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Advanced proposal management: How to improve the proposal experience

There are reasons why people hate working on proposals

People perform better when they have the right support. Teams of people perform better when their collaboration is coordinated. 

The proposal process is only part of what is required to optimize the performance of proposal contributors. Proposal management begins with the implementation of a formal process. But that is just the beginning. It is only part of managing what it will take to win. It takes more than defining some steps and telling the proposal team what to do to and on what schedule.

Even though I had spent two decades defining and implementing the MustWin Process, when I built the first version of our MustWin Now proposal software I learned something profound. As I watched people use the software, the process disappeared. They were following the process, but they didn’t realize it. It wasn’t even their intent. They were just doing what it made sense to do. 

I learned some key lessons from observing how things worked when the process was no longer about using paper to create paper:

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Proposal Software
  • The best process is an invisible process. The more users have to be aware that there is a process, the more friction there is between them and simply doing things.
  • The user interface for your proposal matters more than the process. Note that by “user interface” I mean it in far more than just a technological sense. Even if you do not use any software to support your proposals, you have a user interface. For a given process, you can have many different user interfaces. But some will be much more effective than others.
  • It is entirely possible that if people won’t follow your process, the problem is your user interface and not your process.
  • When you stop thinking in terms of steps and process, and begin thinking in terms of how users interface with proposal development, you begin to see ways to improve performance that go beyond what is typically thought of as “process.”

Why people hate working on proposals

It’s not just because of the extra workload:

  • Collaboration is not reliable, let alone smooth. People can’t get a simple question answered, so it seems pointless to raise the elephant in the room as an issue.
  • The process breaks, shows gaps, or is clearly not applicable within minutes of use. We say we’re adapting it to every new proposal, but in reality we’re making it up as we go along within a loose framework. Our contributors see this and silently question our credibility.
  • No one is on the same page.
  • People are routinely tasked with things that they are not capable of doing. Some of them have given up before they’ve even started.
  • People spend a lot of the time they put into proposals not knowing what to do or even how to figure it out. 
  • Rework, which we all know should be unnecessary, happens so frequently it becomes expected.
  • Letting people who hate proposals start immediately writing to get the proposal out of the way ends up leading to extra rework cycles which simultaneously fail to get the proposal out of the way and lower your win rate, making people hate proposals even more.
  • Reviews are allowed to be subjective, which leads to even more unanticipated rework, all because of opinions that should have been expressed as proposal quality criteria at the beginning of the proposal. 
  • People who expect to get blamed for rework, or worse losing the proposal, spend as much effort on CYA as they do the proposal. Capture requires risk, which in turn requires tolerance. Teamwork requires trust. 
  • Any proposal training that people have received may be better than nothing. But it hasn’t solved any of these problems. It doesn’t even address most of them. It’s part of the reason proposals suck.
  • Because people hate working on proposals, they want to hand off and run away, leaving the proposal starved for input and timely contributions. This, of course, makes the experience for everyone left working on the proposal that much worse.
  • Last minute heroes who never helped planned the proposal but for some reason are allowed to change it all at the last minute. Enough said.
  • Etc.

Advanced proposal management is about going beyond the process. This is necessary because not all of the challenges can be solved with process alone. Advanced proposal management is about identifying and implementing the changes that are necessary in order to create proposals that reflect what it will take to win. Advanced proposal management leaves the proposal process behind in order to focus on the much broader proposal experience. In many ways, advanced proposal management is about solving the problems above by addressing everything the proposal process doesn’t:

  • What should the user experience for proposal contributors be to maximize the chances of success? What should working on proposals be like? What, in addition to the process, is necessary for team members to be capable of succeeding?
  • What do contributors and stakeholders need to know? People perform better when they know how. What guidance and inspiration can you provide so they perform even better? 
  • What makes people stuck, slows them down, or causes them to water down their contribution? Most people don’t start off intending to take the path of least resistance. They take it when they run into challenges. And if they can’t get help, they may take the path of least resistance in order to submit something. So what can you do to keep them on the path towards winning?  
  • Why should they care? It helps with motivation to understand how the outcome of the proposal affects people personally. Growth is the source of all opportunity for a contractor
  • What should contributors and stakeholders expect? Not knowing is the worst. Plus, that’s how bad surprises happen. Don’t let that happen to the people you depend on.
  • How do people get help? If it’s easier to water things down or take the path of least resistance rather than ask for help, you’ve got a problem.
  • But most importantly, what can their efforts accomplish? People understandably hate working on tasks that do not accomplish anything. Like a proposal that is doomed to failure. Or to be obligated to do something with benefits that are only theoretical. Every person in a company depends on its growth. Make it personal. And make it possible to accomplish. 

Instead of steps, the new version of MustWin Now is being built around an engine for managing people’s needs. Assignments are one form of need. Reviews and feedback are another, as are getting answers to questions. Instead of phases with matching tools, you just have needs and tools are only one way of getting them met. When you combine that with things that make interactions and performance easier, like tracking, prioritization, checklists, and discussion, you get a platform for interaction with tools that support the user’s ability to accomplish goals. At least that’s what we’re going for. We’ve still got a ways to go before release. We'll be launching an advance program for PropLIBRARY Subscribers who want to get to know it ahead of time. But hopefully I’ve shared enough here for those of you who haven't subscribed to use in improving your proposal experience, even if it’s fully manual.

Think beyond the process. Instead of thinking of streamlining in terms of assembly line automation, streamline the way people interact. Make sure that no one is left on their own, without support. Make that support easier to get than it is to work around or water down. Save people time by reducing all that talking in circles that happens at meetings, and turn it into creating something that facilitates forward progress.

Keep in mind that the team working on a proposal has the ability to completely change the experience. There are many things you have no control over. But the people working together control the experience you will all have working on the proposal together. The best proposal experiences happen when the team puts a little effort into each other as well as the proposal. And that in turn produces the best proposals.


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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.

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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