Request for Proposal (RFP) documents seem to be adding more fat than muscle as each year passes. Tradition–rather than strategic intent– appears to drive the common list of requirements. It’s time to step back and evaluate what a focused, fat-free set of selection criteria might encompass.

Clients regularly report that they find it difficult to decide between architectural firms even after sorting through stacks of exhaustive proposal documents. When asked what really made the difference in their ultimate decision, evaluators frequently cite criteria beyond the focus of standard RFPs. Some evaluators talk about the team that projected confidence and contagious enthusiasm rather than arrogance; others mention the team that demonstrated a process for bringing hidden project opportunities to light, rather than merely claiming a deep commitment to innovation. Still others may cite a revealing conversation with the architect’s previous clients as the determining factor.

For their part in this ritual, architects say it’s understandable that vastly different firms appear similar to the evaluator’s eye: boilerplate RFP questions restrict proponents to variations of their standard marketing text. Architects also regard conventional interviews as unnatural events that make it difficult for clients to judge the presence or absence of chemistry–the intangible foundation for successful working relationships. Clearly, the RFP and interview process require a fresh strategic approach to ensure better use of everyone’s time, and to help clients choose the right architect for their project.

It’s no wonder the task of selecting an architect makes clients nervous. The wrong choice can lead to clashes of expectations and costly regrets. Throughout the evaluation process, clients justifiably fear being taken in by seductive photographs and slick marketing pitches. They also fear they will be blamed for neglecting to ask the one magic question that will expose a fatal flaw in proponent teams. And the savviest clients seek to avoid putting their faith in a team that can’t engage them in the level of collaborative thinking needed to identify and leverage their project’s hidden opportunities.

Transactional or Transformational Needs?

Prior to composing an RFP document, clients benefit by assessing what level of consultation they require to achieve their desired outcome. Essentially, this question can be seen as a choice between transactional and transformational consulting needs. If the architect is expected to listen carefully and implement pre-determined requirements, then the client is looking for a transactional experience. A transactional RFP would say, in essence, “Tell us about the nearly identical projects you have completed and why you are the best firm to execute our prescribed scope of work.”

However, if the architect is expected to join the client in examining project prospects such as competitive business challenges and aspirations, operational opportunities and brand image, then the client is looking for a transformational design experience. Accordingly, the transformational RFP would ask: “How will your firm turn our aspirations into reality?” and “Give us contact information for three clients who can attest to your success in turning their aspirations into reality.” This would be in place of requesting, for example, a work plan for a pre-determined scope of work.

The Kitchen-Sink Approach

With little to guide them except the contents of past RFPs, clients tend to include every requirement they suspect might be deemed important by someone, someday. It follows that this unfocused “kitchen-sink approach” elicits responses that obscure truly salient differences between firms. The kitchen-sink approach emphasizes generic claims and out-of-context inputs (see “The Test” below) rather than strategic outcomes (e. g., insight about a firm’s performance as judged by a previous client). Simply put, if a firm has three enthusiastic clients (outcome), that firm will probably do a fine job of creating a work plan (input). In addition to imposing a costly burden on architects, loads of non-salient inputs tend to distract the selection committee from what matters most.

Responses to kitchen-sink RFPs have become remarkably homogeneous as architectural marketing staff move from firm to firm. Sameness can also be traced to joint-venture arrangements that give rise to a shared pool of “greatest hits” proposal-writing. As a result, clients are overwhelmed with information that appears to represent due diligence, but in reality delivers scant insight to support the strategic decision they seek.

The Lean-Thinking Approach

An alternative to the kitchen-sink methodology is a results-based RFP produced through a process of “lean thinking.” Over the past decade or so, lean-thinking and lean-process approaches have gained credence as a strategy for cost reduction and process improvement. “Lean” is a concept that organizations apply to removing unnecessary, wasteful steps from traditional ways of working. Lean thinking has a track record of applications that range from improving auto production lines, to hotel check-out and airline check-in procedures, to reducing patient waiting times. The lean approach aims to streamline pointless or low-value work so that time and energy can be redirected to what really matters.

Architects and clients are overdue in promoting the application of lean thinking to the RFP and interview process. Rather than automatically apply long-accepted assumptions, a lean-process consultant would ask the following fundamental questions regarding traditional RFP requirements:

Lean Thinker: Is it a good idea to bring client and architect representatives together so they can jointly refine the scope of work?

Answer: Yes, because the architect team can propose options that may benefit the project, then evaluate these options in concert with the client.

LT: Then the RFP requirement for a work plan based on an unrefined scope is both wasteful and misleading?

A: Yes, the work plan should be done in close collaboration with the client after the project is awarded.

LT: It follows, then, that a fee should not be provided without an agreed, refined scope?

A: Yes, fees should be negotiated after the architect is selected within a pre-determined range as described in the Qualification-Based Selection (QBS) process cited in a previous article entitled “The High Cost of Fee Bidding,” (CA, May 2007). QBS has been required by law for US federal projects since 1972 and has been adopted by 47 of 50 states.

LT: Is it a good idea to have the client’s input when selecting sub-consultants?

A: Yes, it is wasteful to develop a full list of sub-consultants in isolation from the client, and to spend time writing about these sub-consultants, then consume stacks of paper to print their resums.

These are the kinds of results-based questions that clients and architects should be asking themselves in order to focus on salient issues, reduce wasted effort and save paper.

Reinventing the Interview

“How would you propose to spend 90 minutes with us?” Answers to this question will speak volumes to client evaluators about whether the shortlisted team is client-focused or architect-focused, whether they actually value collaboration and integration–or simply draw on these terms for marketing purposes. Will they engage in focused dialogue or lecture the client about their work? Will they attempt to discover hidden concerns or make their own assumptions? How will they build the client’s confidence that they are the right team for their project? What does each team plan to do with this valuable 90-minute period?

Human-centric interviews may appear to be a radical warm and fuzzy concept. However, through the lens of the lean thinker, they make sense. Lean thinkers
have seen enough rehearsed presentations; they want to probe beyond promises and good intentions to witness actual behaviour prior to choosing their architect.

Create a Demand for Lean RFPs

Clearly, the typical architectural RFP does not serve the needs of architects and clients. Given the enormous amount of time and energy expended during the selection process–and all that is at stake in choosing the right architect–it makes sense for everyone involved to rethink long-accepted proposal norms.

Our best and brightest architects make valuable contributions to society each day when they are allowed to do productive work. The right architect for a given project will guide clients through a rewarding creative experience that ultimately represents a sound investment of their fee and construction dollars. Producing a small forest worth of documents in response to unexamined criteria is a poor use of human and natural resources. Lean, results-driven RFPs give both the client and the architect more time to focus on creating great projects together.CA

Sharon VanderKaay, Associate AIA, is director of knowledge development at Farrow Partnership Architects Inc. She looks forward to the day when fat-free RFPs and human-centric interviews become the norm.