Don't bring me solutions, bring me problems.

Sep 12, 2016
Kevin Monk

Tags: procurement

Organisations define a majority of their procurement requirements with a presupposed solution. As a result, the winning bid is not as cheap or effective as possible. They can fix this by making the problem, and not the solution, the backbone of the document.

I’ve seen many hundreds of these documents over the course of my engineering career. I can’t recall a single instance where the commissioner outlined the actual problem.

Take the nearest document you have to hand. Ask yourself this - does this state a problem or a perceived solution? I’m going to be picky here too. A problem is not “It needs to output data for x, y and z in Excel” or “There must be 24/7 telephone support.” Getting data into Excel or having telephone support is not a problem. Problems look more like “We struggle to make decisions based on x, y and z.” or “users become despondent and fail to engage unless they feel supported.”

Defining a requirement with actual problems is hard to audit. “Does the supplier provide 24/7 telephone support?” is an easy and non ambiguous question. “Are our users engaged and confident in using the system?” is much harder but we should try because the results are worth it.

Conflating solutions and problems diminishes the procurers role as the domain expert. They know the problem. A tender document is the ideal place to state that problem.

It also diminishes the supplier’s role as the solution expert. They know the solutions at their disposal. For example, Henry Ford’s customers didn’t need “a faster horse”. He guessed their problem and had a proposed solution - a hemp oil engine on wheels!

And maybe a hemp oil engine suprised you? It suprised me. It suprised me because I already had a picture of what the solution to the faster horse problem was. I imagined he created a petrol or diesel engine but he didn’t. Ford constructed the first Model T from hemp and ran it on hemp oil.

With a clear picture of what we think a solution is, it can be difficult to articulate our root problem. Those dumbies asking for a “faster horse”! Sheesh! They should have asked for a petrol engine… No! They should have articulated their problem… “My horse gets sick.” “It takes me too long to travel.”

Why seek out the narrow group of facilitators for a presupposed solution? Articulating the problem frees up the whole world to solve it.

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