Carl Dickson

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About Carl Dickson

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    Always interested in hearing from members of our site, especially about how they've used our materials under fire in the real world. Introduce yourself --- let's start a conversation...
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  • About Your Company publishes information to help people develop business, writer better proposals, and capture business pursuits.
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    Business development, proposal writing, entrepreneurship

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  1. If you are a contractor, I’m willing to bet that not only is your mission statement ignored, it’s probably just plain wrong. Take a look at these mission/vision statements from three of the largest U.S. Government contractors: Lockheed Martin: We solve complex challenges, advance scientific discovery and deliver innovative solutions to help our customers keep people safe. (source) Boeing: Connect, Protect, Explore and Inspire the World through Aerospace Innovation (source) Raytheon: One global team creating trusted, innovative solutions to make the world a safer place. (source) These companies have succeeded in spite of their mission statements and not because of them. Collectively they have more than 330,000 employees. Do you think that any of their employees refer to these mission statements in doing their jobs? Do you think that even 1% know what their company’s mission statement is? Your real mission… If you are a contractor, then your mission is really to win new contracts. The only way a contractor creates opportunity is by growing. Growth is the only sustainable way a contractor can reward its staff. It’s the best way to ensure the company is performing successfully for its customers. It's the best way to expand its capabilities. Making growth your stated mission also makes the success of your mission measurable. It’s not just happy-words void of any actual meaning. Not only is it authentic, it’s what you are actually in business to do, and it reflects what you expect of your staff. When your mission is to win more contracts, it makes it clear how each part of your company can contribute. It provides direction, because everybody plays a role in winning new business. Most people don’t think of their job in those terms. But if you make it your company’s mission, it helps them to see it that way. Making your mission “to be universally regarded as the foremost practitioners of outstanding customer satisfaction,” or whatever, isn’t going to help an operational unit struggling with resource allocation issues and deadlines achieve customer satisfaction. But operational units can contribute to winning new contracts by obtaining outstanding past performance evaluations and gaining customer insight, and resources should be allocated accordingly. When your mission statement is about “customer satisfaction,” the “highest levels of quality,” or similar hyperbole, it doesn’t give the various groups that make up your company any direction, tell them how to work together, or tell them how to handle the inevitable trade-offs that arise. But when you are clear and honest that your mission is growth, it tells human resources, accounting, operations, facilities, purchasing, accounts receivable, operations, and every group or department in your company what they need to focus on so they can work together to achieve their common mission. Making your mission to win new contracts does not mean you should just make things look good long enough to get a new contract and then do the minimum you can get away with to maximize profit. That is not how you win contract extensions, logical follow-ons, repeat business, or referrals. It also kills your past performance record. When you make it your mission to win new contracts, it means that if any part of your company fails in performance or does not achieve the highest customer satisfaction levels, it’s jeopardizing the mission. In most companies, the staff responsible for contract fulfillment get caught between pressure to maximize profitability and satisfying the customer. In most companies, their “mission” is in direct conflict with their real goal of being profitable. This is one reason why people in the company ignore their mission statement. In some companies, the mission statement is written to impress their customers. The mission statements above could be examples. However, being ambiguous, saying nothing, or trying to be all things to all people does not impress anyone. If you want your mission statement to summarize what your company does, then what you need instead is an elevator speech. An elevator speech that provides a short description of what you do is very different from the goals that you exist in order to achieve. Developing into a winning organization If you need a mission statement you can post on your website and tell your customers, then try something like this: Our mission is to win new contracts. Every day we develop the capabilities, resources, and qualifications required to achieve that mission. If we fail to achieve the highest levels of customer satisfaction, if we get poor performance reports, or if our customers don’t sing our praises, we jeopardize our ability to fulfill that mission and we fail as a company. To become a winning organization, start by bringing everything that people do into alignment with winning. This starts when everyone realizes that growth is their common purpose. And you can reinforce that by making it the stated mission of your organization.
  2. Joining a company should be about opportunity. Personal, professional, and fiscal. But where does that opportunity come from? Most jobs become a status quo. You have a role, you fulfill it. If you excel, there is the potential for promotion. But if you work on a contract for a service company, promotions and pay increases are impacted by the terms of the contract. Usually your company can't simply pay you more and charge the customer more to cover it. Usually they can't create a new position to give you a promotion, unless the customer approves it. But the worst part is that even if they do, it might make the company less competitive. Each raise someone gets on a contract raises the price when the company has to re-bid the contract. If that happens enough times, a competitor can bid staff that are just as qualified as you were when you first started working on the contract. And because your company is now more expensive, competitors can potentially win with a lower price, taking your job with it. It’s a difficult circumstance to be caught in. Luckily, there is one thing that can break this cycle. It is surprising to me how many contract employees aren't aware of it. Everyone should understand it. It should be baked right into your corporate culture, since it is a great unifier. It brings everyone together with a common goal. It should be your company's top priority. Growth Growth is a great unifier. Growth increases the salary pool. Growth creates new positions that staff can be promoted into. Growth increases the overhead pool to bring in more resources and pay for PropLIBRARY Subscriptions. ;-) Growth by creating opportunity benefits the customer, benefits the staff, and benefits the company Growth is the source of all opportunity for a contractor and the people who work for them. Some growth can come from expanding your existing contracts. But most companies will be lucky if this accounts for 10% of their growth. The rest comes from winning new contracts. Winning new contracts isn't something people should leave to those who "work in business development." Everyone has a vested interest in the opportunities that growth brings. Growth unifies all departments and breaks down silos. Growth unifies all levels of staff. This does not mean that everyone should become a salesperson. It means that everyone has a vested interested in contributing to the growth of the company. For a contract services company, growth isn't something that only benefits The Powers That Be. The growth of your company is the only source of your personal growth. A winning culture should make people aware of how this common purpose brings everyone all together. If growth is your top priority, then it should be the focus of your corporate culture. It's not just something to be done. Creating opportunity should be why everyone is there, every day. Instead of “adding value,” “being committed to quality,” or “focusing on customer satisfaction,” everybody in the organization should start their day thinking about how to create opportunities and grow. The opposite of growth The opposite of growth is truly scary. It is not just the loss of contracts. It is the loss of opportunity. Even if revenue is merely flat, it means a reduction in opportunities. When revenue is flat and costs increase, you not only lose profit, you lose competitiveness because your overhead rates go up. Losing competitiveness leads to a reduction in growth. Which leads to less competitiveness. And so the vicous circle that consumes opportunity begins. Contract losses will happen. The only way to make up for them is to win enough new ones to cover the loss. A growth orientation will save you when contract losses happen. Growth doesn’t happen by wishing for it It’s not enough to know about the importance of growth. You have to do something about it. You have to discover what it will take to win. And this means you have to: Cultivate an information advantage Achieve the highest customer satisfaction and past performance evaluations Differentiate Take strategic planning seriously Contribute to proposals Define proposal quality before you start writing Continuously improve your win rate Continuously look for ways to create opportunity Some of these relate to technical performance. Some of them relate to winning contracts. Some of them relate to both. The nice thing about focusing on growth by creating opportunity is that it benefits the customer, it benefits the staff, and it benefits the company. It brings them all into a harmony based on a better future. It makes your culture more aspirational than fiscal, while growing fiscally at the same time. This is how you achieve a winning culture. Get access to our free forum for discussing organizational development. Let's discuss what it takes to develop organizations that effectively win new business. This forum is not just about how to win proposals, but rather sharing practical insight into organizational change that leads to increasing win rates. Initially, we're focusing on the needs of U.S. Government contractors. If you are a U.S. Government contractor, you can request access to our new organizational development forum by clicking the button below. Include your name, email address, and a little about your firm. Request access to the Organizational Development Forum
  3. Just because your proposals are produced by a group of people doesn’t mean that you have an organizational approach to winning business. Just because you call them a team doesn’t mean that they aren’t really just a collection of individuals sharing the work. An organizational approach to winning is different from spreading the work to more individuals and keeping track of the pieces. An organizational approach is more than the sum of its parts because the work that each participant does reinforces the work of all the others, instead of just adding to the pile of paper produced. An organizational approach is far more competitive, because it makes the individual contributions better than they would be on their own. This is what makes changing your approach a competitive advantage. If you start your proposals without an information advantage, it’s a sign that you’re responding to RFPs without the right customer interaction. It could also be sign that those in your organization who interact with the customer are not an integrated part of the process for winning. It means that an unbroken flow of information that leads to winning never has a chance to form. You’re not even trying. If you start your proposals without knowing what your differentiators are, or if you wait until the proposal to start articulating them, it’s a sign that your organization is making things up as it goes along. The odds are your differentiators are weak and only there at all because someone said you must have some. Developing compelling differentiators is a strategic process and not something done in the moment against a deadline. Compelling differentiators require the organization to define itself in a way that’s fully aware of the strategic implications and customer preferences. Compelling differentiators require an organizational approach, because no individual has all the insight required. Having meetings to talk about differentiators is not much of an organized approach to identifying, articulating, and substantiating them. You may give your proposal writers instructions regarding what to write. But do you also address how to write it? If you don’t, it’s a sign that you’re leaving it to the writers on their own to figure out what context to put things in, instead of working as an organization to design the proposal and position it to win. If you start your proposals without a written definition of proposal quality, then every individual will determine for themselves what it means. If you don’t define proposal quality as an organization, then you do not have a common goal. The goal becomes making every individual sufficiently happy to get along and hoping that’s good enough to win. You should also ask yourself if your processes require the participation of certain individuals. If your process doesn’t process with someone else in the role, then it’s not a process. It might even be a good way of doing things. But it’s a personal way of doing things. It's also a trap. It’s an individual approach and not an organizational approach. Do you design your offering separately from the proposal, or do you try to do it as part of the proposal writing effort? If you try to figure out what to offer by writing about it and re-writing until you get it right, you’ll run out of time and submit what you have instead of something designed to win. If you are designing your offering by writing about it, it’s a sign of starting unprepared and probably late. Doing this on more than one pursuit is a sign that your organization doesn’t prepare and starts late. This requires an organizational solution. If you only have one major proposal review, you’ve probably overloaded your reviewers' capacity. How much can you lump into a single review before you are no longer assuring quality: RFP compliance, evaluation score, customer awareness, competitive positioning, win strategies, offering design, proofreading, style, layout, graphics, pricing, and more? If you only have one real proposal review, it’s a sign that your reviews are really not about achieving quality (which you probably haven’t defined) and merely about satisfying The Powers That Be (which is not the same thing as assuring quality). If you only have one review, it’s easy to leave what should be accomplished unstated. The goal becomes “a review.” If you only have one review, you probably have zero accountability (with no definition of proposal quality and no criteria to assess it), while convincing yourself otherwise because of the involvement of senior staff. Fixing this requires an organizational approach that both defines quality and changes how proposal reviews are performed in order to validate it. Winning as an organization requires integration. It requires tearing down silos, the way business development, proposals, and operations are often constructed. Or the way reviewers and sometimes executives hold themselves separate from the proposal process. In a winning organization, what one person does should add to what came before, such that the first contribution helps guide the next, so that each contribution is greater than what an individual could accomplish. To win as an organization, people must manage expectations together instead of simply receiving assignments. If you are organized to win, your writers and reviewers work from the same criteria that define quality. Achieving this means being sufficiently organized to be able to articulate your quality criteria before the writing starts. Winning as an organization means figuring this all out, because if you just make it up as you go along, everyone will do it as individuals. If you want to create a winning organization, at some point you must stop doing everything ad hoc. The challenge is that everyone has to stop and make the switch at the same time. You can’t have islands of individuals in conflict and be organized to win at the same time. You can’t take on one issue at a time and arrive at an integrated approach. This challenge is so difficult that most companies avoid taking it on. Ever. But this means that if you do take this challenge on, you can achieve a level of competitiveness that they will never be able to match. We're setting up a new private forum for discussing organizational development. This forum is where we'll be posting new content related to what to do to develop organizations that effectively win new business. This won't just be more about how to win proposals, but rather practical insight into organizational change that leads to increasing win rates. Initially, we're going to address the needs of U.S. Government contractors. If you are a U.S. Government contractor, you can request access to our new organizational development forum by clicking the button below. Include your name, email, and a little about your firm. There will be no charge to access the forum. As soon as we've got it set up, we'll send you an invite! Request access to the new forum
  4. If you lose your proposal, it’s because the customer chose another alternative. That could be another proposal, or it could just be another alternative. Winning a proposal is about being their best alternative. And being their best alternative requires anticipating the others and positioning against each one. Winning a proposal is about helping the customer make a decision, not just about your proposal, but about which of the alternatives they should move forward with. What are their other alternatives? Do nothing. This is their easiest alternative. At least in the short term. And maybe the problem will go away or be overtaken by events. If the proposal is not solicited or if you are the only one submitting a proposal, this could be your biggest competitor. What do you need to do to motivate them to take action? And what action do you want them to take? Delay. If the customer is not decisive, then they may just wait. Take their time and think about it. Get advice. Let it be overtaken by events. This can be the passive form of doing nothing. It too benefits from motivation and direction. Do it on their own. Insource instead of outsource. If they prefer to insource, then a proposal to outsource is swimming against the current. But a proposal to support the development of their internal capabilities might been seen as a beneficial bridge. Unless they prefer to outsource. Do it over. If they haven’t thought things through, or have written an excessively bad RFP, they have the option of just cancelling it and starting over. Go small or larger. Rescope the problem. Combine procurements. Or separate them. This is usually a budget issue, but sometimes it can also be a strategic issue based on economies of scale. If they can’t afford what you propose, maybe they can start with something smaller. And maybe you can offer them ways to scale it up once proven. Pick something better. How does the customer define “better?” Are they ready to commit to investing for the future and focused on value instead of cost? Are they being strategic? Or do they want something in particular? If they choose to move forward, then they will want the best of their alternatives. It really helps to understand how they define “best.” Sometimes you can help guide the customer to what to consider and help them understand why your alternative is the best. This is the core of offering design and proposal presentation. Pick something cheaper. In the customer’s eyes, what constitutes “good enough” for now? If they get that and aren’t motivated to procure something better, they might just pick the cheapest proposal that is good enough. Negotiate. If you’re close, maybe they can get you to make the necessary adjustments. Maybe they just want to be sure they’re getting the best deal. These all apply, even in an RFP based procurement. It’s just that in an RFP based procurement, some may only apply before the RFP is released. RFPs are occasionally cancelled for these reasons after release. But the point is not to explain why a customer did something after the fact. The goal is to anticipate what a customer is most likely to do so you can position your proposal to win. Writing your proposal as if you are their only alternative leaves you exposed to the fact that you are not.
  5. Disclaimer In describing our plans, we're not making promises. All dates, features, prices, details, and everything else on this page are subject to change. This is just how we'd like things to play out at this moment. If we get a better idea later, we might follow it instead. But if you don't hold us to any commitments here, we'll gladly share some of what we're working on. Attention potential corporate subscribers... If you do the kind of proposals that require a team of people to work together and still more people to review the quality, we should talk. Take a look below and then use this button to reach out to us and let's start a conversation. If you wait, it could end up costing you a few thousand dollars more... Click here to reach out and start a conversation What's in development now A series of online courses for proposal writing. The first has been released. The second should be complete in the next week. A couple more are planned before we shift to a different topic. We're building a major new tool that will help you figure out what to address in your proposals, implement proposal quality criteria, and conduct better proposal reviews. It greatly lowers the level of effort to implement our recommendations, without disrupting your current workflows. It integrates everything on PropLIBRARY (knowledge, tools, process, online training). We had a major breakthrough that's made it all possible. I'd love to discuss it more, but we're in the early stages where things can change quite a bit. Our recipe library is being converted from text to a database format. This is anticipation of our new tool. However, we've put together a quick interface so that you can tap into the recipe data. It's not amazing like what's in development, but it lets you get at the data without waiting. The recipe data is pretty amazing. Only PropLIBRARY Subscribers can access it. If you are a PropLIBRARY Subscriber you can try it out here, otherwise you'll just get an error. Click on the text to expand the outline. Click on the icons to put a recipe on the clipboard for use in your documents. Look for hundreds more recipes to be added over the next few months. Roadmap for the future In Q3 we expect to have completed online training that addresses the full MustWin Process from a participant's point of view. After that we'll start working on advanced level courses for proposal specialists. These will target implementation and management issues, along with optional considerations. For example, we have already released online training that addresses how to perform Proposal Content Planning. But should you implement it with a centralized or decentralized model? How do you scale it from quick turnaround task orders up to lengthy strategic proposal? Etc. We are working towards two levels of subscription. The current subscription level will target proposal contributors. A new advanced-level subscription will target proposal specialists. When we make the change, all current subscribers will get upgraded to the advanced level free of charge, so keep your subscriptions current. We want to include about 24 hours of free online training in our regular subscription and 40 hours in our advanced subscription. We're already at 18 hours. The value of our subscriptions keeps going up, up, up. For less than the cost of a single traditional proposal course, we're going to offer a week's worth of training, on top of all our other subscription benefits. That's kind of crazy and people are telling me it's too much and that might actually cause people to under value the benefits. I'm inclined to stick to the plan and do it anyway. Corporate Subscription prices are going up, as soon as I can create the new product description page. This involves more than just simple text, and I've got our developers overloaded already. So it's waiting in line... We have a baseline capability to customize our entire library for Corporate Subscribers. I want to make this easier to use and create a self-serve model. Corporate Subscribers will be able to create their own customized training on our platform. Possibilities that are floating out there but not scheduled Fixed price training customizing and internal certification programs for Corporate Subscribers. We know how long it takes to modify or create content. We can turn that into fixed price customization offerings. New content contributors. This will likely happen in our online training offerings. Some will be offered an individual courses priced separately, others will be bundled in with our subscriptions. Talks are under way. We're playing around with some new navigation features to make things easier and possibly a replacement for the red menu to the left. We might create a simple menu and an advanced menu. We've got some really cool ways to filter content, but have decided how to build them into the user interface yet.
  6. Proposal Content Planning is a methodology that is part of the MustWin Process. The full methodology is part of what comes with a PropLIBRARY Subscription. Here is an introduction to Proposal Content Planning. When you are just getting started with preparing Content Plans for your proposals, you can put anything in them that’s helpful. You don’t need to get hung up on the wording. Anything you put in them will be better than nothing. As your experience and skills improve, however, you begin to see how the way you articulate instructions directly impacts how they are followed. If you pay more attention to how you word the things you put in your Content Plans you can take them to a higher level. The best way to articulate what you put in your Proposal Content Plans is to phrase them as quality criteria. Prompt the writer with the questions that will be used to assess whether the goals were achieved. This has two advantages: It guides the reviewers, with the Content Plan doing double duty as a checklist for validating the draft proposal. It enables writers to see how their efforts will be evaluated. It's like a rubric for a school assignment, and shows writers exactly what they need to do to “get a top grade.” Here are several ways to introduce something in a Content Plan that turn it into a quality criterion: Does it… Does the approach reflect the evaluation criteria? Have you… Have you shown understanding through results instead of simply claiming it? Are the… Are the steps in our process compliant with the statement of work? Compare this approach to simply giving instructions: Does the approach reflect the evaluation criteria? vs: Explain the approach in the context of the evaluation criteria. Have you shown understanding through results instead of simply claiming it? vs: Show understanding through results instead of simply claiming it. Are the steps in our process compliant with the statement of work? vs: Identify RFP compliant steps for our process. While a case could be made that the instructions are more direct, the reason we prefer articulating them as quality criteria is that we’re shifting people from following instructions to achieving goals. We’re shifting them from doing what they’re told to thinking about what proposal quality is. Using questions also helps prompt the writer to think more about it than a statement does. Phrasing your Content Plan ingredients as quality criteria also has the advantage of combining steps in the proposal process. If you fill your Proposal Content Plan with instructions, then before you can conduct Proposal Quality Validation, you must convert your instructions into quality criteria. By articulating the ingredients in your Content Plan as quality criteria, you save a step. But there’s a problem There’s always a problem. In this case, the problem is being rushed and unprepared. You can’t articulate quality criteria for an approach you don’t have. Unfortunately, we often enter the proposal process while we’ll still designing our offering and figuring out our approaches. Before you can write assessment criteria, you might have to write instructions to resolve the issue. In other words, you might have to say, “Figure out our approach.” Usually you can mitigate this by saying something like “Describe our approach AND optimize it against the wording of the evaluation criteria.” This combines the instruction with a quality criterion to assess it. Wait, there’s more… What if you are using the Content Plan to pass on tips, data, or a suggestion that is not going to be required or assessed? When you use a Content Plan statement that starts with the word “Consider” you prompt the reviewers that it isn't required. But the reviewers can also ask about it to assess whether it was given appropriate consideration. This is one way of using the Content Plan to drive constructive discussion. It’s a bit of a challenge How many of your quality criteria can you nail in the Content Plan? Every one that comes after provides zero guidance to the writers until after the fact. Content Planning gives you a visible, and even measurable, way to ensure that you aren’t waiting until the draft review to start thinking about what a quality proposal would be. So how many of the things you add to your next Content Plan can you articulate as quality criteria? It’s a bit of a challenge… Even more advanced... With the right metrics and measurements you can change proposal writing from an art into a science. Here are 9 proposal metrics you didn't think possible that are enabled by Proposal Content Planning.
  7. Track the number of Content Planning items per page and you’ll have a quick way to gauge the amount of detail that went into the planning. Correlate it with your win rate to find out how much effort going into detail is worth. Count the number of Content Plan items that had to word around things that were unknown during proposal planning. You can even categorize the types of unknown (customer awareness, offering design, teaming, etc.). This will tell you whether your proposals are starting prepared or if you’re making things up as you go along. Correlate it with page count and number of staff or hours contributing to the pursuit and you can see the impact of being short-staffed. Correlate it with your win rate and you can determine whether you are losing more than you are saving by being short staffed. Count the number of items articulated as quality criteria vs. instructions in your Proposal Content Plans and turn it into a ratio. Correlate this ratio with your win rate and you’ll see which has the most impact and how much the effort is worth. You could also do this with other things you might include in your Content Plans, like tips, suggestions, data, boilerplate, etc. Assess whether centralized or decentralized Content Planning is best. This could also take the form of a ratio, to determine whether more centralized or less centralized correlates with the highest win rate in your environment. Track the length of time spent Content Planning prior to writing, and when you correlate it with your win rate, you’ll see the true value of planning before writing. Correlate the number of Content Planning iterations/topics completed with your win rate, and you can identify which have the most value. Count how many Proposal Quality Validation criteria originated in the Content Plan vs. those that did not. This will tell you whether your writers are starting with adequate guidance regarding proposal quality. Track the number of instructions related to visual communication vs text. This can also be converted to a ratio. And correlated with your win rate, which will tell you the value of the graphics. Track the average time to create a graphic and you can compare the value of the change in win rate to the cost of graphic production, and use this to make better informed decisions regarding whether to hire graphics specialists or use consultants.
  8. Before pen is put to paper, proposal writing requires you to interpret and understand the RFP. When a customer writes an RFP they identify things they want vendors to address and evaluators to assess. When you read an RFP you can see when they are indicating these things by the words they use. For example, they often use words like "shall," "will," and "must" to indicate these things. In fact, a lawyer specializing in procurement will tell you that terms like “shall,” “will,” and “must” have precise meanings and that certain words should be used for things that the customer believes are mandatory and certain words for things that are optional, facts, etc. But while this might be how RFPs should be written, proposal writers must deal with how proposals are written. Often the person writing the RFP doesn’t understand the subtle nuances. This can make interpreting the RFP more challenging. Words like “shall,” “will,” and “must” usually indicate things the evaluator will be looking for and assessing. They may indicate things like customer requirements, instructions, terms and conditions, or facts, depending on how precise the customer is with their terminology. What you can rely on when they use those words, and others like them, is that they are indicating or identifying things. They may be doing this to bring them to your attention, the evaluators’ attention, or both. It may be necessary to acknowledge them to be considered compliant with the RFP. The evaluator may be tasked with accounting for whether you responded to them. You want the evaluator to be able to easily find the indicated words. You should also look for lists, bullets, numbered items, and things put in tables. When the customer itemizes things, they make it easier to account for them. You want your proposal to reflect this, by making them easy to find. Using the same bullets, numbers, table formats, etc., that the customer used can help. You want your proposal to be checklist-simple to evaluate. Whether it's true or not it helps to picture the evaluator looking at your proposal and checking off on a list as they find each keyword indicated in the RFP. Once you figure out what words they have indicated are important and that the evaluators might look for, you should build your response around those words. Pay particular attention to the words used in any evaluation criteria provided. If there will be a formal scoring or decision process, it will be based on the words in the evaluation criteria. The job of a proposal writer is not to simply present the offering. It’s to present the offering in a way that maximizes the chances of winning. Part of doing this is to present your offering using the language of the RFP. What you don’t want to do is repeat the RFP exactly. This makes it harder for the evaluator to determine whether you understand what you are saying and can be trusted. Instead, take your offering design, bid strategies, and the points you wish to make, and articulate what differentiates them using the words from the RFP. You should review your proposal by making sure that all keywords indicated or identified in the RFP can be found in your response. If you have trouble finding any of them, even if you eventually do find them, it’s a safe bet the evaluator will also have difficulty finding them. A few words about page limitations If the RFP contains several times the number of pages they limit the length of your proposal to, it may be physically impossible to include all of the keywords in the RFP. The words you want to use are the ones the evaluator will be most likely to look for. This means you must look past what they have indicated are keywords to consider what words they need to perform the evaluation. Doing this requires understanding their evaluation process, right down to the forms they use. Sometimes helping the customer reach their decision comes down to helping them complete their forms, and sometimes that comes down to matching the words in your proposal to the words on their forms. This is not being trivial or nit-picky. In a page-limited proposal, doing this can be vital, since any words that do not impact your evaluation are extraneous. Every word you put in your proposal should be measured not by how important you think it is, but by how much it will impact your evaluation. Before putting pen to paper, pause for a moment to consider what the evaluator needs to see in order to perform their task. Proposals do not get read. They get evaluated. What the customer needs from you Customers who go to the trouble of publishing an RFP typically need to assess certain things about each proposal and bidder: Have they met the qualification requirements that were in the RFP? Did they follow the instructions I gave them? Does what they propose match what I said I needed? Did they accept all the terms and conditions that will be part of the contract? They often ask these questions before they ask which offering they like more. If they have written evaluation criteria, they may not even consider which they like. They will consider how the bidders who make it to that stage compare on the basis of the evaluation criteria. How the evaluation criteria are worded, and how your proposal stacks up against them, will determine whether you win. At each of these steps, whether you have used the right words from the RFP matters. The good news is that the RFP will indicate these things. But if the page limitation means you can’t possibly address every RFP keyword, then think about the information they need and their evaluation process and give them the words they need to make their decision.
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  13. All proposals represent change for the organization considering them. This is true even if you are the incumbent and aren’t really proposing any significant changes in approach. There will still be incremental changes to account for. All proposals can add value through change management practices. This is true whether the changes are explicit, with the customer expecting change, or if the customer either hasn’t considered or isn’t concerned with change. They may not think the project needs change management. And yet, addressing some of these can show you have a better approach for managing the project. The following items can be used either to explicitly address the topic of “change management” or to improve your management approach without even using the word “change.” How can you engage people to address their concerns about the changes? How do the benefits compare to people's concerns about the changes? How do the changes relate to missions, goals, and requirements? How do the changes align with strategies and plans? Who are the stakeholders who will be involved, contribute, participate, or be impacted? What are the size, scope, and complexity of the changes? What is the gap between the current state and the change state? What alternatives are being considered? What effort will be required by various stakeholders? How will various stakeholders be impacted? What timeframes are significant? Will change implementation be expert-led, participative, or collaborative? How will change progress be tracked and communicated? What can you do to provide recognition of impacts and contributions? What motivations might impact people's reactions? What can be done to help prepare people for the changes? What should people anticipate? Can modeling or simulation help with change planning, communication, or risk mitigation? How can you engage people who are influencers? Is there a difference between internal and external impacts and issues? How are people concerned with compliance, risk, cost, or uncertainty related to the changes? What can be done to mitigate issues? Will existing policies, procedures, working practices, culture, budgets, job designs, effort, satisfaction, or prospects be impacted by the changes? Do you have a communication plan that will make the change agents visible and accessible? What can you do to ensure communications are timely and consistent? Who will be responsible for listening and learning during the change process? How will you collect stakeholder input? Will you communicate and interact with people both one-on-one and in groups? Who will you target for communications? How can the "who, what, where, how, when, and why?" model help you improve your communications? What media and channels will you use for communications? How will you match media and channel preferences to communication receivers? What can you do to reinforce communications? Is a training plan part of your approach? What logistics issues should you anticipate or prepare for? How will you handle both active and passive resistance to the changes? How will feedback be obtained and handled throughout the process? What will you do to monitor changes both during and after implementation?
  14. Sometimes the friction between sales and fulfillment results in the company being afraid that someone might say something in the proposal that the company can’t deliver in order to make the sale. I see this often at engineering companies, where the customer’s concerns can deviate from the engineering realities. A proposal is supposed to be written from the customer’s perspective and address their concerns. But what about the engineering realities? The truth is that there is no conflict. But there is a lack of understanding. And the result can be decisions that do more harm than good. Proposal writing is not about saying whatever needs to be said to win. Proposal writing is about putting things in context. It is a lot like translation. Proposal writing is about putting your solution in terms that the customer will understand and that show the alignment between your features and their concerns. In many ways it is merely an extension of engineering, since it begins with understanding the requirements and measures its success by how well it addresses them, just like engineering does. One key difference is that for proposal writing, the evaluation criteria and procurement process are part of the requirements assessment. I could probably make the case that this is not different from including supply chain considerations or alternatives assessments in an engineering methodology, but I’m not trying to convince anyone that proposal writing is the same as engineering. What I am trying to do is show that there are enough similarities to make an integrated process-driven approach better than fighting over who should control the writing. When companies have their engineers write their proposals but don’t train them to understand what drives the evaluation process, they get poorly engineered proposals that do not meet the requirements of the end user. In other words, they lose. Engineers can be great proposal contributors. In fact, great proposals require strong technical contributions. But proposal quality is based on the procurement process and not simply on the offering design. It requires both to be addressed. You can teach your engineers to understand proposal development, or you can teach them to work with people who do. Either way, you need a process that defines and validates proposal quality. If engineering does not address fitness for purpose, it is not good engineering. And you can’t have a great proposal without having a well-designed offering. When companies try to handle everything from offering design, approach validation, RFP compliance, and bid strategy effectiveness to proofreading in a single review, it can be worse than not having a review at all. A better approach is to have multiple reviews to validate specific criteria like whether the approach as written reflects an approved offering design. When companies try to do engineering in writing, they are just asking for trouble. The design of your offering and the design of your proposal are two separate things. Is there any engineering methodology that recommends designing things by writing narratives about them? Don’t let your engineers do this and call it proposal writing. Don’t let your proposal writers do this. First design your offering to fulfill the relevant requirements. Then write about how your offering fulfills those requirements and is the customer's best alternative. The implementation of engineering benefits from also having a quality methodology. The implementation of a proposal process benefits from having a quality methodology. The success of your integration of your engineering and proposal practices can be proven by your quality methodologies. Any concerns or debates about how to interpret the requirements that drive both engineering and proposals, as well as whether the work product produced reflects them, should be addressed by defining quality criteria and applying them to the proposal. The debate you should be having is not who should write the proposal. It’s not about control. The debate you should be having is about what a quality proposal is, what concerns need to be addressed in producing a proposal, and how to validate the proposal that is produced. The debate you should be having is about what defines proposal quality and what your proposal quality criteria should be. If you can’t engineer the right proposal quality criteria, you shouldn’t be trying to produce a proposal.
  15. Most of the proposals companies ask us to review have one or more of these issues. This means that most proposal writers have one or more of these bad habits. Simply fix these bad habits and you will make a dramatic improvement in your proposal writing. Once you’ve broken the habit, you can flip each one around and find a best practice hiding inside. Don’t state a universal truth by way of introduction. Avoid the temptation of starting off by saying something that is obviously and universally true, like “quality is vital for the success of this contract.” This is equally true of your competitors, and says nothing to make you a better alternative. If the statement is true, then start off by saying what you’ll do about it. That matters far more to the customer than what you were going to say. Take credit for owning the solution. Frame the issue with insight instead of something that does not differentiate your proposal one bit. Add value. Don’t state your commitment or intentions. Don’t be committed to customer satisfaction, quality, risk mitigation, etc. Deliver them. If it’s important, then don’t promise it, do it. Show commitment instead of intent. Which do you find more compelling, a vendor’s intentions or their credible and verifiable approach to delivering what you want? Likewise, don’t promise, believe, look forward to, hope, or otherwise say what you’d like to happen instead of saying what you are going to do. And don’t make your proposal about your mission or values, since those are essentially intentions. Prove your intentions through the results your actions will deliver, instead of making unverifiable empty promises, even if your intentions are good. Don’t tell the customer about themselves. Don’t tell the customer what their mission, needs, or requirements are. Don't write your proposal like a lab report in school. Instead, show insight into how to achieve these things. The customer looks to a proposal to find out how what is offered will help them achieve their mission and fulfill their needs. They do not look to a proposal to discover their mission, or to see if you can repeat it. Simply describing their requirements does not add value or help them make their decision. It does not show understanding. Understanding is best shown by results. If you deliver the right results, the customer will know that you understand. But seeing that you copied and pasted something from their website doesn’t give them any confidence in your understanding. Don’t make your proposal about you. It’s easy to get tricked when the RFP says to describe your company and offering. But what the customer really needs is to know why your offering is the best alternative and what makes it credible. Most of the details they request are so they can evaluate your credibility. They aren’t really interested in you. They are interested in what you can do for them. Make your proposal about the customer and what they will get as a result of accepting your proposal. The easiest way to do this is to never describe yourself. Describe what matters to the customer about your qualifications and approaches. Prove that they can trust you to deliver. But don’t make your proposal about you. Make it about the customer. And while you are at it, don’t waste their time saying things like you are pleased to submit your proposal. That’s obvious, adds no value, imposes extra reading on the evaluator, and does not reflect the customer’s perspective. If you want to reflect the customer’s perspective, start off by saying what they are going to get if they accept your proposal. Don’t build to the finish. What you learned in school can lead to bad proposal writing. What the customer needs to see in a proposal is what you offer. Then they read the details to see if they can trust you to deliver it. When writing proposals, the conclusion should come first. If it comes last, it is just a wrap up and not an offer. They may not see it at all. Building to the finish does not reflect the customer’s perspective, what they want to see, or how they approach reading a proposal. Don’t make unsubstantiated claims, especially grandiose ones. If you call yourself unique, you better prove it. Otherwise you hurt your credibility. Don’t claim to be state-of-the-art or innovative. Prove that you are through the results your approaches deliver. When you are selecting a vendor by reading proposals, you are less likely to select the one that sounds like a television commercial than one that shows insight. A good way to avoid making unsubstantiated claims is to avoid describing your company at all. Instead, talk about what you will do or deliver. Details about your company only matters as proof that you can deliver. If what you do or deliver is exceptional, and the way you do or deliver it is credible and differentiated, you will be the customer’s best alternative, even if you don’t make grandiose claims about yourself. The reverse is not true. Don’t use slogans. When used in the narrative portion of a proposal, slogans and tag lines are all unsubstantiated claims unless you are somehow using one in a proof point or summary. In a proposal, slogans don’t even support your branding because they make you look like someone who is willing to put selling ahead of talking about how you’ll fulfill the customer’s needs. In a proposal, slogans and tag lines don’t characterize what you are presenting. They just get in the way, create extra reading, and can make the customer skeptical of your trustworthiness. What makes proposals different from other marketing materials is that you are not positioning unspecified services against unspecified customers with unspecified needs and unspecified actions where a high-level statement adds structure. In a proposal, you are speaking to a specific customer to address their needs and help them make a decision. Slogans don’t help with decision making. The customer gets no value from slogans used in a proposal. Instead, just be your slogan. Let your proposal prove it. But make your proposal about the customer and not what you think you need to say.