By Kyle Majchrowski

If you’ve been on the receiving side of the RFP/RFQ process, you know how hard it can be to pay attention and stay engaged. If reading the mountain of paperwork submitted wasn’t enough pain, you get to sit through hours of presentation by firms who want the business. 

The guessing game of the respondents trying to figure out what you want to hear, tailoring their presentation around what they think you want to hear, and then the coaching on the presentation flow, pace, format…is exactly what all the firms responding are doing, which makes it nearly impossible to tell them apart. You try your best to perk up and act engaged for each respondent, knowing they invested time and effort.

I’ve tried for years to improve the RFP process for both sides and found some success in having the amount of time for questions be about 4 times the amount of time for presentations. I’ve changed up the questions too, trying different questions, the quantity, the types, and experimenting with sharing some or all of the questions beforehand.

An Insightful Question

One question that has consistently been the most insightful is “Describe a mistake you made.” Now, most people want to add “and what you did to rectify it.” That’s kind of implied, isn’t it? You’d be surprised. We try our best to leave it at 5 words. And have asked it for a while now. We usually get two answers:

  1. Of course we make mistakes! We’ve made so many we’ve lost count. *nervous chuckle followed by glancing at each other to see who will talk about a specific mistake.* Awkward silence, then move on to next question.
  2. Well, of course we make mistakes. But – let me tell you all about a mistake someone ELSE made on a project, and what I did to fix it. I am so awesome at fixing them but can’t see them coming. But gee, aren’t we superheroes?

Walking The Walk

There was this one time that we got the best answer to this question. A general contractor was proposing on a capital project, and during the interview, we asked the question “describe a mistake you made.” 

Without hesitation, a young superintendent jumped and said “I’ll take that one” with as much gusto as you could imagine. Immediately, the higher up folks from the firm perked up and just like a tennis match, started glancing between our group and this superintendent. With no fear, the superintendent said, “I set an office on fire.”

Now, every (and I mean every) vendor that responds to an RFP only tells you about the perfect projects. On time, under budget, happy clients, etc. Which I don’t understand because we never have perfect projects. Medical Construction and Design Magazine just published survey results showing that 52% of projects don’t finish on time (which I would guess is actually much higher), and 71% of projects are currently being impacted by the skilled worker shortage. 

I understand you want to put your best work forward when trying to win work, though in an interview, show how your team deals with a world filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Because in reality, isn’t that what projects really are filled with – change, uncertainty, and ambiguity?

Back to the superintendent story. One morning on a project site, he had a line of people waiting to talk to him. Being young and inexperienced, he took them in the order in which they came. The challenge was that there were workers looking for his sign off on “hot work” permits which would require communication throughout the job site (someone was planning to use tools and materials that were combustible, such as welding). Well, those folks had a job to do and decided that waiting for the superintendent was impeding their work progress. They figured they wasted enough time waiting for the superintendent’s paperwork and went and began their welding.

What happened next is not what you want to happen to anyone – a spark from the welding activity entered the ventilation system, went through the duct work, came out, and landed on a pile of papers in the messiest, dirtiest, most disorganized doctor’s office you can imagine. The spark ignited the papers, and a fire broke out. No one was hurt, the damage was limited to the office though the smoke traveled throughout the area. The entire job to be shut down.

Imagine this superintendent’s superiors surprise – here they are, in an interview, with an important client, and this young man is telling a story about setting the place on fireWhat happened next was, well, the best answer. The superintendent said while his confidence and pride took major hits, what he learned was that regardless of who is in line on any job in the morning, anyone requiring him to address anything related to safety will come first. Always. No exceptions.

He sat up straight, looked us each in the eye, and said “even if any of you are on my job, I will take care of all safety related issues before dealing with you.” There was no doubt – we believed him.

What Can Presenters  Learn From This?

What happened here was four things. The young man owned his mistake. He displayed vulnerability in front of a prospective client. He also, without a prompt, told us what he learned and how he has applied it since. Fourth – he earned our trust. And since every RFP response talks about trust, take a lesson from this young man – demonstrate you know how to earn trust.


As Senior Project Executive within Banner Health, Kyle supports the team managing renovations and new construction throughout the West. Kyle’s team is improving the project delivery experience, implementing collaborative efforts into all projects. Kyle focuses on building a culture of trust and vulnerability. With degrees in Construction Management and Industrial Technology, his focus is the best cultural environment within for his team to succeed.