My company is responding to a request for proposal (RFP) for a project that we don’t have a chance of getting. If you’re unfamiliar with the RFP process, the idea is for a client to gather a bunch of different supplier company proposals to complete a project and evaluate them methodically to choose the best one.

On the respondent side, our side, it’s a bad situation to be in, because the odds are against you. E.g. If there are ten respondents, you have a ten percent chance of winning the work.

Beyond this universal disadvantage, we’re at an experiential disadvantage. We don’t have a portfolio of work for the software integration that is a core component of the RFP. We do plenty custom programming and integration, but we haven’t worked with the specific system in the RFP. It’s likely that several competitors will have experience with it or with a close analog.

The RFP we’re responding to is being facilitated by a technology consultant. In my mind’s eye, I see them on a Zoom session sharing a spreadsheet with the client. The columns on the spreadsheet are labeled with a list of company names, ours being one of them. The rows are labeled with criteria for the project to score each company’s proposal with. Their intent is to make an apples-to-apples comparison of each company and methodically select the one best suited for the work (a great idea and also a fantasy.) In our column, they’re going to give us low scores for that key software integration.

To sum it up: it’s a failing proposition.

Setting aside why we are responding to the RFP, if you were in my shoes, how would you navigate this losing game?

The obvious strategy is to emphasize strengths and de-emphasize weaknesses. To mine our experience for similar work and try and present ourselves as closely matching their criteria. This would help, but it’s also the strategy of every respondent, and it’s likely several companies will come with better examples.

The core problem is that spreadsheet. We’re one of nine other columns and some of the criteria work against us. What we need is to change things so that we’re one of two columns and the criteria are altered in a way that favors us.

By narrowing the comparison two columns, I mean that the client sees our proposal as so fundamentally different from the others that they have to make a choice between us and the broader category. If every company is selling apples, we’re selling oranges. If we can make this argument, we’ve improved our odds to 50 / 50.

To alter the criteria in a way that favors us is as tricky as differentiating our proposal. We need to respect the client and the technology consultant by addressing their criteria and answering their questions on the RFP.  However, neither the consultant nor the client are experts. They understand the problems, but not how to solve them. To alter the criteria, we’ll need to challenge their assumptions and beliefs about what they need to be successful. If we accomplish this, we’ll add criteria to the spreadsheet that only our company addresses and diminish the importance of criteria that work against us (and, importantly, we’ll create a better outcome if we win the project).

This RFP process, and its long odds, are an entrepreneurial problem. It’s rare that you’ll walk into a new situation that favors you. Most of the time, there’s some form of resistance. If you’re going to overcome the barriers to entry, you have to be able to transform that restraining force into something that serves you, like the sail on a boat that generates lift as you angle it against the wind.