Why RFPs Don’t Provide Best Team

Posted on April 15, 2011


For five minutes, let’s forget that you write requests for proposals (RFPs) ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ My immediate answer to that is:  healthcare, as it has always been done, is unsustainable. Everyone from doctors to the President want to blow it up with a stick of dynamite. It follows then that the process for selecting your architect and contractor should be blown up with it.

RFPs are fair in that every interested design and construction team responds to the same document; however, they do not guarantee the best team is selected. Why is this?  Several reasons. One, the best firms may be busy when the RFP is issued.  Two, many firms may have limited resources and your RFP just happens to be the risk-reward loser at the time—best team not available, weak portfolio vs. expected competition, project too small—so they self-select out for reasons you may never know. And some firms simply refuse to compete via RFP. In a previous post, I related how simply responding to an RFP can put a team in a financial hole, which negatively affects the client-consultant relationship right from the start. 

From a designer or constructor’s perspective, an RFP can be seen as a cynical device. For instance, a public hospital can use an RFP to camouflage its bias for a favorite; in effect, the hospital uses the RFP process as a cover for a predetermined selection with no intention to consider anyone else. Some RFP processes are lazily drawn up with too many rounds or too-long short lists, further stacking the percentages for success against participants. Or there is the belief that RFPs hide owner ignorance:  hospitals don’t know what they really want, need, or value as the most important selection criterion, so they create a ‘level’ playing field to more easily compare three or more teams. And then there is the price subterfuge:  creating an RFP ‘qualifications-based selection’ illusion upfront, when price will somehow be the defining factor at a later stage.

Years ago RFPs offered the only efficient way to compare several unknown entities. Today, information via websites, blogs, informal meetings, Facebook, networking, conferences and asking around to fellow owners is readily available for most firms, and there are numerous ways to differentiate between competitors. In fact, most owners either execute RFPs through invitation-only engagements or they already know who will be responding—so why not interview, select and have a negotiation right from the beginning?

Any reason that unintentionally limits the hospital’s set of eligible, qualified design-builders short-circuits the selection process. In this way, RFPs are a disservice for everyone, and the poster child for project team selection process reform.