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4 key reasons why proposal assignments don't get completed

Don’t let feeling let down or defensive get in the way of winning

We like to think that when someone didn’t fully complete an assignment on time even though they accepted it, it was just a problem with motivation. It’s easy to throw shade. But experience shows us that it’s more complicated than that. 

It’s also easy to assume there’s an easy solution, like better deadline “enforcement” by The Powers That Be. Or that people should “just follow” the process. But experience shows us that it’s more complicated than that.

The key to being able to make improvements is to get to the root causes of assignment failure, and not to assume reasons or solutions. The root causes are often pretty basic:

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1) The person receiving the assignment isn’t capable of fulfilling it

Maybe it’s a lack of training reducing their effectiveness. That can be fixed, but only if you anticipate the need and do something about it. Just muddling through with staff trying to figure things out as they go will reduce quality.

Maybe it’s something else that makes them not capable of completing their writing assignments on time. If you give them the assignment anyway, hoping they can stretch and complete it anyway, the proposal will suffer if they can’t. How are you going to prevent that? How can you tell the difference between able to stretch and not able to stretch that far? What can you do to help them make the stretch? 

Sometimes people aren’t capable of completing their assignments effectively, but they either don’t realize it or they aren’t willing to say it. Maybe they think it’s better to give it a try than to look like they don’t “want” to contribute. Asking directly won’t help. You’ll need to ask probing questions about what they plan to write, what it will address, how it will be presented, and when you can check in on them informally to see if there are signs of evasion.

If you don’t have clarity about the capability of your contributors, you are already in trouble. Gaining that clarity should be a priority. Waiting until a review increases your risk instead of lowering it. Keep in mind that you’re not looking to just get something written, you’re looking to get something written that will win. It’s extra challenging understanding what a person’s proposal contribution capabilities are when you haven’t worked with them before. But understanding what you have to work with early enough to do something about it is often the difference between winning and losing.

2) Things changed

Circumstances change. Things pop up, whether business or personal, and they aren’t always predictable. This is especially true for your star contributors, because they are the most in demand. 

Another place you need clarity is regarding priorities. This should come from The Powers That Be to ensure they aren’t assumptions or preferences. Or subject to debate. If the priorities are set well, then it will be clear what must be done so that action can be taken more quickly. 

The problem with avoiding priority conflicts is that it often involves saying, “No.” Some people, including executives, really struggle with that. They’d rather have everything done “good enough,” than to say “No” to something. The problem is that there is no such thing as “good enough” in proposal writing. There is only what it will take to win. Losing because you shorted the proposal some hours that cost the company a tiny fraction of the cost of the proposal sucks. But what sucks worse is when you compare the cost of resolving the priority conflict with the cost of the lost revenue. 

Priority conflicts can be difficult to untangle. Instead of focusing on expedience, try to focus on ROI. Multiply your win rate by the anticipated award value and compare that to your overall cost of pursuit so you can be mathematically clear on what resolving the conflict is worth. 

It helps to discuss contingencies ahead of time and gain some clarity on what the priorities are. It also helps to be decisive and quick when unexpected changes do occur.

3) They were never going to do it

Some staff are so overloaded that they are shorting everyone. Usually, they are trying to do the best they can. For proposals, this creates a conflict over whether that will be enough to win. But sometimes they not only know when they accept the assignment that they’ll be incomplete or late, they also have an attitude that you’ll just have to accept it because that is all they have to give.

Sometimes they just want you to know their excuse for failing ahead of time. Sometimes people assign a lower priority to the assignment you give them than you do, and they don’t bother to tell you. Sometimes people will passively accept an assignment and aggressively respond when they are late or it’s incomplete. 

Understanding their constraints is the secret to determining what kind of assignments to give them and whether to coax them along with assistance or add pressure. Sometimes you are just better off without them. What good is it to put extra effort you don’t have into getting an assignment completed if it’s not going to be done well enough to win? And sometimes you can’t replace them because they are your key subject matter experts. Before you try to apply pressure, try to understand their constraints regarding time, capacity, capability, and personality. Maybe there are ways around those constraints they haven’t thought of. Maybe you can just get the information you need from them and have someone else do the writing. 

Maybe you can use them as a reviewer instead. This can be dangerous if they also have the attitude that only they know the right way to do things and whatever is brought to them is going to be all wrong. But sometimes you can work a section in stages, by discussing what is going to be written and how it is going to be presented, followed by an early informal draft, and then a more formal draft.

4) There was an expectation mismatch

If people don’t bring you what you need after saying that they will, there is an expectation mismatch. Either they did not understand your expectations, your expectations were not feasible, or something else got in the way. In any event, they failed at delivery because you failed in expectation management. 

You can do something about that. You can describe your expectations. You can coax them to describe theirs. But you will still run into conflicts, because expectation fulfillment is often a subjective thing.

When people are conflicted over unfulfilled expectations, they often don’t handle it well. They feel let down, irritated, and defensive. You need to separate their reaction from what needs to be done.

When you have an expectation conflict, ask yourself whether your assessment is real if it is based on interpretation. When talking to other people, ask them to do the same. 

Is it real? Is that true? Or is it an interpretation?

Was the reason that they missed a deadline really that they “don’t take deadlines seriously?” Or is that your interpretation? It might be real that the deadline wasn’t their top priority. But why was that? And is your reason for that also true? Or is that also an interpretation? What are their priorities? Are you making assumptions or do you know because you’ve discussed them?

This is especially important for small businesses and proposal teams. You might be tempted to claim that someone “always does this” or that you “knew they were going to do that.” But that’s not real or true. And if they are true, why did you give them the assignment without mitigating the risks? It is even more important to depersonalize expectation management when you work with the same people over and over again.

Once you can separate the truth at the core of the conflict from people's feelings about it, you can do something about it. Because what happened doesn’t matter nearly as much as what needs to be done next to win before the proposal deadline. Try not to get overly distracted by who said what, what assumptions were made, what was justified, who was to blame, what changed, or what was unexpected, because now you not only need a new plan, you need a new set of expectations. And since your expectations were either wrong or not communicated with sufficient clarity for the receiver the first time, you need to adjust and try again.

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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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