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11 lessons learned about life from a career spent working on proposals

The skills and abilities you need to win have much broader relevance

Proposals are deep. Understanding them and getting good at them requires skills that go beyond just getting words on paper. And the skills that you develop to write great proposals apply throughout life. This may be true of every profession. But here are some of the things I have learned from mine. 

I find no depth in simple rules for living. I'm not trying to write memes. Simple rules often gloss over important things and tend to be self-contradictory. I like to look at the core, at the root of what causes things, and seek to understand where things come from and how they relate. In the list below you will find many things that relate and work together. So instead of rules for life, this is a list of things to ponder. And you could spend the rest of your life pondering them. I know I will.

From a career spent working in and around proposals, I have learned that:

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Proposal Management
  1. Being considerate is more important than you realize. Only this is not the kind of being considerate that is synonymous with manners. It is the kind of consideration that involves thinking. Being able to consider things from the customer’s perspective is key to great proposal writing. Being able to see the proposal process from the perspective of proposal contributors is key to gaining process acceptance. Maximizing your perspective skills turns out to be beneficial well beyond proposals and in all aspects of life. Gaining perspective occurs mostly though consideration. Applying consideration to your customer, proposal contributors, family, friends, or strangers requires thinking about things from their point of view so that you can reconsider your own. The more perspectives you consider, the wiser you become. 
  2. You should never stop growing. Proposals matter because growth is the source of all opportunity for a contractor. This turns out to be true in life as well. Without growth there is only stagnation and decline. For contractors, growth comes from winning proposals. In life, growth comes from accomplishment. The difference is less than you might think. People who resist change, resist growth. In life we can define accomplishment broadly, but we should always be seeking it. And as a result we should always be growing in ways that bring the good kind of change.
  3. Everything we do revolves around values. All decisions regarding proposals, from staffing, to priorities, to action items, should all be made on the basis of ROI. Most of the decisions we make in life are also ROI decisions. The difference is that in life we can consider far more than monetary returns. The more clearly you can articulate your values, the better informed your decisions will be. However, the values that most people articulate do not reflect the way they behave. There are other items on this list dealing with perspective and cognitive dissonance that can help you spot your true values. Bringing this back to proposals and the world of business, look at your company’s mission statement for an example of values being articulated that don’t match people’s behavior. 
  4. Interacting with other people depends more on expectations than it depends on procedures. Nearly all of the friction encountered when working on proposals comes from mismatches in people’s expectations. If you want a better process that leads to a better proposal experience and results in a higher win rate, focus on discovering, articulating, and refining expectations instead of focusing on the steps. Prioritize clarity and consideration of expectations, because they flow in every direction. If I don’t consider your expectations when I issue an assignment, it’s not going to achieve the best results. All stakeholder expectations should be considered by all the stakeholders. Giving more clarity and consideration to expectations reduces friction and improves outcomes. This is true throughout life in working with and getting along with other people.
  5. Working through others is a critical skill. Working in proposals requires working through other people. You can’t create a proposal bigger than yourself if you don’t depend on other people’s contributions. Doing things yourself is easy. Doing things through other people is hard. This is something else that is also true in life. You can see how perspective, consideration, and expectations all interplay when working through others. 
  6. Being good at conflict resolution makes you better at problem solving. Not all conflicts can be anticipated or prevented. How you handle those conflicts impacts the success of your proposals as well as your relationships in life. Being able to resolve conflicts means looking deeper than what’s on the surface to address the real problem and then translating a solution into the interests of the other people involved to find common ground. If you can do this, you have all the skills to write great proposals. And to work past the difficulties you will face in life.
  7. Why is more important than what. Writing about the reasons why you do the things you do often matters more to a proposal evaluator than the things themselves. Being clear on the reasons why you do things is likewise often more important to yourself than what you end up doing. And being able to explain those reasons to others is the same. Focus on “why.”
  8. Asking the right questions is key. The entire pursuit process can be expressed as a series of questions. Often this works better than trying to chart the process, because “the process” is really just a flow of information. When writing proposals, trying to consider the customer’s perspective often starts with questions like “what is it they are looking for” or “what matters about this to the customer.” Every item on this list can be delved into deeper by applying inquiry. Just for fun, go through each of your thoughts on each item and ask yourself, “Is it true?”
  9. Integration is how we make things work. Great proposals are fully integrated. There is a concept of operations and a story about it that gets woven into each section of the proposal. The context of every feature and benefit is related so that they add up to something compelling. People work the same way. Everything you learn must be integrated and compatible with every other thing you have ever learned. If you don’t practice the things you think you believe and make them all work together you’ll have disconnects between your emotions and behavior and your beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is believing two things at the same time that conflict with each other. Whether you realize it or not, cognitive dissonance shows up in all kinds of negative ways. Just a like a great proposal requires integration, so does fulfilling your potential in life.
  10. Everything is training and learning is continuous. The pursuit process is a learning process. Learning what it will take to win that pursuit. Learning how to best execute the process. Learning what must be done. Learning over time how to improve your win rate. It never ends because you will always be improving your win rate. Instead of creating a process and thinking you’re done when you’ve listed the steps, try creating a platform for learning. Continuous learning applies to life as well. Only it shouldn’t just be random learning. Inquiry, perspective, and integration are what lead to continuous growth.
  11. Translation is critical for successful communication. In many ways, proposal writing is translation. It’s taking your ideas and translating them into what the customer needs to hear in order to reach their decision. Proposal development requires translating the RFP so that non-specialist contributors can understand it. And then translating their technical language back into something the evaluators will understand. All while translating the language into something integrated that reflects the customer’s perspective. If the receiver doesn’t process the communication the way you intended, then communication hasn’t occurred. This also is true in life. Translation is far more than just language skills. It’s really about idea skills. Can you reconfigure your ideas to match a new context and then reconfigure them again in order to shift the perspective and finally communicate them successfully? This happens both when you communicate to someone else, and when you receive communication and are trying to process it. It can even happen when you are trying to understand your own thoughts.

Master the things on this list and winning proposals will come naturally. And life will be better and full of accomplishment as well. Your proposals will be full of customer awareness. And your own awareness, of both yourself and your world, will expand greatly. At the very least, you’ll never look at proposals the same way 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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