Let’s say you’re a smart, experienced executive. You’ve scaled the industrial-grade corporate ladder to your current heights through a combination of savvy decision-making, admirable leadership and consistently excellent execution. Plus, of course, your contagious charm and dashing good looks. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here. Go with it.

In other words, you’re a lot like Steve Morrisey, a freshly installed senior vice president at a hose manufacturing firm in Kansas City. I’ve only talked with Steve on the phone, so I can’t verify his handsomeness, but since he’s similar to you the law of transitive pulchritude applies.

Since Steve and you are birds-of-a-feather, when the opportunity to invest in new, expensive, and potentially transformative manufacturing technology came up last month, he posed the same question you would have asked: Does that come with fries? No, that wasn’t it. He asked: Are we sure this spend will grant us a lasting competitive advantage in the marketplace? Steve’s company is mid-size, privately owned and growing largely through acquisition. Their prior investments into gathering competitive intelligence have been modest, at best, which means their assessment of the marketplace rests largely on experience, intuition and guesswork.

With a game-changing capital purchase on the line, Steve decided a more robust look at competitors and customers was in order. Now, when you don’t have the necessary knowledge, knowhow or talent inside your organization you find yourself a whiz-bang expert to do a market research project – preferably for under $50k, right? That’s the same conclusion Steve drew and, so far, you’re on solid ground. But one more step and the two of you are at risk of walking hand-in-hand onto thin ice.

Here, almost verbatim except for identifying details, is the opening paragraph of the RFP Steve put together to find his market research vendor:

Acme Corporation is considering major investment in a new manufacturing technology for specialty hoses. While Acme understands its manufactured costs using the technology, we would like to understand whether this technology makes us the low cost manufacturer of specialty hoses amongst key competitors.  Thus, we seek to engage a third party firm to complete the following tasks which we will refer to as Phase I of the project.

Phase I Deliverables:

  1. An industry experience curve
  2. An industry supply curve

That strikes you as a strong way to start an RFP, doesn’t it? Steve clearly knows what he wants and there’s no doubt that experience curves and industry supply curves are useful tools. The RFP even included a helpful illustration of an experience curve; ensuring prospective vendors would know exactly what was expected of them. Our man Steve is one smart cookie and maybe you’re thinking he would be a good hire for your own company. Well dial back the throttle, captain, because Steve actually committed a grave error. Not a “fall into the icy depths of a watery hell” magnitude error, but the degree of error that prevents uber-talented, comely folks like him and you from reaching their true business potential.