind eye to our nature as human beings to be very highly irrational and messy creatures, allowing things like maladaptive relationship dynamics to make their way into a project and compromise it further.  The way we interact with people is very illogical and very weird.  You have to consider these kinds of dynamics when trying to deploy a project that depends on human cooperation.

Instead of proposals, conversations enable us to really get to the core of what needs to be done and why a project is being funded.  It’s the way to go and the whole proposal dynamic completely obfuscates this and is ultimately harmful to the project.

The Tale of Poor Gary, or “A Typical Proposal Process”

For the skeptics here, I want to bring your attention to an all-too-common scenario in the creative services space.

Gary has been tasked by his overbearing manager to find someone to re-design their website.  Gary is keen on impressing his manager: “Finally, a chance to prove myself!” he thinks “…if this project goes well, perhaps he’ll stop breathing down my neck so much.  Perhaps I can enjoy coming in to work.  Perhaps my wife will stop hating me for taking it out on her.”

Gary knows that his manager has a short temper, so instead of trying to get to the root of why he wants a new website, he makes an innocuous assumption: “Well, it looks like it was made in 1990, that must be why he wants a new site, right?”

Seems fair.

So Gary, after getting off the phone with HR to learn about their vendor onboarding process, starts to type up an RFP.  He comes across the scope section, and gets a bit stumped.  “Ah, I know!”  Gary is clever, he’s made it this far up the corporate ladder after all, “I’ll just take a look at what we currently have on our site, and pop that in the RFP”.

Emboldened further, Gary spends a week putting together the sexiest, most detailed RFP.  He’s covered everything from # of pages required to color and font size preferences.  “With this level of detail, how could this possibly go wrong?”

He fires out the RFP to 10 different sites, trying to find a contractor to help solve the problem.

A few experienced providers try to talk to Gary: “Hey man, I love the amount of detail you’ve got here…but redesigning something like this is quite risky.  It might turn customers off, or confuse your product offering to them.  Why even do this at all?”

Poor Gary, confused, and quietly afraid that he may have overlooked something important, replies: “It’s all in the RFP — we expect proposals by October 15th.”

“Could we get on the phone and chat for a bit about the business motivation for the project?” The provider continues, “I just want to make sure we’re not shooting in the dark here.”

Feeling frustrated, and his fears compounded now anticipating the backlash from his manager having overlooked something so simple: “I don’t see why that is necessary, please send me your quote.”

The experienced providers all politely decline…but unfortunately for poor Gary, some providers — desperate for work — press on.

Gary is reassured by his shiny set of 5 proposals, all brandishing their own take on seemingly-random timelines and prices, so he gets on the phone with his 3 favorites.  From the 3, one emerges.  “All the proposals were brilliant, but there was just something about this one firm — we’ll have to go with them.”

Confidence restored, Gary musters the courage to introduce this new provider to his manager.  The conversation goes well.  Everything goes well in fact….until the dreaded “sign-off” meeting…

“WHAT IS THIS???” Gary’s manager screams, “This doesn’t look like our brand at all!  It’s going to hurt the bottom line.  Let’s change this:” he proceeds to list out seemingly-arbitrary problems with the project.

Unfortunately, the provider then runs into issues of their own: the level of effort involved in refactoring the new site to meet the real needs of the business is cost-prohibitive to them.  Gary’s boss has the funding, but he’s not willing to pay them further because now he feels like he’s being held at gunpoint.

Despite these setbacks, and after several weeks of this back and forth, the project is reluctantly “completed”, and the company sees a dramatic drop in sales.  Customers, confused by the new messaging have no idea how to engage with the company anymore, and poor Gary (oddly relieved) finds himself on the hunt for a new job.

“What went wrong?” Gary thinks, “I did everything by the book!  Doesn’t everyone do RFPs like this?”

We know what went wrong: Gary was simply a victim of an ineffectual process that excludes honest, human conversations about the needs of the business and its people.  Had “the why” been made more transparent up-front (before pricing and timelines were locked in), Gary’s story may have had a happy ending.

Debatably worse, we can see how easily proposals enable pathological relationship dynamics (like the one between Gary and his manager) to make their way into projects.

Of course, my ramblings here aren’t really going to change anything.

The proposal process is going nowhere and RFPs will still be fired out to gate-keep doomed projects (or more perniciously, as a facade to imply due-dilligence to upper management when a provider has been pre-selected).

I’m simply leaving my thoughts here in the hopes that perhaps someone, somewhere — a budding new manager in a Fortune 500 company, perhaps? — will read it and realize that there may be another way.  Instead of jumping straight into Excel and typing up a list of requirements, get on the phone with someone who does this for a living and just talk about the problems you’re experiencing.

Have a human conversation with someone and see how that radically transforms the way projects play out in your firm.

Do it for the sake of the people in your firm.  Do it for Gary.