Triage for the proposal emergency room

Most proposals are not done by companies that have established processes or dedicated resources for preparing their proposals. When they start a proposal, whether it’s ahead of RFP release or at RFP release, it’s a matter of figuring out what they have to work with and how to get it done. It’s time for proposal triage.

Proposal triage requires making fast decisions that are good enough and seeking the best compromise, instead of the best practice. It starts with a rapid, intense, and brutally honest assessment:

  • Are you sure you should bid? If not, can you get out of it or are you stuck with it?
  • How many and what kind of writers do you need vs. what do you have available? What do you have to do to get more?
  • What, if anything, has already been done to prepare for the proposal?
  • How much time do you have between now and when it’s due? What do you have to do in that time, and what can you skip? What does the schedule look like?
  • What can you get people working on right now? Who should you assign to what?
  • What is the least amount of planning you can get away with?
  • What guidance, coaching, or training do you need immediately so people can be effective?
  • What kind of review process should you put in place?
  • What problems can you anticipate and mitigate early?

As if these questions aren’t hard enough, once you get past them you have to grapple with what will go in the proposal.

  • How should you plan the content?
  • Which parts are well known, and which parts need to be figured out?
  • How do you discover and integrate what is known about the customer, opportunity, competitive environment, and company submitting the proposal, along with the RFP and subject matter expert input based on the schedule and specific characteristics of this bid?
  • How much time and attention can you give to figuring out what it will take to win before writing starts?
  • How are you going to deal with the reviews and inevitable changes that come from an unprepared, poorly planned, rushed effort?

Deep in the back of your mind, you also have to ask yourself whether your goal is to just get something submitted or actually win the darn thing. Answer honestly because it will impact the decisions you make. When you accept the rationalization that you are going to submit the proposal while attempting to make it as winnable as possible, what you are not saying is that your company’s primary goal is to win and it will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

In order to pull as much success as possible out of adverse circumstances, try sizing up what you must produce and deliver against:

  • What information you have to work with
  • How much time you have until the deadline
  • What resources you have to work with

Then allocate the time and resources to a series of steps that converts the information into what you must produce in way that maximizes your chances of winning.

It is in this last step that you succeed or fail. You should approach proposal triage with your procedures and tools ready for immediate use (and not in your head, ready to be written, or anything else a step or two away from immediate use) just like an emergency room has theirs.

In our toolbox, we have the MustWin Process, fully documented and ready to go. At a moment’s notice, we can use the checklists, forms, etc., without necessarily implementing the whole process. In proposal triage, you have to take shortcuts. Here is some of what we use from our MustWin toolbox:

  • We take the four lists of questions, goals, and action items from the Readiness Review methodology and treat it like a checklist for rapid assessment of what information we have to work with.
  • We use Content Planning to provide a way to integrate everything into a plan for writing that scales according to the available schedule. Content Planning incorporates the outline and compliance matrix, but can add a lot more depending on the time available. We can collapse the eight iterations into a single pass and quickly drop RFP requirements, instructions, questions still to be worked out, boilerplate, and anything else we can copy and paste into the Content Plan.
  • We use Proposal Quality Validation to provide a semblance of quality assurance to the chaos of proposal triage. We use it to track what we should be validating, and then to decide what we think really needs it. It helps us balance between skipping reviews and slowing down to take a detailed look at something.
  • A set of prepared templates for proposal logistics. Proposal logistics covers assignments, resource allocation, scheduling, and production. You may know how to prepare a schedule, but you shouldn’t have to slow down to format the document that wraps around the schedule.

If you don’t have these items ready for immediate implementation, then on the spot and under pressure you have to:

  • Know what questions to ask to find out what information you have to work with and spend time in discussion assessing it.
  • Find a balance between planning and writing by the seat of your pants.
  • Hold a review or two and figure out what that means when you get there.

That’s not only a high risk approach to proposal triage, it also means you will be slowed down by figuring it out as you go along.

It’s easy to say that proposal triage should not be necessary and that any opportunity that needs triage should not be bid. But that’s not reality. And if you know it’s going to be required sooner or later, you should be prepared when that day comes.

If you are practicing proposal triage on all of your proposals, then you do not have an emergency room. What you have is dysfunction in something that should be a core competency for your company. In the medical world they’d call that malpractice.



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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