10 tips for doing too many proposals with too few people

It's not about trying harder, it's about giving things up on purpose

If you think doing too many proposals with too few people is about working faster or trying harder, you're deceiving yourself. Doing too many proposals with too few people is about what you’re going to give up. You can be forced into giving things up when you run out of time, you can do things halfway and get by, or you can plan exactly what you intend to give up and do it on purpose.

  1. Be clear about your priorities. Every decision should be based on an assessment of how it will impact your evaluation score. Indirect or theoretical impacts have a lower priority. That’s a nice way of saying they get skipped. This can be a hard pill to swallow. Consider editing. If your proposal is in decent shape, editing only has a theoretical impact. You can skip it and be competitive. That’s right, I said skip editing. You can skip it on purpose, or you can drop something vital because you ran out of time. I’m picking on editing because it’s a sacred cow. The real point is that you have to cut the theoretical and indirect impacts in order to maximize your score with the resources you have. It’s not my fault you’re doing too many proposals with too few resources. Consider how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs might apply to proposals.
  2. Don’t stop to read. You don’t have time for reviews that involve writers sitting around waiting for wise people to read and comment. You don’t have time to fully prepare a proposal and then wait for executives to bless it before submission. Reading must be done in parallel with production. Reviews must be performed against moving targets. Executives must be part of the solution and bless a less than final draft. You’re already going to reduce your win rate by doing too many proposals with too few people. You have to give up stopping to read in order to spend the time focusing on things that have a greater impact on whether you win or lose.
  3. Think faster. The vast majority of time spent on a proposal is spent thinking and talking about it. Instead of learning how to make proposal decisions faster, most people try to accelerate proposals by focusing on file management. And fail. If you want proposals to take less time, you need to accelerate how you design your offering, articulate your differentiators, and determine your bid strategies. You can’t afford to evolve them over time or think them through by writing about them. You need to be decisive, only you don’t become decisive by willing it to be so. Instead, anticipate the information needed to make decisions, ensure that it is there when needed, and be clear about your options. You need to have your offering defined and validated in the first 25% of the available schedule. Validating the offering is where most failures occur. Instead of defining your offering and then reviewing it, trying integrating the stakeholders into a collaborative effort so that everyone is on board with the first draft. Whatever you do, don’t design your offering by writing and re-writing it until everyone is happy. Design it and then write it. Once. Include a pricing assessment so you don’t end up with an offering that everyone likes but which isn’t competitive.
  4. Allow fewer iterations. Proposals go through far more iterations than people realize. Most represent minor incremental changes. Each comes at a cost in time and effort. Reduce the number of iterations and you reduce the level of effort. Do it right and you won’t give up anything of significance. The biggest source of extra iterations is changing your mind. You need to learn how to get a team to think things through and get them right the first time. Design quality in and avoid defects instead of practicing break/fix quality control.
  5. Give people fewer options. If the RFP doesn’t require it, don’t change your layout for every bid. Don’t even change the proposal’s colors to match the customer’s color. Do you really think that impacts their decision in a way that’s worth the effort? While you’re at it, standardize your cover layout. Reducing options is about avoiding decision fatigue and freeing your brain up to think faster about things that matter more. Don’t deceive yourself that figuring things out as you go along is accommodating people and being helpful. If it doesn’t impact whether you win or lose, you should standardize it, move on, and think about it no more. Simplify and gain some breathing room. You’ll need it.
  6. Do less. If you need editing to feel confident, then consider editing only the headings. You need to plan the content of your proposal, but maybe you can get away with planning at the section level instead of the full content. Instead of providing instructions for writers to follow, just provide the points you want them to make. Consider reviewing plans and not the text of the proposal. If the text matches the bid strategies, it should be good enough. Magic words may theoretically improve your chances, but bid strategies are vital. While we’re talking about doing less, consider writing less. Only say what you need to. Drop all that sales fluff and just make the points you need to. Use lots of tables so you can provide information without having to write narrative. Use graphics instead of explaining processes. If there's a page limit, aim to come in short and don’t add more just because you can.
  7. Avoid heroic efforts. Proposal specialists are heroes. They can make an on-time submission no matter how adverse the circumstances and create a winning proposal out of a big stinking pile of compost. But if you’re counting on heroes saving every single one of the too many proposals you're bidding, you're setting yourself up for failure in the form of low win rates that make the entire surge bidding pointless. And you can expect turnover in the hero department that will impact you in a big way when you rediscover how important your win rate is.
  8. When it’s done, stop. If you’re doing one proposal, you can afford to let it expand and consume all resources right up to the deadline. But if you’re working your way through a surge of too many proposals, you need to stop at good enough and move on. For many of you this will feel like pulling your punches and you’ll just have to get over it. Maximizing your average requires a different approach from maximizing your chances on one particular bid. This means that you’ll have to define completion. Most proposal processes don’t. If they have time on the clock, they invent a new review or iteration. Make your iterations finite, and when they’re done stop. And move on. Your attention is needed elsewhere and is also finite.
  9. It’s always about the next proposal. Maximizing your win rate is not about winning the proposal in front of you. It’s about winning the one that comes next. Instead of an unsustainable best right now or one-time victory, you want a little better each time that results in a high and sustainable win rate. Accept good enough for this proposal if it raises the bar for the next one. Repeat often.
  10. Don’t mess up. A bad proposal is usually not the result of poor proposal writing. A bad proposal is usually the result of figuring things out as you go along, changing your mind, and running out of time so that you submit the proposal you have instead of the proposal you wanted. To avoid messing up a proposal, simply figure things out ahead of time, don’t change your mind, and keep your iterations finite. It’s not about catching mistakes. It’s about setting up a mostly good quality process and then not introducing mistakes so that you win on average instead of pushing past the breaking point in the name of perfecting a single proposal.


You can skip things on purpose, or you can be driven to skip unpredictable things by running out of time. This is inescapable and the reason why bidding too many proposals with too few people will inevitably reduce your win rate. When your win rate is reduced, all those “leads” you couldn’t ignore will produce less profitability than if you’d settled for fewer leads and focused on increasing your win rate instead. While the line between too many and too few might be theoretical and that might tempt you to get as close as you can, the consequences of crossing it are not theoretical. Make sure you understand the math.

If you really want to challenge your brain, consider everything you might skip under adverse circumstances and what you would keep if you had a more reasonable workload and resource availability. How many of them would you still skip because focusing on the things that impact the evaluation score raises your win rate, while things that are esoteric, a matter of opinion, or theoretically might possibly impact your win rate don’t on average?

The biggest mistake you can make is to stick to legacy approaches when your circumstances have changed. Ask the dinosaurs.

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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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