Rethinking Software Procurement


There is potential for you and I to be really great friends. But, I was taught to be selective about the company I keep, so before we hang out I need to do a criminal record check and see a list of references.

It would also be helpful to have access to your T4’s for the last five years so I know where you’re at financially -- too poor and you might not fit my social class, too rich and you could be stodgy. To make sure our personalities don’t conflict I’ve prepared an 85-page questionnaire meticulously detailing every characteristic that I like including how you should spread jam across bread. In case you accidently hurt me physically or emotionally you should be carrying significant personal liability insurance. And finally, you’ll have to sign a bid-bond which breaks the terms of our friendship down into five milestone accomplishments. If we fail to achieve any of these milestones, our friendship will be immediately dissolved and you will compensate me for the time that I could have spent pursuing an alternate friendship.

Imagine trying to meet a new friend (or get a date) using this tactic. Outside of meeting a fellow sociopath (not recommended) you’re unlikely to have success.

As human beings we are incredibly social creatures. We thrive in places where we’re surrounded by people we trust. Building that trust requires putting ourselves in a place where we are vulnerable. It involves risk. This applies to all relationships including the ones we nurture in the business world.

Government organizations have become so risk intolerant that building up meaningful relationships with vendors has become extremely difficult. Procurement paradoxically eliminates the human element in an effort to create a perfectly objective outcome. Its manifest is to create a fair, equal evaluation of key needs and requirements based exclusively on quantifiable metrics. The paradox is that by eliminating the human element you also take away a key component, perhaps the most important ingredient, for building a successful partnership and collaborating on a remarkable outcome.

Here are some thoughts on how to humanize and ultimately improve your procurement process:

  • Verbose feature lists rarely lead to the best products. In reality these lists often lead organizations to poor software development practices because they are incentivized to “check the popular boxes” that appear on procurement documents as opposed to innovating towards an altogether better approach to a traditional problem.

  • Measure their development velocity. Technology is changing at a rapid pace and most companies struggle to keep up. Asking questions about recent feature releases and timelines to better understand whether you’re looking at a partner with momentum enough to keep you ahead of the technology curve.

  • Let vendors educate you. Use each vendor encounter as an opportunity to learn about trends in the marketplace. Avoid asking narrow or overly specific questions. Give them flexibility to show you new, innovative ways to accomplish your goals.

  • Speed date your vendors. During procurement vendors have a lot of time to eloquently dance around shortfalls. It’s harder to dodge a difficult question that happens in real-time. Consider setting up a short 25-30 minute video conference with each vendor (before short-listing). This will also help you build a human connection with the people you may be working with.

  • Ask to speak with developers directly. This can be a good final question for the speed dating conversation. The best salespeople are “trained” to respond to difficult situations. If you want better inside knowledge about how a company operates or potential shortfalls force an untrained spokesperson to join the conversation. You also want to know that you’ll be able to reach developers directly if you’re in a crisis situation.

  • Do your own research. Send out customized invitations to vendors that are of particular interest. It’s your responsibility to make them feel special. The procurement process is part of your organization's brand -- you want to be careful about how you represent yourself.

  • Overly complicated process doesn't just delay building trust, it erodes it. Each tedious step alienates you from potentially great vendors that focus on the right thing: people. Work towards simplifying the “handshake” questions. Do you really need to ask 85 pages of questions or would a few, extraordinarily well worded ones do the trick?

  • Understand the driving force behind each company. Every company needs to turn a profit to survive, but if the primary motivator is profit it often leads to decisions that are not in your best interest. Ask questions that reveal key motivations such as why your spokesperson (not the company) choose this industry.

  • Ask yourself if you trust the company. Are these people who will put themselves on the front-line to work with us during a crisis situation? Are they a team willing to get personally invested with your people?

Treat vendors like you would treat a new friend. Talk to them, get to know them. Work together to discover the benefits and weaknesses of a relationship. When it comes to technology, it’s not a matter of “if” something goes wrong but “when” -- and that’s when you’ll have to lean on the human aspect of your relationship.

At PathFive we believe technology is just a catalyst that lets people work together to do the things they need. Admittedly, it’s a pretty cool catalyst and we wear the geek badge with pride. But at our core we call ourselves a "people company" because the foundation of any successful solution or implementation stems from people working together with absolute trust.