Sometimes, procurement teams are seen, if not as the outright enemy, at least as an unwanted complicating factor or obstacle in awarding contracts. ‘I suppose this will have to go through Procurement’ is often accompanied by rolling of the eyes.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the frustration when relationships with operational staff are good and when there is clear common ground on the technical aspects of the project; ‘then along came the procurement team and it all went pear-shaped.’
It’s all too easy for a bid team to slip into thinking that Procurement is there to create problems, particularly when they’ve just missed out on an important project. But is it helpful?
Procurement May See a Bigger Picture
Procurement teams have a job to do. They may have to take broader business issues into account and, above all, they have to ensure there is fair competition (which is actually to your advantage). You can’t wish away the role of the procurement team so it’s better to understand it as well as you can and work with it.
You need to appreciate the following:
Sometimes the procurement team may not have the most up to date information on what the scheme is for, how it is to be used, and specific requirements for it. In some cases the end-users don’t have a clearly defined vision of the needs of the project either. And the best possible solutions may or may not be known to the client if they have only been used outside of their sector of business or knowledge.
Know Where to Start the Discussion
If you want to properly represent the value of your proposed solution you should invest some time in exploring the level of understanding the procurement team has about the desired project outcomes. Assuming anything is a ‘given’ could mean you miss vital steps in the logic that builds your business case.
Procurement people try their best to interpret what their clients want and need. This may be more or less easy depending on how close the procurement and customer teams are, and how different this current procurement is from previous ones.
How Will Bids be Evaluated?
The criteria used for evaluation should be clearly stated (especially for public procurement). For each of these there will be sub-criteria that explain how the assessors will score the submissions they receive. There should be few surprises.
As with all of us, procurement teams don’t always say what they mean or mean quite what they say. What seems obvious to them may not be quite so plain to an audience who is reading the information or ITT for the first time. Their jargon and terminology used may also have subtly different meanings to that of the reader. Checking there is a common understanding early on is helpful.
Procurement teams usually try to write as ‘neutrally’ as possible. One of their objectives is to ensure a fair contest so that their organisation is protected against criticism and possibly legal action.
All of this may seem like a complication, but really it’s there to ensure that the decisions made are in the best interests of the client and support their broader business objectives. Try to understand this agenda rather than see it as an obstacle.
It’s staggering how some project relationships start to sour before delivery has even begun. After the euphoria of a major project win has died down, mobilisation can be a stressful time. Cracks in communications and cultural differences become apparent quickly as the pressure is on to recruit staff, appoint subcontractors, secure approvals and set up the processes needed for delivery.
As project details become clearer there are often negotiations over prices and schedules. This is the time when you most need clear communications and mutual trust - and it’s often where relationships start to break down.
Given how much both clients and contractors depend on successful project outcomes, a modest investment in setting the right tone for behaviours and communication before the serious work gets underway makes sense. But it rarely happens.
Three times in the last year we’ve been called in to help rectify situations where projects didn’t get off on the right footing. Serious communication and trust issues had developed and both sides needed to get back to doing what’s best for the project, instead of blaming each other for delays, increased pricing and other issues.
How to Reset the Relationship
Our objective when we run workshops like this is to help ‘reset’ how the parties communicate with and behave towards one another. All demons have to be exorcised, which means issues, disputes and suspicions have to be aired, acknowledged and resolved. It can get messy but it’s the only way to re-establish trust between the parties.
We help senior staff to understand their behaviours using a recognized behavioural assessment tool. We explain why behaviour matters and how our own behaviours could be perceived. We also teach techniques to deal with people whose behavioural style is similar to or contrary to their own.
We do this using management exercises that stress-test communication and trust. We take regular time-outs to revisit what was happening within the group. Participants analyze and understand how and why those situations arose.
Embedding Positive Behaviours
We then rejoin the exercise, trying to keep and do more of what was working well, eliminate or reduce anything disruptive. We introduce new behaviours that we agreed during the time-out would have helped prevent or diffuse the issues that arose previously. We embed ‘what good looks like’ within all participants.
The outcomes include:
These workshops are highly effective. They help to establish mutually agreed standards for behaviour and communications that can be cascaded throughout all teams involved in the project.
But the success raises an important question: why wait until things have gone wrong?
In any project, positive behaviours, clear communication and a commitment to the same goals are critical. In the context of a multi-million pound project the up-front investment needed in this type of workshop is a pin-prick in the overall budget. That investment will be repaid many times over, not just for this project but for future ones too.
This type of workshop should be standard practice. Why isn’t it?
I can only think it comes down to two factors: one, people aren’t used to doing it, so don’t think of it; two, it’s not a comfortable exercise to put your behaviour and communication style up for scrutiny, possibly in front of your clients and colleagues.
In my view, senior executives should be able to overcome that reticence. The mental and financial wellbeing of a lot of people depend on getting projects off on the right foot. And in any case, feedback on how we behave and communicate can only help us be more effective in our roles.
When people have put hours of effort into a bid, and when that bid has been through rigorous internal review, any criticism - however positive - can be hard to handle.
I’ve seen many occasions where valuable client feedback on an unsuccessful bid is sanitised to make it more palatable, or even discounted as inaccurate or biased. This is a natural and understandable human reaction - but is it helpful?
Where there’s no honest appraisal of a bid’s strengths and weaknesses, there also tends not to be any action planning to ensure the next one is going to be more successful. To get better, you sometimes have to take the medicine.
Downplaying or discounting criticism is rarely deliberate and often not consciously done. And, of course, you don’t have sight of the winning bid to make comparisons. Sometimes it can come down to minor differences in how answers are phrased or structured - the difference between winning or not can be tiny.
Will Comments Still Be Relevant?
An excuse for skirting around feedback is sometimes that there could be a significant amount of time before the client releases further projects to tender. While it’s true that the important criteria can change because the marketplace is dynamic and the needs of the next project will be different, that’s no reason to avoid taking feedback seriously.
Certainly, you can’t simply assume that the comments that were fed back last time will still be 100% relevant. That’s almost as bad as copying and pasting answers from one bid to the next.
You have to understand where each new project sits within the client’s strategic objectives and identify how you might help them achieve these.
Can You be Impartial?
Being objective and impartial about a bid you are close to is hard. That’s not a criticism or a weakness, that’s just part of being human. That’s why an external resource for analysing feedback and reviewing bids before they are submitted is so valuable.
When The Bid Coach is reviewing a tender document we’re not trying to make the questions fit what suits our business. We look only at what the client is really looking for, unclouded by whether or not you could meet those needs.
With our experience as assessors, we can see through the written words to the unspoken meaning or implications behind them. One of our clients calls this ‘seeing the question within the question.’ Again, this is an area where clients say we add significant and objective value.
If you want to get better at winning bids and tenders you have to be prepared to take feedback on board, and take it in context so that you are continuously improving your performance. Working with somebody who isn’t quite so closely involved will help you see things more clearly.
I have many years of senior sales and account management positions.
This experience taught me how to interpret exactly what clients are seeking, and what they need and expect to see and hear from the successful bidder. We draw on this experience to give your team an additional competitive advantage by building on their existing strengths while improving their team-working and self-awareness.