You Get What You Ask For: A Guide to Specification Writing

In the beginning, there was … the specification. The difference between what you needed and what you got can be traced back to this all-important document. And in today’s volatile markets, good specification writing has never been more vital.

Here’s why. Problems in the specification document create ripple effects that spread through the entire procurement process. The end result is a product or service that isn’t fit for purpose, requiring extra work from the supplier or – even worse – an entire new tender process. In more stable and predictable times, these extra costs were easier to manage. In COVID times, the pressure to streamline processes and cut costs is intense. The consequences of not getting what’s required are gravest right now.

Secondly, the number of stakeholders involved in the procurement of a single good or service is higher than ever – a trend that will continue for some time yet due to globalisation and de-siloing. Each stakeholder represents a different body of interests and priorities. The only way to ensure the end result satisfies everyone is by having a specification that is revisited frequently and continually massaged to balance competing demands.

Let’s take a look at how specification writing should be done.

A quick guide to specification writing

A proper specification is a living, breathing document; it should evolve throughout the procurement function, starting life perhaps as an Expression of Interest involving general requirements, and gradually becoming more and more detailed as the process moves towards market approach.

If possible, it’s good practice to standardise the formation of specifications as far as possible; it’s an effective way to reduce the cost of market engagement processes.

Here are some important qualities of good specification writing:

  • Describes with clarity what is required.
  • Describes the characteristics of what is required.
  • No market bias; a good specification doesn’t limit access to certain bidders or distort competition.
  • Takes into account company policies, such as those concerned with environmental endeavours or community benefit schemes.
  • Written in such a way that observation of the final service or product should give clear indication that the requirement has (or hasn’t) been met.
  • Clearly indicates the genesis of the specification. Who or which department does it come from?

The consequences of poor specification writing

Specificity and a lack of ambiguity are the hallmarks of good specification writing. Here’s a real-world case of what can happen without these characteristics.

A government department in Ireland purchased a new printer at the eye-watering cost of €308,000. Unfortunately, the specification didn’t include the dimensions of the room in which the printer was intended to live. As a result, the impressive new machine wasn’t only too big for the room, it was too big to fit through the doorway. €2,000 a month was spent on off-site storage.

For a little extra salt in the wound, the new printer was found to be rather complex to operate, and concerns were raised over whether staff would require extra training. So, a budget blown and a purchase made in 2018 that wasn’t available to use until 2020.

This case is a salient lesson in paying attention to the requirements external to the product or service itself.

It pays to invest in a good guide to specification writing

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the success of a procurement project hinges on the quality of the specification. If you are looking to invest in training that will have the biggest impact on how your organisation purchases goods and services, this is the area to focus on.

Academy of Procurement runs an in-depth workshop on specification writing that explores the tools, techniques and methods required to develop specifications and go-to-market documents that are effective. It combines the best of a procurement officer’s intuition with knowledge that can only be gained through specific training. Don’t settle for products or services that aren’t fitting the bill; learn how to ask for what you really want.