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Three Easy Tips for Identifying and Avoiding Contracting Pitfalls

by Carrie Hoff, manager, County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, and instructor, SDSU College of Extended Studies Professional Certificate in Project Management


While contracting can bring flexibility and strength to a project, managing an awkwardly structured contract can be difficult at best. Why do high-functioning teams working on wellplanned projects often end up experiencing time-consuming problems with the project contracts? It often comes down to losing touch with some basic concepts when building the procurement documents. This can happen to anyone: those new to managing a procurement may not feel confident questioning the way things are done, and those who are very experienced in managing procurements may also gloss over some basic

steps. Both mistakes can be compounded by the very common pressure project managers and project teams face to compress timelines during a procurement, often to make up for time lost during earlier stages of a project. Regardless of the situation, it’s important not to neglect the basic tenets of developing strong documents that will support a good working relationship with your contractor and make it easy for you both to manage the agreement.

Here are three basic pitfalls to avoid:

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1

One of the first steps of drafting a procurement is telling prospective offerors what it is that you want to buy. You must communicate what you want and communicate it completely.

This is a deceptively simple goal – and one that is frequently missed. How often have you read over a procurement packet and had to fill in gaps about what was being requested based on your own background knowledge of the field, or your knowledge of the requesting organization? Because there can be as many interpretations and assumptions as there are responses to procurement, this can result in problems after the contract is in place. In the interest of ensuring that required specifications, regulations, and other key pieces of information are included in a procurement packet, the document can end up reading like a list, rather than a description. This kind of procurement packet provides a lot of detail and very little information. Reading a grocery list is a lot different from receiving a party invitation. If you read over the grocery list for the party, you can likely guess certain details – what is being served, how many people will be there, perhaps even the time of day the event will be held and the general age group(s) of the party attendees. There would still be key pieces of information you could only get by receiving the party invitation – that it’s a surprise or a costume party, for example, to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

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Don’t Make Anyone Fill in the Gaps Both the invitation and the shopping list are important for the success of the party. But you would never mail out the shopping lists to prospective guests and take the invitation shopping. The two written descriptions about the party are important but are not interchangeable. In a procurement scenario, a potential contractor should never need to guess, infer, or deduce what it is that you want to buy. Provide your potential contractors with more than a list of specifications.

A great test for your procurement documents is to challenge yourself or your staff to explain what is being requested in the simplest terms possible. If you had to explain to a neighbor what you were trying to buy, and you could only send one Twitter message (Tweet), what would you say? How would you word a summary that had to fit a newspaper headline, or would run along a scrolling bar at the bottom of the TV screen? Stripping your language down to the bare essentials can be a helpful exercise to ensure

A potential contractor should never need to guess, infer, or deduce what it is that you want to buy. Think of the information in your procurement packet in the form of a pyramid. At the top is the narrative summary that explains what you are buying and how it fits into the overall project. Below that you’ll include the details – specifications, regulations, and other information – that provide important parameters for what you are buying, but don’t need to be presented in narrative form. When putting together your documents, you must communicate the whole story in plain language. Every industry has its own language – which is a valuable tool and serves an important purpose. But it isn’t the only tool you have in your toolbox, so make sure you haven’t limited your procurement by only speaking in the language of the trade.

you are thoroughly communicating what you need, why you need it, how you plan to use it, and how it fits into the overall success of the project in terms that can be universally understood. Include a descriptive section in your procurement – as an overview, executive summary, or similar section. Use that section as a critical tool to convey to prospective offerors what it is you want so that they can provide the best response in return. Your descriptive section must be supported by the technical specifications to be effective. The key is to include both elements in your procurement in a meaningful way to ensure the best possible understanding by readers – which leads to better submissions… and better contracts.


2

Assign an Editor to Ensure Consistency Procurement packets can be extremely large documents and are often built by a team of people. There is a tendency to skip one of the basic steps of drafting a procurement packet: Editing. There are two common reasons for missing this crucial step: 1. no one knows that it is their role to edit the document, and 2. the project timelines have become compressed and the project team is trying to make up time. The first situation can be solved through the standard project management technique of identifying team member roles at the beginning of the procurement development.

Depending on the size of the document, you may need more than one editor to read the entire packet. The editor(s) will need time to check with the team that drafted the document for clarifications and approval on language changes. If you assign more than one person to edit the document, it is important that they each read the entire packet and consult with each other on their findings prior to consulting staff for follow up. The editors will bring greater benefit to the procurement when acting as a team than they will as individual editors. The most important objectives for the editor(s) are to get the information across to potential contractors with the shortest

Be consistent, be accurate, and be clear. The second situation can be identified as a false hope by anyone who has rushed a procurement for publication and had to live with a contract full of hiccups. What should your goals be when editing the procurement document? Be consistent, be accurate, and be clear. And remember, editing the procurement packet well will require time.

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procurement packet possible, to ensure the procurement packet has cohesion as a single document, and eliminate contradictions and inconsistencies.


3

An organization’s templates for procurements are often structured in a way that creates redundancies. The more often something is repeated within a procurement packet, the more likely there will be differences in how something is

Eliminate Redundancies Basic writing classes have trained us that in order to engage our readers, we should avoid repeating the same phrasing, so we work to describe what we want in several different ways. A better solution is to say what needs to be said the minimum

Say what needs to be said the minimum number of times possible in a procurement packet. said. These inconsistencies can open a door for (often well-intentioned) interpretation of what you ‘actually’ want by a potential contractor.

number of times possible in a procurement packet, which makes repetition unnecessary.

Remembering these three techniques when putting your procurement packet together can make your source selection and management of the resulting contract a smoother process.

That doesn’t mean they’ll be effortless to implement. You’ll be challenged when building time into your plan for the editing and review of your procurement package. You’ll face pressure to trim, compress, and tighten your schedule. Look for ways to run these tasks concurrently with others rather than eliminating them from the procurement process.

Procurement packages require a lot of work and these three techniques can ensure better return on the investment of your time and staff resources.

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Unfortunately, organizational templates do not always support this endeavor. The project management technique of documenting lessons learned at the close of a project and sharing that information within an organization can help improve templates that have grown over time and may indirectly increase inconsistency in procurement. Make sure you know the communication channels in your own organization and use them, along with your influence, to push for improvements in your organizational templates.

By using these techniques consistently, you will be able to demonstrate their value and influence your organization to adopt them as standard steps in procurement development. System improvements born out of the success of individual projects are a true measure of accomplishment as a project manager.


Carrie Hoff is a manager with the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, where she leads the development of contracting policies and practices, and conducts procurement and contract management training and quality assurance reviews for a contract portfolio of over $400 million. She’s a member of the National Contract Management Association (NCMA), and teaches procurement in the Professional Certificate in Project Management program offered at SDSU’s College of Extended Studies.

Why learn procurement? Project managers don’t need to be expert technical buyers, but they do need to understand the buying process well enough to clearly define what they want and manage what they get. In Carrie’s procurement course, you’ll learn the tools you need to: n Make strategic outsourcing decisions, n Manage these processes effectively, and n Support the overall goals and timelines of your projects.

Want more information about the PM certificate program at CES? Email PM-CES@sdsu.edu, or give us a call at (619) 594-1138 using priority code MM004. Questions or comments about this white paper? Email Carrie Hoff at Carrie.E.Hoff@gmail.com. If you’ve downloaded this white paper from the CES web site, you already know where to find more information about Carrie’s course and the Professional Certificate in Project Management. If you’ve received this paper from a friend or colleague, check us out online at www.neverstoplearning.net/3tips.

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Three Easy Tips for Identifying and Avoiding Contracting Pitfalls, by Carrie Hoff