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The Danger of Unknown Unknowns When Procuring Solutions

Question Mark in front of faceWhen an organisation needs a specialist skill, product or service, it may be more effective to look outside of its organisational boundaries. Perhaps a company needs a special IT application, a training course, or perhaps it is looking to outsource an ancillary function. In these situations, it is common practice to “go out to tender” issuing a tender document such as an Invitation to Tender (ITT), Request for Information (RFI) or Request for Proposal (RFP). These documents typically provide an outline of the organisation’s requirements, a list of structured questions, and provide instructions on how the supplier should respond. Responses might be invited from vendors, Managed Service Providers (MSPs) or other types of specialist provider.


These tender processes enable an organisation to compare and contrast a short-list of suppliers, and enable them to assess which is most likely to suit their needs. Often a formal scoring process is used to weigh up the pros and cons of each supplier (for more information on a weighting and scoring approach you can download a white paper I wrote on the subject). The RFI/RFP will be followed by meetings and product demonstrations where the scoring can be tweaked and finalised. This is a very sensible approach, and helps to remove any unintentional biases that may emerge. It can be very easy to inadvertently favour the product that has the salesperson with whom you have warmed to the most, or with whom you’ve built best rapport — and a more formal process reduces the likelihood of this happening.


Whilst these formal processes are extremely useful, there is a common pitfall waiting. Fundamentally, this type of structured tender process assumes that the client knows enough about their requirements — and the likely solutions — to ask the right questions. In many cases, the client will be extremely well informed, particularly if the RFI and RFP have been prepared by a professional business analyst. To borrow an expression from Donald Rumsfeld, but what if there is an “unknown unknown”, a piece of information that the client needs, that they don’t yet know they need?


This probably sounds cryptic, so let me give you an example. A few years ago, I wanted to replace my car. I have never particularly enjoyed driving, and I’ve always driven boring (but economical) cars. I was looking on a used car website, and I found one that I wanted to look at. I started to formulate a list of questions I should ask and things I should look for when I took it for a test drive. I was discussing this list with a friend, who gave me a piece of advice:


“That’s a great car — but make sure you get the locking wheel nut key (for the alloy wheels), and make sure you get the ‘master’ ignition key (which is normally red).That’s really important as it’s the only one that you can get duplicated”


I’d never thought about locking wheel nuts or ‘master’ keys before. I didn’t even know to ask about them — I was glad I’d had this conversation as it could have saved me trouble later on!


What this means for business and business analysis

When procuring services such as IT, or when looking to create a relationship with an MSP, it’s easy to fall into the illusion that the client will always have an extensive list of requirements and questions. However:


  • As a client, it is worth asking contacts in other organisations who have implemented similar solutions whether there are any questions that you should ask. Previous clients often act as references, and can often provide great insight. The question “what is the one thing you wish you’d known before buying…” can be a great question.
  • As a client, it is worth remembering that the supplier has probably implemented similar solutions hundreds of times before. They may be able to point out some of your blind spots (but beware of scope creep!)
  • If you’re a supplier, vendor or MSP, remember that you can add value by helping clients realise their blind spots. This builds trust, and may even help land you the deal. It is an early sign of a collaborative relationship, and is one that can be built upon.


In summary: Beware the “unknown unknowns” when procuring services!


How do you help avoid ‘unknown unknowns’? What are your experiences? I’d love to hear from you. Please add a comment below.


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This post was brought to you by IBM for MSPs and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s PivotPoint. Dedicated to providing valuable insight from industry thought leaders, PivotPoint offers expertise to help you develop, differentiate and scale your business.

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