Where are my RFP Responses?

In one of my management classes, a group activity was to prepare a Request for Proposal (RFP). The purpose of the RFP was to hire an event company to create and manage a 300-person company picnic. No other specifications were given — kind of like real life.

The teams set to work creating the RFP. Most assembled a list of basic information for the vendor such as a date, number of people, and budget. A few of the groups had specific requests such as a special theme or specific venue. After a half-hour of discussion, the groups were beginning to disband, all except for Detailed Dina’s group. Detailed Dina was the project manager for her team, and she was not going to be so sloppy.

Keeping her group well past the time allotted, she insisted that the RFP include a questionnaire, which asked for references, sample menus, descriptions of other events done, for whom, when, what was the cost vs. the final budget of these events. What type of picnics had the vendor done before? What kinds of themes? For how many? She also asked for credit and banking references, and a list of their subcontractors. Dina assigned each team member a portion of the RFP, and then offered to assemble the final product herself (so it was up to her quality standards). An hour after everyone else left, Dina was satisfied and exceedingly proud of herself. She demonstrated collaborative leadership, and was a team player by taking on the task of assembling the final RFP. Dina was confident her outstanding RFP would result in a superior picnic.

The RFPs were farmed out to the vendor groups. Among the ten RFPs presented, the teams needed to choose five to meet and three to respond.

After all the presentations and discussion were completed, Detailed Dina’s RFP was not selected. Aghast at the slight, Dina demanded to know why no one selected her event. The answer was simple. There were other clients, and her application was too much. Said one team, “I know it’s a game, but it was just so ridiculous….” The instructor tried to mix it up bit. Everyone knew that Detailed Dina has no interested vendors; therefore, whomever bid on her contract was guaranteed to win the business. Wouldn’t that be easier than competing against so many others? Would any team trade creating three proposals for her one?

Lesson #1

First, Detailed Dina made an amateur mistake: She refused to scale. It’s a picnic, not a shuttle launch. Dina was so fixated on her emotional need for data because she felt that more data would help her to secure a quality vendor. Unfortunately, this project wasn’t about data, it was about teamwork and goals. Dina lost sight of the goal, which was to form a relationship with a vendor (which she failed to do), and then manage the relationship (which she was unable to do), for the company’s benefit (which never happened).

This project wasn’t about data; it was about teamwork and goals.

And, while Dina was adamant that she had a far superior RFP, and was friendly and collaborative with her team, no one could argue that if this were real life, her leadership was a failure. Bottom line: They needed a team to do this event, and she was unable to assemble a team.

Lesson #2

This story is also illustrates the shift in the American labor market. You’re hiring a <jobtitle> to do <somethingforyou>, you’re not marrying the guy! Because Dina was in a position to choose and pay the vendor, her attitude was one of entitlement. They needed to “prove” themselves to her.

Your hubris is counter-productive to building a team

And, while we all seek qualified vendors (and it’s natural to feel a little entitled when you’re writing the checks), remember that you’re not the person actually doing the work. If you’re an employer, your attitude needs to be one of partnership, not entitlement. You’re hiring someone because you CANNOT do the work yourself. Your hubris is counter-productive to building a team.

The Conclusion

Dina was surprised by the silence that followed the easy offer of her business.

Dina immediately offered explanations of the rationale behind the formulation of her RFP. The teams quietly discussed the trade-offs of a relationship with Detailed Dina. With fewer clients it could be less work – initially – but since this was a “fixed-price” bid, what was the risk that Detailed Dina would be a difficult client who needed lots of attention, extras or changes? How would that effect the time they spent on this class project?

I think we all know what happened here.

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Excerpted from: The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker. Copyright 2017 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC.  All rights reserved.  No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. info@piercewharton.com.

Three Things I’ve Learned from My Garden

I have a lot of hobbies; gardening is the most serious. I was introduced to the wonders of plants as a child. Like all hobbies, my garden has grown along with my knowledge and income.

There are few things in life more satisfying than your own garden. The never-ending metaphor for life – a garden offers more than beauty – it offers insight. Here’s a few things I’ve learned from mine:

Anyone Can Change the World

When I was a kid, we lived in a very small apartment. The path from the alley to the back porch was filled with rocks and gravel. It was litter-free, and most renters would have left it alone, but not my Mom and Grandmother. We bought seeds and as soon as Spring would allow, we filled discarded egg cartons with dirt and germinated our crops in the sunny basement windows. Once hardened, my brothers and I dutifully transplanted our seedlings into their assigned places. Over the summer, the Marigolds grew, the Sunflowers blossomed, the Morning Glories climbed through the chain link. We learned to weed and mulch and water. It didn’t matter that I was five, and poor, and lived in a horrible place in a sketch area of town: We made the world a better place, and everyone around us knew it, too.

Gardening is the most egalitarian of hobbies, which is why I love it so. Gardening taught me not to accept my circumstance: I could always make things better for me and for others.  Rich or poor, young or old, gifted or dull: Anyone can grow a beautiful sunflower.

Life is Filled With Death and Failure

Over my lifetime, I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on all kinds of (expensive) plants that — despite my best efforts — have died.  Even more annoying are those that linger and never thrive. Despite 50 years of gardening and my amazing green thumb, I am not immune from disappointment and failure. Not everyone can grow everything well.

Talking about death and failure is something we just don’t do anymore, and I wish we would. Whether painful or shameful, it’s these dark moments that make us change our course.  Only from death and failure do we learn and grow.

Don’t envy beautiful gardens.  Gardens aren’t born, they evolve. Failure is part of the evolution.  The garden has taught me to accept it, learn from it, even plan for it, but most importantly, to let it go. Failure forces you to look for causes, patterns, alternatives.  If it weren’t for those dead petunias, I would have never found succulents.  Today, I have a collection that horticulturalists envy.

Laziness is Sweet; but it’s Consequences are Cruel

Voltaire (also a fan of the garden), is correct in his observation.  Mother nature is an impatient mistress, and she’s not going to wait around for you to “feel” motivated.

Consistent effort is required to achieve anything in life of real value: Good relationships, successful careers, continued health.  They all require consistent effort.

My garden has taught me that procrastinating unpleasant tasks can make them more daunting than they really are. By using the one-hour rule, which is do <whatever work you’re avoiding> for just one hour, I’ve found I almost always able to accomplish more than I originally thought.

>>>>>>

Like affection, effort is never wasted. An hour to till even the smallest garden can lift and inspire others. And, isn’t that what life is all about?

 

Your Culture is your Brand

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about culture, how it eats strategy for breakfast, and how most of us think we can’t do anything to change or affect the culture in which we live and work.  I strongly disagree, and so does Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com.  The following is an excerpt from Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.

“Building a brand today is very different from building a brand 50 years ago. It used to be that a few people got together in a room, decided what the brand position was going to be, and then spent a lot of money buying advertising telling people what their brand was. And if you were able to spend enough money, then you were able to build your brand.”

“It’s a very different world today.  With the Internet connecting everyone together, companies are becoming more and more transparent whether they like it or not.  An unhappy customer or a disgruntled employee can blog about a bad experience with a company, and the story can spread like wildfire…”

“The good news is that the reverse is true as well.  A great experience with a company can be read by millions of people almost instantaneously as well.  The fundamental problem is that you cannot possibly anticipate every possible touch point that could influence the perception of your company’s brand.  Every employee can affect your company’s brand…”

“Many companies have core values, but they don’t really commit to them.  They usually sound more like something you’d read in a press release  Maybe you learn about them on day one of orientation, but after that it’s just a meaningless plaque on the wall of the lobby.”

“We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to.  And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them.  If you’re willing to do that then you’re well on your way to building a company culture that is inline with the brand you want to build.  You can let all of your employees be your brand ambassadors, not just the marketing or PR department.”

“At the end of the day, just remember that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff – including a great brand – will fall into place on it’s own.”

– Tony Hsieh

How Perfectionistss Ruin Quaity

Capture
In the early days of software (when every application came with manual), I took a class for technical writers.  Our first homework assignment was to write directions for how to make tea.  Several of my classmates had questions such as what kind of tea? Was it in a bag or loose?  The instructor said he would provide no other details except for the original task: Write directions for how to make tea.

When class re-assembled the following week, the instructor asked the students to turn in their homework.  He shuffled through the responses and chose several to present to the class. Before presenting, he requested the class hold all comments and questions until after all the submissions were reviewed.  Then, he placed the first page of Paul Perfectionist’s directions on the projector. “That’s mine!” You could see him visibly puff up. Because his directions were first up, they were likely the standard.

Paul had put together an exhaustive set of detailed directions. No detail was too small, no action overlooked, no exception left out.  Paul wrote step-by-step how to unwrap the box of tea, what size pot to select for boiling water, how to turn on the faucet, how to put water into the pot, how to turn on the stove (or light a stove, if necessary), how to set a timer for boiling water.  He created a branch for the benefits of a tea kettle verses a pot, how to choose a cup, how to lay the tea bag in the cup.  He had an alternate scenario for loose tea, including explanations of tea balls, strainers, and cozies…a couple shots of images for tea…all-in-all, there were more than five pages of directions for making tea.

The instructor continued with the next set of directions, which was also lengthy, but not nearly as exhaustive as Paul’s.  The instructor slowly continued on replacing page-after-page of instructions offering no comment on any of the efforts.

I’ve spent a lifetime as a teacher and corporate writer; I knew where this was going.  I sat back and began to look around the room. I could see some of the students’ body language had already changed. Shoulders hunched, furrowed brows — they looked confused, worse ashamed.  Had they misunderstood the assignment?  Was this more complicated than they originally thought?  Self-doubt descended like a fog.

As the presentation continued, the directions became significantly briefer.  One student (who had asked about loose or bag), wrote “One bag = 2 Tbls,” which I recall thinking was exceedingly clever copy for tea packaging. I remember Paul rolled his eyes when I complimented the writer on the usefulness of that line, “That doesn’t even tell you how to make tea!” he scoffed.  The last submission displayed was, “Add hot water. Enjoy.”

The projector went off. The lights went on.  Paul was beaming with pride.  “So,” the instructor began, “Which of these directions do you think is the best?”

“The last one,” I said quickly and with conviction.

“I agree,” the instructor responded.

Now, if you thought that Paul had a “ah-hah!” moment, you have little experience with the detail-obsessed, perfectionist disorder.  On the contrary, Paul was PISSED OFF!  Without a second of reflection, he launched into a full-scale attack on his classmates and the instructor.  The others didn’t understand the complexity of tea, and that’s why he detailed out every approach to it. These brief responses indicated his colleagues were lazy and didn’t want to do the homework.  It’s clear they took a short-cut in the assignment, which is why they wrote so little. Paul assured everyone that he had spent a lot of time working on this, and making tea was much, much, more complicated than we really knew.  No one had even thought to include images!  What if someone didn’t know what a teabag looked like!

My personal impatience with the narcissism of perfectionists notwithstanding, I gleefully threw coal in his furnace and offered that I wrote no directions at all; rather, I documented an audience assumption that tea – a staple of every kitchen in every culture – is something the audience or purchaser would already know how to make.  It’s not an enchilada.

Other real-world rejections of Paul’s work quickly followed: Tea does not come with directions now, why would we need them in the future?  No tea company would ever create collateral or change packaging to accommodate five pages of directions. No one buying tea would ever read a five-page insert if they did. Another pointed out that Paul’s directions (literally) included a section on how to boil water! Knowing how to boil water was the same reason light bulbs didn’t come with directions. Ha-ha. The class chuckled, the fog of self-doubt lifted, and there was a sigh of relief from those who had not crafted lengthy directions. Paul, however, was not amused.  He insisted that it was possible some men could not know how to boil water or turn on a stove (although most women were likely to know this, he conceded). Then, finally after all his other defenses were exhausted, Paul played the “safety” card (aka: the Hail Mary of all corporate disagreements), and strongly asserted that without directions someone might burn themselves or ingest the tea bag, which could result in a law suit…

The Lesson

Paul was a student in a class of colleagues, so the ability to critique his work is assumed.  That is rarely the case in real-life. Imagine if Paul Perfectionist were a manager, lead or (heaven forbid) stakeholder?  Given Paul’s predilection toward perfectionism, if he were someone’s boss do you think he would be open to a less-detailed approach or would he just see that as sloppy?  What are the chances that a peer – never mind subordinate – could call Paul out on his emotional need for detail?  Even if some courageous person did tell Paul he was being ridiculous, do you think the rest of the group would jump in and support their colleague’s “sloppy approach” compared to Paul’s exhaustive completeness?  Lastly, with so much ego and emotion displayed by Paul, even if the group felt that Paul’s directions were expensive or might result in a negative outcome, how likely is it that they would coalesce to fight actively against him?  Or do think it’s more likely the group would just “deal” with Paul because they have families to support and just don’t have the energy to argue with him anymore….?

Paul and Polly Perfectionists exist in every business. What all these perfect people have in common is the same narcissistic misconception that they – alone – can assure quality.  We euphemistically call them “bottlenecks” or say they need “special hand-holding.”  In private, we call them high-maintenance PITAs, and tell colleagues to circumvent them because do nothing but cause spin and churn.

Perfectionists are the most destructive of leaders and teammates because they talk non-stop about quality, but they don’t listen to quality. Quality is not a person. Quality is not a checklist. Quality is a process.  A quality processes requires a team, and the perfectionists of the world never have a good one because teams require honesty, communication, and trust.  Perfectionists don’t understand that state of being.  Their lives are filled with fear, suspicion, and distrust.  It haunts them at work; it strains their personal relationships. A Paul Perfectionist may run a team, but he rarely considers himself a part of that team because – qualitatively – he is sure he is above the others and perfectionism is not a flaw.

Excellence is a value; Perfectionism is an insecurity.

Everyone should take pride in his/her work, everyone should have input, but when I see over-engineered and voluminous solutions, I don’t think, “Ahh, so smart!” Rather, I corner my teammate(s) 1:1 and ask questions.  Inevitably, I’ll hear “Yeah, we had to do <whatever> because <controlfreakperfectionist> is a PITA, which is why we’re <late/over budget/short staffed>. Avoid them if you can….”

Over the course of my career, I have been amazed at the number of high-priced consultants and internal project teams who churn away days and weeks of expensive time adding linguistic dandruff to presentations, plans and proposals whose only goal is to sooth the emotions and ego of someone who is sure they’re adding quality.  CapEx budgets become bloated by stakeholder reviews and timelines are delayed all because no one going to jeopardize the financial stability of their family by telling Paul Perfectionist that we don’t need five pages of directions on how to make tea.

The Conclusion

The instructor cornered Paul during break and tried to talk him down, which was not easy because perfectionists are quite sure that you aren’t smart enough to see the world as clearly as they, and who are you to criticize their drive for perfection anyway?

The instructor explained to Paul the purpose of the class (and education, in general) was to challenge pre-conceived notions. Audience is the most important consideration in any communication, and Paul did not consider his when writing his directions.  Although Paul reluctantly agreed that perhaps boiling water was a bit much, he would not relent on the other stuff.  Besides, even if fewer directions were acceptable, more paperwork and detail is always better. I mean, this is tea, sure, but in real-life, in business, there would never be a time where more documentation or direction would be worse, right?

The instructor asked Paul to keep an open mind, and then politely turned to another student who had been patiently waiting.

Paul never came back to class.

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Excerpted from: The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker. Copyright 2017 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC.  All rights reserved.  No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. info@piercewharton.com; Follow on Twitter and Facebook @TheTempJob

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