A Proof of Concept (PoC) and a “Bake-Off” are not the same things, although many people treat them as such.
To clarify, a “Bake-Off” is a pitting of two or more vendors against each other to compare their products and services, supposedly providing a side-by-side comparison of compatibility and capability with the intent on selecting a “winner” as a final step in a selection process. We believe bake-offs are inherently flawed for a number of reasons.
They are often a decision-making procrastination tactic disguised as a competition to find “the best”. There is no best, and the stakeholders usually have a sense of which finalist they prefer anyway. A bake-off doesn’t change their minds.
They usually over-focus on features/functions instead of outcomes. It’s rare that a product, when combined with services, cannot do something.
Bake-offs devalue the finalists by putting them in a cage-match of sorts. This, in our view, is not the way to start a collaborative partnership.
Finally, for all the reasons above and many more, many vendors will not participate in bake-offs, and therefore buyers risk losing potential best-fit options for reasons that have nothing to do with their capabilities.
In comparison, a PoC is just as the name implies — an execution of project-related tasks that provide evidence that what has been promised by the (singular) preferred technology vendor and/or service provider can be delivered. In the case of a technology partner, this short, hands-on trial period is used to prove that the proposed platform can integrate with the existing landscape as well as deliver the necessary functionality. A service provider PoC usually lasts a little bit longer and allows the teams to “test the waters” for fit, as well as set parameters and finalize the scope of work for the project at hand. A PoC is essential to ensuring the identified partners will be able to fulfill your needs in regard to the design, development, and execution of the new solution be it technical, creative, or strategic.
In the case of service providers, since the nature of a PoC with them requires dedicated effort and resources, a paid PoC is the way to go. The effort and deliverable produced by the service provider during the PoC should move the project forward (a “Phase 0” of sorts), and therefore warrants funding. The buyer should want the service provider to allocate a resource representative of (if not the same as) the one who would be assigned to the engagement, not one it can afford to give away for free. Ultimately, a paid PoC saves time, regret, and money. Even if the buyer elects not to move forward, would that money not have been extremely well-spent? A small financial investment and two weeks of time will allow the buyer to assess the appropriateness and the “fit” of the services partner, as well as provide them an opportunity to gather the knowledge they need to more accurately forecast and finalize the scope of work and cost for the project.
A common hesitation by many buyers to enter into a PoC with just one potential partner is their concern that they lessen their ability to negotiate. Not true — pursuing active negotiations with a single vendor does not diminish your ability to go back to any of the other vendors should the circumstances warrant that — both the buyer and the seller should be fully conscious about this.
Also keep in mind, communicating with the potential partners throughout the selection process will allow the buyer to gather the information necessary to differentiate between the potential partners so that when it comes time to pick a partner for a PoC, the choice can be made with confidence.