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Don’t make these 19 proposal process mistakes

Is your proposal process built on a shaky foundation?

Everyone says they have a proposal process. But all of them have problems. In many ways, the proposal process is something that is in continual development. It’s not something you write down and are done with.

But what should concern you is that most of the hundreds of proposal process implementations I have seen have critical flaws. I’m not talking about the mistakes you already know not to make in creating a proposal. I’m talking about mistakes in how you’ve constructed your proposal process. 

These are flaws that will cause them to plateau and be unable to reach a higher win rate. Not being able to improve your win rate limits the ROI the proposal function can offer to your company. The difference between a 30% win rate and a 40% win rate is a 25% compounded rate of growth --- without any more leads than what you currently have. If you don’t know what that means, run it by your finance department and ask them to show you how those numbers would impact your company. 

You don’t want mistakes in your process getting in the way of that kind of growth. You want to be leading the charge to make the changes that will deliver that kind of growth.


See also:
Proposal Management
  1. Build your proposal process around your schedule. It seems like working from the calendar and the amount of time you have might be a good place to start, but it is misleading. Schedule drives how you implement your process. It should not drive how you design the process itself. The proposal process is based on what it will take to win. And that really doesn’t change whether you have less than a week or more than a month to prepare your proposal. Certainly, time and resources change. But what you need to accomplish remains the same.
  2. Define roles based on the people you have. What it will take to win remains the same whether you are on your own, working with two other people, or have a team with dozens of people or more. The things that need to be done remain the same. You just do them with more or less formality, skip more or less of them, and do them in more or less detail. Define your roles based on what it will take to win and then allocate that to the resources you have. It will become clear pretty quick whether you’ll be doing more or less. But that clarity is valuable feedback.
  3. Build your proposal around steps instead of goals. Steps often break in practice. But the goals should remain the same. The steps you take to accomplish your goals can be flexible. Goals inform the steps and give people more insight regarding what to do than a step like “Complete your proposal writing assignment(s).” The goal is not to write. The goal is to write something that fulfills your proposal quality criteria.
  4. Fail to define quality. If you don’t define proposal quality in writing, you leave it to people’s individual opinions and will get inconsistent outcomes and ineffective reviews.
  5. Fail to start by assessing your input. If you don’t assess the input you have to work with, you won’t ever get any input. Not only that, but instead of thinking about what you have and don’t have, people will just start making things up to fill the gaps. This tends to degrade into inconsistent, unplanned, uncoordinated proposals that have lots of unsubstantiated claims and are written with as little substance as possible.
  6. Build your proposal process around more than one draft. A proposal process based on draft cycles will degrade into a writing without creating a content plan or trying to discover what the proposal should be by writing and re-writing. Either way, it will not maximize your win rate.
  7. Make your proposal process up as you go along. If you identify phases, claim you have a process, and then make it up as you go along trying to be relatively consistent each time, you do not have a process. You have a way of doing things. If no one else can implement the process, then you have no process.
  8. Start from boilerplate. If you don’t know the win strategies, the points you are trying to make, and how you want to position things, you are even ready to consider boilerplate. If you start by loading up the proposal with recycled content, instead of thinking through what it will take to win, you might get a proposal that’s good enough to submit. Good enough to submit may be enough to look like you’re doing your job, but it is not competitive and is a great way to ruin your win rate.
  9. Fail to articulate what it will take to win before you start writing. You can’t prove it if you don’t know what it is. If you don’t start from being able to articulate your strategies, then you risk writing and re-writing and never finding them before you run out of time. Proposals that start this way tend to end up literally pointless. You don’t want a proposal that is a collection of beneficial sounding platitudes wrapped around statements that the company will do what it says in the RFP. You don’t just want a process that creates a proposal. You want a process that discovers what it will take to win and then creates a proposal based on it.
  10. Focus on abstract concepts like themes instead of tangible realities like differentiators. Themes are good. Usually. If they don’t degrade into beneficial sounding platitudes that do nothing to help you win. This is especially true when you are working with proposal contributors who don’t understand how to win. Differentiators are easier to understand and assess. Push for differentiators instead of settling for the same themes everyone else uses. 
  11. Ignore scalability. Since what you need to do to win is the same for a large proposal and a small proposal, a short proposal and a long proposal, you need a process that scales. You don’t need a different process for each. Since what changes is the availability of resources and time, create a process that enables each activity to be done with different levels of resources and effort while working towards the same goals.
  12. Put the proposal manager in charge of reviews. You might need a refresher on the difference between quality control and quality assurance. A proposal manager can provide quality control. But a manager can’t provide quality assurance for their own projects. If you want quality assurance, a proposal manager shouldn’t be leading, training, conducting, or participating in the proposal reviews. Quality assurance requires a perspective outside the proposal effort, that can consider whether the goals for the proposal at that stage have been accomplished without considering the compromises it took to get there. Your company needs quality assurance in the proposal process because it needs to validate that the proposal is what the company wants it to be. Your long-term win rate depends on it.
  13. Give the proposal manager writing assignments. If a proposal manager is writing, that proposal manager is not managing. Can they do a little of both? Definitely. Do you really want only a little bit of your proposals to be managed?
  14. Make excuses for not following your own process. If on every proposal you do not follow the process as it is written, you have the wrong process. Or more accurately, you do not have a process. What you defined as the process has not been implemented. Instead you are making it up as you go along and making excuses at the expense of your win rate. When you catch yourself explaining why this proposal requires a different approach and you’re doing it on every proposal, you need to throw out your process and start over. It means your process is based on the wrong assumptions.
  15. Fail to build the foundation for tomorrow. You’ve got to start somewhere. No company, department, or proposal ever has the resources it needs. But if you build your process around what you’ve got to work with, it will hold you back. It won’t adapt as your organization grows. Don’t build your process around the people and resources you have. Build it around what it will take to win and allocate the effort to accomplish that to what you have to work with. That way, as things change, you can reallocate resources, add specialists, and drop them into an existing structure. It also provides valuable feedback regarding where adding resources can improve your win rate.
  16. Change your process each time you hire someone.  If you’re changing your process with each new hire, that’s a sign that your process was built around the people you had instead of what it will take to win. It’s also a sign that every proposal process you’ve had was merely a personal way of doing things. 
  17. Ignore performance measurement. Be data driven. Otherwise you’re either making assumptions or just guessing,  while claiming things are based on your “experience.” 
  18. Fail to speak in the language of ROI. Why do you need more resources? Why should more effort be put into delivering the input you need at the start of a proposal? Is your review process as effective as it could be? Is it worth planning before you write? Learn not only to quantity these things, but how to explain their contribution to maximizing return on investment (ROI). Companies invest in things that generate the largest return. The proposal function is potentially one of the largest contributors to ROI in your company. But you have to prove that. If you can’t speak the language of ROI, no one is going to listen.
  19. Trust people. A process that trusts people to do things correctly is a bad process. Just telling people what to do is not a process. A process should support people. It should wrap them in guidance, get them what they need to be successful, make it easier to achieve their goals by following the process than by going rogue, check their work, and make it impossible to fail. 

By the way, what to do to correct each and every one of these mistakes can be found on PropLIBRARY and in the MustWin Process.

How many of these mistakes does your company make? I’ve seen behind the curtains at how proposals are done at a few hundred companies. Every one made at least one of them. Most made several. And yes, some companies make all of them. Every single one is a chance to improve your win rate and maximize your ROI.

Choose the mistakes you will make. They may be necessary today, but they come with a price. If it impacts your win rate, that price could be orders of magnitude greater than what it would have taken to correct.

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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.

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