Do your proposals focus on the wrong lessons learned?

If your proposal lessons learned focus on steps in your process or pursuitpspecific things you should have done differently, you may be missing the big picture. Instead of asking “what can we realistically do to make things better next time” you should try asking “why did we end up where we did.” If you dig deep, you’ll probably find the cause happened long before the proposal even started.

Whenever you have more than a few people working on a proposal, you have grown to the point where it takes more than just good people to get the job done. People are not enough. No matter how hard they try. Doing more by working harder breaks down at a certain size when you are trying to win. This is because you don’t need more effort or to do a better job of telling people what to do, better discipline, or for people to follow orders better.

What you need are systematic approaches to things like collaboration, coordination, and quality assurance. You need people to:

  • Know what to do
  • Know how and when to do it
  • Be able to work in synch with others
  • Be able to tell when it’s been done right

Checklists, systematic communication, just in time guidance, expectation management, and quality validation may be all that's needed for a bunch of individuals to work like a team.

A team that is in synch and plays strategically will beat a collection of individuals, no matter how hard the individuals try. If you have a collection of people working on a proposal, you need to get them in synch and give them strategic direction so they can play like a team and beat the competition.

Instead, what we see at most companies is:

  1. One person claims to have a process. It’s not fully documented. In reality it’s one person with a concept, making up the details as they go along. The result amounts to people being asked to do what they are told by the deadline. Process advocates wonder why everyone resists, or ignores, their instructions.
  2. Evangelists without any real authority must resort to pleading to gain buy-in. People go along with it only if it doesn’t conflict with their own priorities or vision.
  3. Management talks about the importance of the bid, without providing strategic direction.
  4. The proposal is staffed with people who happened to be available. It may not include anyone who actually knows the customer.
  5. Individuals write the sections they are assigned, with some trying really hard to deliver a good message. The collection of messages they produce is uncoordinated. There is no structure or criteria to determine what the right messages are, let alone get them in synch. There is no time to do anything about this before the proposal goes to an internal review. Few people worry about that because most have little or no message and merely address the minimum requirements, fulfilling their writing assignment with the minimum of effort.
  6. Management reviews the proposal late in the game and is surprised when it has no strategic direction or it differs from theirs. The do-over they require destroys what was left of any process being followed.

So what’s your score? How many of these occur at your company? The problem isn’t that you aren’t telling people to do the right things or that people aren’t doing what they’re told. The problem is that you’ve outgrown your whole approach.

In an environment like the one described about, some will have better luck than others. Some will work a little harder and some will work a little smarter. They can win by failing less than their competitors, and this is enough for the business to continue operating, and maybe even to grow by a contract here or there. If it’s a big contract, they can even convince themselves they know the recipe for success, and continue doing what they’ve always done.

Because so many companies go down the path where the approach to proposals amounts to little more than assigning some people, a large percentage of the proposals you are competing against will be last minute do-overs, with little or no message that’s substantiated in the proposal. They are uncoordinated messes that only have a chance at winning because the customer has to pick someone and they might just accumulate enough points to win on price.

The secret to having an above average win rate is to enable people to perform better than they would on their own. Think about what helps individuals perform better:

  • Knowing what’s expected of them
  • Knowing how to achieve it
  • A little strategic direction
  • Being able to work in systematic coordination with each other
  • Quality standards and criteria that aren’t moving targets
  • Answers to their questions

If you leave it to your people, you’ll get their best efforts, just like all your competitors. But if you take the path less followed and create a systematic capability to win based on more than just people, your win rate will reflect it.

PS: If you think you have all that because you’ve assigned smart people to it, you need to re-read the article.



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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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