Our last proposal was terrible. What should we do to improve the next one?

Nobody wants to repeat a terrible proposal experience

Early in my career, after a terrible proposal experience, I’d focus on improving the proposal process because that is what I had control over. I thought with the right procedures and enough dedication to them we could fix any problem. There are a couple of problems with that:

  • The proposal process is not sequential. It is goal driven. You won’t be successful focusing exclusively on the steps.
  • There is more to success than following procedures.

Over time I discovered that what you should do to try to prevent a terrible proposal experience from recurring depends on the type of problem that caused it. Here are 5 things you can do based on the root cause:

See also:
Successful Process Implementation
  1. If you didn’t have the resources you needed, learn to speak the language of return on investment (ROI). Properly resourcing a proposal will return far more than the cost. Under resourcing a proposal will lose far more than it saves. This can be proven mathematically if you understand ROI and the math related to win rates.
  2. If you started at RFP release or got a late start, consider how you approach capture management. Being ready at RFP release requires a leader who can integrate every part of the company in the solutioning. This is what a capture manager does. Introducing capture management involves more than just hiring someone. Done properly it changes how a company goes about preparing to win a proposal.
  3. If assignments were late, consider all the possible reasons. It's not simply a matter of having better enforcement of deadlines. There are many reasons why proposal assignments don’t get done properly and there is no single answer for what to do about it. Cracking the code on effectively tasking and performing proposal assignments is critical to proposal success.
  4. If the proposal writers produced non-compliant or inadequate drafts, consider your approach to planning the proposal content. Did they have anything beyond the RFP to guide them? Did they have all the ingredients they needed? Did they know what they were supposed to prove? Did they know what context to put things in or how to position them? If they couldn’t answer these questions before they put pen to paper, they were destined to fail. Writing draft after draft until you run out of time is not a recipe for proposal success. Just a couple of hours spent on proposal content planning can have a huge impact on the outcome.
  5. If the proposal blew up during the review process, consider creating quality criteria to guide the review process. Doing this works best if you also address your approach to planning the proposal content before writing it. Can the proposal reviewers articulate what they should be looking for? If they can, why can’t they inform the writers before the writing starts? Proposal reviewers will rarely admit they don’t know what they are looking for, so instead involve them in the effort to create a set of proposal quality criteria for the proposal. They may be learning instead of contributing, but we don’t have to dwell on that. Let’s just be collaborative and involve the stakeholders to define quality in terms of what it will take to win this proposal. Once on paper, your proposal quality criteria can be used like a checklist to validate proposal quality by both writers and reviewers.

What about training?

Training helps with everything, but solves nothing. Training will make your future proposal experiences somewhat better, but will not eliminate the problems that lead to proposal tragedies, like resourcing, late starts, inadequate drafts, and disruptive reviews. The amount that training helps will depend on whether the training focuses on knowledge of the process and awareness, skills enhancement, or cultural issues. The wrong focus will reduce the effectiveness of the training.

Don’t ignore culture

The culture of the organization has a major impact on how people set their priorities. No amount of process or training can overcome a flawed culture that sets the wrong priorities. And while proposal management can influence the culture, at least as it relates to proposal development, cultural change requires executive leadership. Even if the executive leadership has ignored corporate culture in the past, good executive leadership will recognize the importance of creating a culture of growth.

Achieving real change

You can’t achieve real change without changing the culture. To change the culture you’ll need to retrain everybody, but this does not necessary mean doing it in the classroom.

Real change rarely starts there unless it’s initiated at the executive level. Grassroots change happens by shifting the language people use to one based on ROI, introducing capture management, learning how to make assignments effective, figuring out how to plan your proposal before writing it, and defining proposal quality criteria. Focus on these things and you lay the foundation for cultural change when people recognize the need.

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Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, 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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