As published in The Mandarin on July 3, 2023 by John Glenn.

We lost a tender. Not the first we have lost and I daresay it will not be the last. Thing is, we shouldn’t have bid.

To be fair, a five-year contract with 20+ people was pretty enticing. But still, it wasn’t the type of work we do, and I should have known better.

We had been working on this program for more than eight years. When we first started our client was a mess: few contemporary skills and practices, a lack of capacity, and two reviews that identified the parlous state of the infrastructure and operational practices.

When the ‘mess’ came to a head the client asked for my opinion on how it might be addressed.  Like any good consultant I had a 10-point plan – but when that was approved by the Secretary of the Department my client said, ‘what now’?

Gosh, I thought, this needed people who knew what they were doing. After all, the reason they were in this mess is because the people they had didn’t know what they were doing! I suggested we build a team that knew what they were doing. Not consultants on the bench or whom we had available, but people from the industry, in this case oil and gas.

Contrary to most consulting approaches – we build teams around the problem, literally. We seek out those with practical, rather than consulting, expertise. Provide some consulting expertise, and some training, and you can have a team that makes a difference.

In this case we delivered hazard area and WHSE risk assessments, identified priorities for resolution, managed the risk reduction program, reduced supply contract costs by $10m pa, built a training program, and supported the approval of a $1.2bn works remediation program.

We weren’t always perfect, but we were better than good more often than not. When we made a misstep, we owned it, and fixed it.

The work wasn’t a gift.  We were competed openly in the market several times because our client wanted to ensure there was no possible accusations of favouritism. We would have preferred sole source—that would have been no issue if it was the Big 4 of course—but competition is actually reasonable and so we competed. Even when we had unused extensions on our contract and competition was actually unnecessary. The life of an SME, you have to work harder just to be acceptable. C’est la vie.

We won. Several times. I would like to think it was because we were the best, but in truth it was also because the client couldn’t write a requirement that anyone, but the incumbent, could understand. I was okay with that. C’est la vie.

We didn’t deliver to the client, we did it alongside them, building a legacy capability. As was remarked by a very senior leader in the client’s team, “You roll your sleeves up and work alongside us.  That’s your value.”

The client’s capability grew.

It is not lost on us that, compared to the early days, the client now knew enough to ask a better question of the market. Competition was possible. That in itself is testament to the work our team had done in building a self-sustaining legacy of capability. It wasn’t all our work, of course, but also not achievable without our work.

I should have stopped there. Doing things quickly, delivering the unusual, fixing projects that aren’t working, and leaving a legacy capability: that’s our speciality.

Running steady state operations, particularly in a highly technical domain, is better done by others. I can accept that others have better processes for steady state, that they have scale and depth, that they have more people in the domain.  We excel at lifting and shifting, helping clients move. Others can run your business, our business is getting your business running.

But in this case, we had 20+ people working, all with specific skills and detailed knowledge of the environment. I owed them the next job.  To be ruthlessly honest, a five-year time and materials contract for 20+ people was a pretty enticing opportunity for a small business.

Losing has been a strong, if not a little bitter, lesson. Stay true to your strategy, to who you are. Excel at something, rather than being good at anything.

I’d like to say that I didn’t mind losing – but I did (and do). Some of the behaviours by elements of the client’s staff and the winning bidder were a bit unpalatable in retrospect.  The names of our people on multiple tenders, for example, and substantiated reports of ‘guidance’ in the evaluation.  The fallout soured personal relationships, as happens from time to time. It shouldn’t have mattered professionally, but it did.

It was untidy and left a bit of a bad taste. Some will put it down to the cut and thrust of business.  I hope we never lose sight of good behaviour in pursuit of a dollar or a personal agenda. We have seen the consequences of that behaviour, recently, in our industry.

All that aside, the truth is we should never have bid.  That’s on me.

We are very good at what we do – moving organisations from one state to a better one: ‘lift and shift’ we call it. Fixing broken projects and processes, building new ones, implementing projects and contracts. Your team is perfectly designed to deliver what it delivers. Organisations need help ‘lifting and shifting’ when they want to do something differently.

This is us, building teams around the problem, leaving lasting legacies.

That’s what we did with the client above. We should have stopped.  Stayed true to what we are good at, doing our job not yours.

If you think you need a hand ‘lifting and shifting’, big or small, I will be delighted to chat – and bid for that work!

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