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How I ended up completely reengineering the entire proposal process. Twice.

It's not really about producing paper even though it seems that way

The first time I decided to throw out the proposal process and start over was in 2003, when something quite unexpected happened while I was giving a presentation at a conference to a group of my peers. I was talking about improving proposal red team reviews and I had some good tips that I was proud of. In the middle of talking I realized that all my tips, and anything I had ever heard anyone else ever say about proposal reviews, was simply coping with a broken process and none of it would actually fix anything. 

This somewhat terrifying moment led to me thinking about what it would really require to achieve proposal quality. I threw out the color team approach to proposal reviews and instead built a review methodology based on being able to define actual quality criteria for your proposals. Then I realized it needed a way to plan the proposal content around those criteria. After that I realized that the pre-RFP process also needed some structure in order to deliver the information that people need, which was now fully itemized. And thus, the MustWin Process was born in 2004. 

I spent the next 14 years expanding and improving the MustWin Process. I found ways to tweak it, but never found a structural problem with it. In fact, in 14 years I never found a better way to structure the proposal process.

It's not like I set out to do this...

In 2018, I was doing what amounted to some research and development related to doing the MustWin Process online. I was not creating proposal software. I didn’t even want to create proposal software. I had a mild interest in creating some online tools for implementing the MustWin Process. But I found a way to do a drag and drop compliance matrix online. And while the geek in me thought that was really cool technology, it doesn’t actually change the process.

I was wrong. In fact, it changes everything about the process. 

Over the next year, I had many surprise discoveries about how changing user interaction can change the process itself. What I learned became MustWin Now, a tool that brought the goals of the MustWin Process online but didn't try to do things the same way we have to do them on paper.

Once the compliance matrix is online, everything can be related to the proposal outline. Even the work you do before the RFP is released can get mapped to the proposal outline when it is created. Quality criteria, assignments, instructions for writers, issues, resources, and more. Not only is it all related to the outline, but it changes the process completely. It all goes from being a sequence to just being part of what goes into creating proposal sections.

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About MustWin Now

People don’t really follow steps to create a proposal. What they do is add value to the proposal as it grows from being an outline and becomes a document. They follow the RFP. They figure out how to articulate what it will take to win. They write to incorporate not only the RFP requirements, but a huge list of considerations that include things like differentiators, evaluation criteria, offering design, reasons for the customer to select you, features, benefits, proof points, win strategies, and more. 

Once the writing is done, proposal reviews should not be subjective opinion-fests, but should validate that everything that was supposed to go into the proposal made it in and fulfills the proposal quality criteria.

Doing this on paper is a nightmare. Nobody wants to create paper in order to create more paper called a proposal. When they resist, the cost is that the people working on the proposal don’t get the information they need to create a proposal that reliably reflects what it will take to win.

But doing it online makes it feel like you’re just answering the same questions people would ask gathered around a table discussing it. It’s not like doing paperwork in order to write. You’re just getting your thoughts and the information you need in order. 

It turns out that it's really about thinking and not producing paper. Paper is the last step. Not the first. The proposal process is about gathering the information you need, figuring out what to do about it, and validating that what you're doing reflects what it will take to win. Then you use what you figured out to put it on paper.

The result is a huge improvement to your first draft. As much as we can preach about the perils of figuring out what your proposal should be by writing endless drafts, with the hope of somehow tripping over it before you run out of time, people keep doing just that. But when you move it online people’s behavior changes in surprising ways. Doing a proposal online properly is nothing like just moving your paper-based process into the cloud. It changes what doing a proposal means.

Of course, people don’t immediately begin doing everything properly just the way they should every time. But even a little bit of better planning and better thinking makes a huge difference in the outcome. The ability to drive even just a few win strategies into the proposal with a few suggestions for maximizing the evaluation score makes a huge difference in the first draft.

When people sit around a table talking about these things it usually has little or no impact on what gets on paper. But when they create a section plan that they can have onscreen next to the windows they are writing in, the very first draft they produce reflects what it should. Reviews can validate whether anything got left out, but really they end up focusing on improvement instead of whether the proposal missed the mark. And the best part is, they aren’t following a process. They are just doing what feels natural --- getting their thoughts together and then writing against what amounts to a checklist.

So I find myself reengineering the proposal process for the second time

I’m reengineering the process in a way that doesn’t start from paper-based procedures. I'm doing it in a way that never would have occurred to me without a happy accident that led to me rethinking it all. Again. I’m reengineering it to support thinking, writing, and validation instead of moving paper. I’m not starting from “steps.” I’m not even starting by looking at what is needed to create a “proposal.” I’m starting from the user interface. What is the ideal user interface for winning in writing?

My second effort at reengineering is more about user interface design than it is about process design. Maybe that’s why proposal development hasn’t significantly changed in 30 years. Maybe it’s because it should have never been about the process. Maybe it should have been about user interaction from the beginning.


We're looking for a company that wants help getting ready for an RFP that is coming out, and who wants to do the best possible job of getting into position to win it. Then we want to help them create the winning proposal. We can use MustWin Now if you want, or we can use your existing corporate assets and we'll show you what we've learned about turning your insights into action. Reach out to us below and we can discuss options.
Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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A subscription to PropLIBRARY unlocks hundreds of premium content items including recipes, forms, checklists, and more to make it easy to turn our recommendations into winning proposals. Subscribers can also use MustWin Now, our online proposal content planning tool.

More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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