Proposals: Rowers Chained In Galley

How to Make Writing Proposals Fun (Again)

I’ve been writing proposals to the Federal Government (and occasionally to state and local governments) for over 30 years.  Sadly, I’ve observed that proposal writing duty is often viewed by a company’s staff as a punishment.  Most of this mindset is due to a lack of good process and adequate resources for proposal development.  Too often I’ve seen the burden thrown on too few individuals, in addition to their “day job,” without any process or strategic direction beyond “go write a proposal.”  Often this occurs when a “surprise” Request for Proposal (RFP) “drops out of the sky.”  The result: a lot of long hours from demoralized staff, and a disjointed proposal that has little chance of winning.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Winning proposals requires the right customer opportunity, approach, processes, and people.  It also requires—before writing the proposal—the right front-end “capture effort” that achieves both “customer intimacy” and a deep understanding of what it will take to assemble a compelling proposal (which I’ll talk about another time).  When all of this is done properly the proposal process becomes a straightforward activity that can be both fun and rewarding.

I’ve identified a few guidelines that contribute to successful proposals that I will share with you.  Bear in mind that there is a lot that could be said about each of these items—I’m just giving you my highly summarized observations:

The Customer Opportunity

  1. Pick the right opportunities to bid. Is a potential opportunity in an area where your company has “street cred?”  Good corporate experience and customer reviews?  The right people and partners?  Other relevant resources and capabilities?
  2. Do you know the customer, and do they know you? “Customer architectures”—all the different organizations, people, strategies, politics, etc. that comprise “the customer”—can be far more complex than technical architectures!  Do you know the customer, particularly those staff who are the actual decision makers reviewing submitted proposals?  Does the customer know you? 
  3. Timing is everything. You just found out about a government request for proposal that will be released next week.  You are likely too late to the dance.  Chances are that somebody else already knows about this opportunity. They likely started weeks or months ago and have bounced many ideas and approaches off the customer, and thus have a well-developed capture effort underway.  They probably have a draft proposal well under way too.

The Approach

  1. Arrogance can be fatal. Arrogance in proposal development can take many forms, beginning with the dreaded “incumbentitis” when the customer is already your customer.  Sadly, many bidders in this position take the attitude “we already know what they want, and they like us.”  Never AssUMe this!  Always assume you are on a level playing field with other bidders.  Another form of arrogance is that “we can just reuse [abc] as boilerplate from the [xyz] proposal.  You can sometimes do this, but more often than not so much needs to be changed that you might as well have started from scratch and provided a result much quicker.  Also, beware of “cowboys” who refuse to follow the process.
  2. Pick an approach and stick with itBeware the “good idea fairy! Have you ever participated in a well-developed capture effort that flowed into the proposal, and then somewhere in the middle of writing the proposal someone said “this is all wrong—I had lunch with [abc] who said that the customer really wanted [xyz]?” Or, internal reviewer Bobby Smith said that your approach was all wrong but that the right approach was [something else], despite the approach having been refined all along starting in the well-developed capture phase of the effort?
  3. Communicate the strategy to the proposal team. It helps the proposal development team and the proposal review team if they understand not only the “what” but also the “why us.”  Strangely, this is often omitted.

The Process and People

  1. Communicate and follow a process. Processes, and associated tools and templates, exist because they are ways of working that have brought success. Using generally understood processes minimizes difficulties in working as a team and making the most of limited time and resources during proposal development.  It helps to keep people pulling in the same direction and in synch with each other.  If you don’t have a capture and proposal process framework then get one!  There are many consultants out there (hint, hint) who can help your company institute a process-oriented proposal development framework.
  2. T is for Team. Pick the right proposal team. Most importantly, pick the right proposal manager. You want people who are knowledgeable in the various areas that have to go into the proposal and are also able to communicate their knowledge in a compelling and relevant manner that is responsive to the RFP.  Also, focus the team on the proposal!  Proposal work cannot be “other duties as assigned,” in addition to a full-time job, if you want a quality product. (Proposals are also a great networking opportunity for the staff.)
  3. Don’t starve the effort. Proposal timelines typically require long hours that may go into nights and weekends. Knowing that the people with the right skills and knowledge are on the team in adequate numbers goes a long way to improving morale, as does keeping people well fed (seriously, a proposal team also marches on its stomach).  A proposal effort with too few of the right people who aren’t “feeling the corporate love” has a much harder journey.
  4. Celebrate! Not just a win but also the submission.  The long hours and sometimes frayed nerves need closure, and a submission event with a hearty and well-earned “thank you” from corporate leadership will go a long way to the proposal team saying “that wasn’t all that bad.”  Definitely acknowledge and reward the team if the proposal is a winner!

There’s one more point, but it isn’t number 11.  Instead, it should really be “0,” and before anything else.  Your company must commit to a structured process-driven and adequately resourced approach for capturing business and winning proposals.   Without this commitment the journey doesn’t go very far.

What do you think?  Do you agree with my observations?  Do you have others that you would like to add?

(Copyright 2018 Hydra Technologies, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.)

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