The real reason why your proposal process is failing

Most people do not follow their company’s proposal process. Most proposal managers blame process failure on the participants not having enough discipline to follow the process. People focus on the burden of following a process. Or the need for training about the process. But those are not the real reasons that people are not following the process.

The real reason your process is failing is that it’s not delivering the information that people need. They get an assignment and an RFP that they may or may not understand. Everyone knows that the RFP requirements are only part of what they need to do their assignment, but that’s all they get. Maybe they get a list of “themes.” They ask for templates and re-use libraries because they know they need more information than you are giving them. They just don’t know what to ask for. They have to set out on their own because the process has failed to deliver what they need to complete their assignment.

If the goal of the process is to create a proposal that reflects what it will take to win, and the process doesn’t define that, then the process has failed before any proposal writing has even started. If you are trying to write a proposal that reflects the customer’s perspective, and you haven’t anticipated and answered the questions the writers will have about the customer’s preferences, then the process has failed. If you get to the review and the reviewers have to decide for themselves what defines proposal quality, then the process has failed.

The key thing to realize is that the process does not matter. The steps do not matter. It’s the information that matters. The process is just a vehicle to organize discovering the information you will need and delivering it to people when they need it in the form they need it in. If your process is all about requirements and assignments, but doesn’t address the information needed to complete those assignments, then it is not providing what the writers need to execute the process. It will fail. But process can also guide people to discover, assess, and transform information into what is needed, while measuring their progress and giving them a way to determine whether they have achieved a quality product.

Try this:

Drop the process. Completely. Now, just deliver the information people need to write a winning proposal. Start at the end with a winning proposal and work back to the beginning to identify what information is needed to get there. Anticipate the questions people will have and deliver the answers. That is all.

Think about each stakeholder.

  • Some stakeholders didn’t participate in the proposal but need to know that it is a quality proposal.
  • Some play a very specialized role, like contracts or pricing.
  • Some make contributions but don’t actually write.
  • Some write, and may or may not have subject matter expertise.
  • Some know the customer and have insight.
  • Some participate in developing the strategies, and may or may not write the narrative.
  • Some plan, track, and oversee.
  • Some have to write the darn thing and struggle to make it reflect the customer’s perspective.
  • Etc.

What does each need to know and when?

Don’t think in terms of kickoffs, assignment tracking, and quality assurance. They can support the flow of information, but it’s the information that matters and not the activities. You’ll need some or all of those activities (and more), but you only need them if they contribute the right information and they can only be successful if they receive the right information.

You’re going to run into a problem. The need for information stretches back to before the start of the proposal. If the right information isn’t delivered at the start of the proposal, the entire effort is doomed before it begins. And yet, many of you are in that position and can’t use it as an excuse. You’re tasked with making a good show of winning regardless of what you are given to work with.

That’s why you need to start with a nice, long list of questions. Ours has 135 questions. The answers to those questions tell you what you’ve got to work with. You can even quantify it by counting up how many answers you've got. And over time you can correlate that with your win rate. But the most important thing is that it gives you a foundation of information that you can move forward with.

It gives you something to create bid strategies out of. It gives you something to provide guidance to the proposal writers. It gives you what you need to define what it will take to win and turn it into quality criteria.

You will never get answers for all the questions you ask

That’s okay. Sometimes the questions you don’t have answers to are the ones that drive your bid strategies. But you can’t figure that out until you know what you’ve got to work with.

Your process succeeds or fails based on whether you can deliver the information that people need. If they fail because the process didn’t deliver that information, it had nothing to do with a lack of discipline. If the process delivers the information people need, they’ll follow the process because that’s how they get what they need. If the process doesn’t deliver the information they need, they have to go outside the process in order to fulfill their assignment. That’s why the process is less important than the information.

Achieving an information advantage is the single most important thing you can do to position yourself to win

But achieving an information advantage is only part discovery. It’s also part what you do with the information you have. If it doesn’t make it into the right black ink on paper, then it’s not part of the proposal. Winning in writing has more to do with getting the right information than it does with the act of writing itself.

If people aren’t following your process, ask yourself what they need to complete their assignment that the process isn’t giving them. If your proposals are making it to the review stage and then things go bad, ask yourself what the reviewers know that the writers didn’t. And why.

If you are forced to start your proposal without the input you need to write a winning proposal, then figure out what your strategies are going to be in its absence and instruct the writers accordingly. Don’t just push the assignments to the writers and expect them to figure it out. Who wants to be on the receiving end of a process that works like that?

One of the advantages of a process that is based on questions that direct the flow of information, instead of a process that is based on steps and assignments, is that you can track where you needed information and didn’t have it. You can even quantify it. But most importantly, you can connect what you didn’t have with what the impact was on the proposal and how it relates to what it takes to win. That is powerful feedback for driving change so that your company can improve its ability to write proposals that do reflect what it will take to win.



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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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