Better RFP Responses & Management
Advice to Procurement Professionals: Keep It Simple

Advice to Procurement Professionals: Keep It Simple

Where are we at? Is 2.4a.2 done?
What about 2.2a.2? And 2.3a.2?

I’m listening to two editors trying to sort out what’s done and what’s not.

I’m not sure. I finished 2.1a.4 yesterday
but I don’t think I’ve seen 2.4a.2.



Where’s Ryan Gosling when you need him?

I understand the impulse to keep related sections together and to number similar sections similarly. The problem arises when there are too many levels. What looks logical and tidy on a spreadsheet, where you can indent or add colour to distinguish sections, doesn’t look quite so clear in other formats; for example:

  • 2.1a.1, 2.1a.2, 2.1a.3, 2.1a.4 – experience sections – corporate
  • 2.1b.1, 2.1b.2, 2.1b.3, 2.1b.4 – experience sections – key personnel
  • 2.2a.1, 2.2a.2, 2.2a.3, 2.2a.4 – technical plans
  • 2.2b.1, 2.2b.2, 2.2b.3, 2.2b.4 – other technical requirements
  • 2.2c.1, 2.2c.2, 2.2c.3, 2.2c.4 – operations plans
  • 2.3a.1, 2.3a.2, 2.3a.3, 2.3a.4 – staffing plans

Worse than its eye-crossing appearance, though, is that it’s impossible to keep it straight when talking about it.

Im. Possible.

If you want to know four things about each bidder (experience, technical plan, operations plan, and staffing plan) for, say, three major technical functions (fleet management, facilities maintenance, logistics), then consider one of these instead:

  • Assign a different number to each of the major things-to-know and a letter to each function:
    • 1A, 1B, 1C – this keeps together all the experience responses
    • 2A, 2B, 2C – this keeps together all the technical plans
    • 3A, 3B, 3C – this keeps together all the operations plans
    • 4A, 4B, 4C – this keeps together all the staffing plans
  • Flip the organization and assign a different number to each technical function and a letter to each of the things-to-know:
    • 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D – this keeps together all the responses related to fleet management
    • 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D – this keeps together all the responses related to facilities maintenance
    • 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D – this keeps together all the responses related to logistics

Does it matter whether you start with a number or a letter? No.

Does it matter whether you organize by thing-to-know or by technical function? Not really. People think of these things differently. You might have a preference based on how you’re going to evaluate the response, and that’s fine.

What does matter is that you don’t get into three-level numbering before you’ve asked for a word of response. What does matter is minimizing (or eliminating) the dagnabbed decimals.  What does matter is using no more numbers and letters than you absolutely need. After all, 10 files numbered 1 to 10 will sort just the same as if they were numbered 2.2a.1, 2.2a.2, 2.2a.3, 2.2a.4, 2.2a.5, 2.2a.6, 2.2a.7, 2.2a.8, 2.2a.9, 2.2a.10, and nobody’s head will explode.

Keep. It. Simple.



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  1. Jim Taylor

    Why is it necessary to invent cascading number systems? I agree that there has to be some process for ordering items (granted, I’m not thinking here of RFPs, etc., but of more conventional communications) but I remain unconvinced that an elaborate numbering system enables anyone to understand what’s being said.
    I object, in principle, to reliance on acronyms, initialisms, and numbering systems, I suppose. At a Nortel seminar, I was told, “Everyone knows what those acronyms stand for.” That night, I went through all the sample pieces of writing the participants had provided, and listed all the acronyms/initialisms they had used. The next morning I gave them a test. No one — repeat, NO ONE — know more than half. And 2.2b.3iii would be even worse.
    Is it not possible simply to use a shortened form, words, instead of these cryptic workarounds? Could the headings not just be “Experience,” “Personnel,” “Functions…”
    Or am I being hopelessly idealistic?
    Jim T

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – You make a good point. I’m with you on acronyms et al, although I kinda like them in tables and organization charts, if supported by a legend. At some point, taking too much space to say something (as in a table cell) makes it harder to grasp. As for numbering systems, there’s certainly room for more use of word labels. I always tried to limit the numbering to 3 digits max – any more than that and I found that it actually obscured the structure. Numbering of some sort seems to be an inherent/assumed/inevitable feature of government writing and certainly of RFPs. I’d say some numbering is necessary, making it easier/possible to ask questions and to cross-reference. “Re Part A, 3.2.b: What the heck?” is simpler than: “Re Technical Plans, the 2nd sub-point under the sentence starting with ‘After contract award . . .’ in the third paragraph on facilities maintenance (for greater certainty, halfway down page 47): What the heck?”

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