Is it time to kill off the pesky OSS RFP?

Image credit: Brian A Jackson |

TM Forum is currently investigating ways to procure OSS without resorting to the current RFI / RFP approach. It has published the following survey results.Kill the RFP

As this survey shows, the RFI/RFP isn’t fit for purpose for suppliers and customers alike. It’s not just the RFI/RFP process. We could extend this further and include contract/procurement process that bolts onto the back of the RFP process.

I feel that part of the process remains relevant – the part that allows customers to evaluate the supplier/s that are best-fit for the customer’s needs. The part that is cumbersome relates to the time, effort and cost required to move from evaluation into formation of a contract.

I believe that this becomes cumbersome because of trust.

Every OSS supplier wants to achieve “trusted” status with their customers. Each supplier wants to be the source trusted to provide the best vision of the future for each customer. Similarly, each OSS customer wants a supplier they can trust and seek guidance from.”

However, OSS contracts (and the RFPs that lead into them) seem to be the antithesis of trust. They generally work on the assumption that every loophole must be closed that a supplier or vendor could leverage to rort the other.

There are two problems with this:

  • OSS transformations are complex projects and all loopholes can never be covered;
  • OSS platforms tend to have a useful life of many years, which makes predicting the related future requirements, trends, challenges, opportunities, technologies, etc difficult to plan for.

As a result, OSS RFI/RFP/contracts are so cumbersome. Often, it’s the nature of the RFP itself that makes the whole process cumbersome. The OSS Radar analogy shows an alternative mindset.

As Mark Newman of TM Forum states:

“…the telecoms industry is transitioning to a partnership model to benefit from innovative new technologies and approaches, and to make decisions and deploy new capabilities more quickly.”

The trusted partnership model is ideal. It allows both parties to avoid the contract development phase and deliver together efficiently. The challenge is human nature (i.e. we come back to trust).

I wonder whether there is merit in using an independent arbiter? A customer uses the RFI/RFP approach to find a partner or partners, but then all ongoing work is evaluated by the arbiter to ensure balance/trust is maintained between customer (and their need for fair pricing, quality products, etc) and supplier (and their need for realistic requirements, reasonable payment times, etc).

Have you noticed how much fear there is going into any OSS procurement event? Fear from suppliers and customers alike. That’s understandable because there are so many horror stories that both sides have heard of, or experienced, from past procurement events. The going-in position is of excitement, fear and an intention to ensure all loopholes are covered through reams of complex contractual terms and conditions. DBC – death by contract.

I’m a huge fan of Australian Rules Football (aka AFL). I’m lucky enough to have been privy to the inside story behind one of the game’s biggest ever player transfers.

The player, a legend of the game, had a history of poor behaviour. With each new contract, his initial club had inserted more and more Ts&Cs that attempted to control his behaviour (and protect the club from further public relations fallouts). His final contract was many pages long, with significant discussion required by player and club to reach agreement on each clause.

In the meantime, another club attempted to poach the superstar. Their contract offer fit on a single page and had no behaviour/discipline clauses. It was the same basic pro-forma that eveeryone on the team signed up to. The player was shocked. He asked where all the other clauses were. The answer from the poaching club was, to paraphrase, “why would we need those clauses? We trust you to do the right thing.” It became a significant component of the new club getting their man. And their man went on to deliver upon that trust, both on-field and off, over many years. He built one of the greatest careers ever.

I wonder whether this is just an outlier example? Could the same simplified contract model apply to OSS procurement, helping to build the trusting partnerships that everyone in the industry desires? As the initiator of the procurement event, does the customer control the first important step towards building a trusting partnership that lasts for many years?

There’s no doubt the RFI/RFP/contract model can be costly and time-consuming. To be honest, I feel the RFI/RFP process can be a reasonably good way of evaluating and identifying a new supplier/partner. I say “can be” because I’ve seen some really inefficient ones too. I’ve definitely refined and improved my vendor procurement methodology significantly over the years.

I feel it’s not so much the RFI/RFP that needs killing (significant disruption maybe), but its natural extension, the contract development and closure phase that can be significantly improved.

As mentioned above, the main stumbling block is human nature, specifically trust.

Have you ever been involved in the contract phase of a large OSS procurement event? How many pages did the contract end up being? Well over a hundred? How long did it take to reach agreement on all the requirements and clauses in that document?

I’d like to introduce the concept of a Minimum Viable Contract (MVC) here. An MVC doesn’t need most of the content that appears in a typical contract. It doesn’t attempt to predict every possible eventuality during the many years the OSS will survive for. Instead it focuses on intent and the formation of a trusting partnership.

I once led a large, multi-organisation bid response. Our response had dozens of contributors, many person-months of effort expended, included hundreds of pages of methodology and other content. It conformed with the RFP conditions. It seemed justified on a bid that exceeded $250M. We came second on that bid.

The winning bidder responded with a single page that included intent and fixed price amount. Their bid didn’t conform to RFP requests. Whereas we’d sought to engender trust through content, they’d engendered trust through relationships (in a part of the world where we couldn’t match the winning bidder’s relationships). The winning bidder’s response was far easier for the customer to evaluate than ours. Undoubtedly their MVC was easier and faster to gain agreement on.

An MVC is definitely a more risky approach for a customer to initiate when entering into a strategically significant partnership. But just like the sports-star transfer comparison in part 2, it starts from a position of trust and seeks to build a trusted partnership in return.

This is a highly contrarian view. What are your thoughts? Would you ever consider entering into an MVC on a big OSS procurement event?

The above proposes a structural obsolescence that may lead to the death of the RFP. We might not have to kill it. It might die a natural death.

Actually, let me take that back. I’m sure RFPs won’t die out completely as a procurement technique. But I can see a time when RFPs are far less common and significantly different in nature to today’s procurement events.

How?? Technology!

That’s the answer all technologists cite to any form of problem of course. But there’s a growing trend that provides a portent to the future here.

It comes via the XaaS (As a Service) model of software delivery. We’re increasingly building and consuming cloud-native services. OSS of the future, the small-grid model, are likely to consume software as services from multiple suppliers.

And rather than having to go through a procurement event like an RFP to form each supplier contract, the small grid model will simply be a case of consuming one/many services via API contracts. The API contract (e.g. OpenAPI specification / swagger) will be available for the world to see. You either consume it or you don’t. No lengthy contract negotiation phase to be had.

Now as mentioned above, the RFP won’t die, but evolve. We’ll probably see more RFPs formed between customers and the services companies that will create customised OSS solutions (utilising one/many OSS supplier services). And these RFPs may not be with the massive multinational services companies of today, but increasingly through smaller niche service companies. These micro-RFPs represent the future of OSS work, the gig economy, and will surely be facilitated by smart-RFP/smart-contract models (like the OSS Justice League model).

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences around partnerships that have worked well (or why they’ve worked badly). Have you ever seen examples where the arbitration model was (or wasn’t) helpful?

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