Why consider using a template for COTS research and RFPs?
Evaluating COTS packages is challenging!
Have you ever been tasked with finding “the right” software package? Frequently, there is more than one solution provider serving your problem space, therefore it’s common to find a few products with features and functions you need. Of course, each product has its own set of positives and negatives, costs and benefits. You just have to decide which one is “right” for your situation. Sounds so straight-forward; so, why isn’t it??
Too often, stakeholders or teams begin looking at or evaluating specific COTS packages before clarifying the business’ needs for function and outcome. That’s risky — it’s very easy to get caught up in the flash and opportunity of a product, and not realize it also has big gaps.
- Go ahead, raise your hand if you’ve ever been part of a COTS implementation where the team realized part-way through that the product selected didn’t really do all the things it was expected to do.
^^ That’s it, hands up! ^^
- Did the team later decide that the gaps were particularly problematic, because the underserved requirements were really important?!?
^^ Uh-oh. Did anyone say “customization”?? ^^
- Oh, and have you ever witnessed an organization that was promised a “great solution” (“new tool”, “awesome package”, insert catchy term here…), but the implementation was much more complicated than anticipated, requiring process changes, user training, new collaboration decisions and help from “people with expertise in this software”?
^^ This is much more involved than we expected! How are we supposed to do this?? ^^
Evaluating different COTS systems without knowing what the solution is needed to do; implementing a system that’s missing features, while creating add-on solutions to compensate; deciding on a solution without realizing the commitment needed to get the business productive enough to achieve the desired benefits: unfortunately, these scenarios are all too common.
Going after a COTS system without clarity on business and stakeholder needs is the same, albeit in much larger scale, as trying to evaluate resumes, conduct interviews or hire “the perfect candidate” before you really know why you need to hire them or what they have to do. That candidate (and, in fact, your target COTS system), who is absolutely expected to be successful, would have to fill a role that’s not clear, perform under a job description not yet written, and engage with people in ways no one anticipates, all while those people aren’t ready and don’t fully trust the capability or rationale for this new person. How successful is this new hire going to be? Yet, organizations frequently create this situation for COTS projects.
Packaged solutions require many collaborators to get intensely engaged, yet often (though never on purpose) organizations only share rumors of an impending arrival while constraining stakeholders with a lack of budget, time or process for getting this “new hire” ramped-up effectively. The imperative need for improved business results creates a demand for the implementation team to get the system installed and running as soon as possible, and they are pushed to not waste time in analysis paralysis. We’ll deal with any issues as we get there, just get moving!
Are you experiencing a sense of déjà vu yet?? We want to help you avoid that.
Selecting a COTS product that does what you need it to do is not difficult – provided you HAVE that list of “what you need it to do” put together. The difficult challenge is implementing a product selected without that list. That comes while your team is in implementation mode, and you’re all discovering, in a classic series of “uh-oh” moments, all those things that your chosen solution doesn’t actually do, despite the fact that your business critically needs them.
So – make the list! Identify your solution requirements — those requirements that have to be served or met by whatever solution option you choose, in order for it to ultimately BE the right solution. Take the time to do some reasonable discovery. You may not need to spend a lot of time, but spend enough so that you’ll successfully unearth the names of the key processes or outcomes that are critical to operating effectively and support your business’s need for certain outcomes. Otherwise, your team(s) will spend four TIMES that time dealing in “uh-oh” moments, creating customizations and constructing process workarounds or technical stop-gaps. In the worst case scenario (it doesn’t happen as often, but it’s been known to happen) you might even have to stop, pull back and find something else completely.
Avoid that risk: make the list. Share it with potential vendors. Ask them to give you a clear understanding of whether and how their solution supports the features and functions your business truly needs. While you’re at it, ask the important questions about support, operational or financial concerns related to their product, in case they might impact or change your implementation strategies or business case. Better to know those things up front than to discover hidden costs or misalignment afterwards.
Want an example? We have an RFP Response Template that you can use! It’s an excel spreadsheet with a few tabs covering different topics. Feature/functions go on the third tab. In all cases, you’ll want to customize and tailor the content to your situation, or delete the contents that don’t apply or aren’t of interest.
One word of caution: if the list is TOO long, and you look to be “just fishing” vendors won’t want to spend the time to fill it out – they would rather have relationship building conversations and prove value through demos. That’s fine if you have time for that (multiplied by how many vendors?); but during those sessions, be sure that YOU fill out the template reflecting their answers. No matter who does it, someone must go through your list of critical needs and determine whether the COTS product of interest actually supports those items. Just be sure to ask the questions during discussions, so you get your answers and the information IS filled out in the end. You need to verify whether your options are truly solution options!
When you really start evaluating your narrowed list of “candidates” you’ll prioritize some features over others to select your best option. But at least you’ll know up front whether that COTS product is destined to have a real chance of adding value before you get too wow’ed by their UI and risk going too far with it. Good luck!