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Technical proposal writing vs. solutions architecting

They are not the same, and combining them and doing them at the same time can be disastrous...

Solutioning is figuring out what to offer the customer to solve their problem or address their need. However, in practice, it really involves incorporating subject matter expertise to figure out what to propose. While the term implies creating the solution for proposals that address customer problems, it is similar to systems architecting or offering design. We’re using the term solutioning to cover all of them just to keep it simple.

Solutioning may not be needed in every proposal. Sometimes the customer tells you exactly what you should propose. Some RFPs specifically ask for solutions to problems. Others ask for approaches to achieve the customer’s goals. The more complex, technical, or uncertain things get, the more likely you’ll need help from a specialist who can solve what to offer.

How to tell when you need solutioning

See also:
Technical Approach

Here are some signs that you need solutioning prior to proposal writing. Does the RFP tell you:

  • How many people to bid?
  • What the level of effort will be?
  • Everything that your staff should do?
  • Desired quality standards, but not how to achieve them?
  • About problems the customer has with an expectation that you will propose how to solve them?

Or does the RFP tell you what to accomplish but not:

  • What approaches to take?
  • How much effort will be required?
  • How trade-offs should be made?

The more technically challenging the requirement, the more expert participation you’ll need. 

Another consideration is that the subject matter experts are often the ones who will be performing the work and are stakeholders in ensuring that what gets proposed is feasible. Even if you think you know what should be offered, it might be a good idea to involve the stakeholders. 

Solutioning and proposal writing are not the same

While there are some subject matter experts who can do proposal writing, they shouldn’t do solutioning by writing about it. Figuring out your solution or what you plan to offer by writing about it is not only bad engineering, it’s a recipe for proposal disaster. If you don’t figure out what to offer and validate it before you start writing, you condemn yourself to re-write after re-write based on every change to your offering in search of something that will win. It never comes because you run out of time. Solutioning by writing about it can ruin a perfectly winnable proposal.

Solutioning should be completed and validated before proposal writing starts. This means you should figure out what to offer and then review it to make sure it's what the company thinks will win and is what it wants to propose. Figuring out what to offer can be thought of as an engineering process if that matches the nature of your offering. Or it can be thought of as a business process improvement effort. Or a design effort. Or an implementation planning effort. It depends on the nature of what your company does and what the RFP requires. The level and type of documentation required will also vary. 

Proposal writing can start when you have enough of a description of the components of your offering to describe them. It usually does not require the same level of detail as pricing. It may simply require a few answers to questions or details that aren’t obvious to be worked out. Once you know what you will be offering, proposal writing can be done either by the subject matter expert or by a proposal writer. Proposal writing involves different skills than solutioning and not everyone has enough of both skills to do it all. Even when a subject matter expert is also doing proposal writing, the solution needs to be validated before writing starts in order to avoid unnecessary and risky writing and review iterations.

What to do about it

Make your assignments clear. People often assume that a proposal assignment is a writing assignment. This is not always the case. Consider:

  • Someone needs to determine how the solution should be documented prior to writing. Less is better, but it needs to be enough to validate that the solution will not need to be changed later.
  • Someone needs to validate the solution. Is this a person, perhaps the executive sponsor, or is a team? Who can decide that the solution is correct, competitive, and what the company wants to offer without the need to change it later? 
  • A solution might be a list of steps for an approach, the number of staff required, the schedule, or implementation details. An assignment might just be providing details like these at the bullet level.
  • A proposal writer might be able to complete most of a section without input, but need answers to questions to complete it. An assignment might just be to provide answers to the questions.
  • For more complex bids, a subject matter expert might be required to determine what needs to be done to be RFP compliant. Communicating and reviewing this should not require writing a narrative and should not take as long.
  • How will you integrate the solutioning into the proposal content plan? Once you have a validated solution, it becomes part of the input into proposal writing. Ideally it should be part of the input or instructions to proposal writers. For this to happen the description of the solution should easily drop into the proposal content plan, and the timing of solutioning and validation should be synchronized with the proposal content planning schedule.

Does all this really matter?

Only if you want to win. Only if you want to avoid having your proposals turn into train wrecks at the end because someone decided late in the game to change the solution resulting in last minute re-writes without any quality control. If you’ve lived through a proposal delivered in the final minutes there’s a good chance it was because solutioning wasn’t performed and validated prior to proposal writing.

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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, 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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