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7 sources of proposal stress and how to fix them

Since stress reduces your proposal win rate, reducing stress becomes part of how you win

Stress is unhealthy for your win rate — never mind it also being unhealthy for the people working on proposals. If you want to maximize your win rate, you can't ignore the things in your organization and environment that make proposals more stressful than they need to be. The benefit to your company's win rate is what should make reducing stress a corporate priority. However, you can't just reduce stress by telling everyone to calm down. Have you ever noticed that telling people to calm down has the opposite effect?

So let's look below the surface and see what's at the root of proposal stress:

See also:
Dealing with Adversity
  1. People, expectations, and trust. Doing a proposal is easy. Doing a proposal with other people is hard. What makes it hard is that everyone has different expectations. Expectation conflict is the biggest source of proposal friction. Repeated expectation conflict is what produces trust issues. When people on a proposal don’t trust their coworkers or The Powers That Be, it’s because they have had too many expectation conflicts with them. Friction related to mismatched expectations causes some stress. But a lack of trust causes a lot more stress. It also eats away at the organization’s culture. The way to prevent this isn’t to focus on everybody being “trustworthy,” but rather to focus on expectation management. Everyone has expectations and they flow in all directions. Bringing them to the surface is critical. They can’t be declared or imposed, but they absolutely must be articulated.
  2. Uncertainty. Subjective reviews have arbitrary outcomes. Not knowing what it will take to pass proposal reviews causes stress for the people responsible for submitting content that passes the review. Not knowing what to write about causes stress for proposal writers. Combining the two causes paralysis. Add in a touch of not knowing when the customer will answer questions, how much the RFP might change, and whether the deadline will be extended. Finally not knowing what to expect from other people you are dependent on or how to define “done” and it’s no wonder that proposals seem stressful! Underlying it all is simple uncertainty. For a better proposal experience, focus less on whether you have done everything “you are supposed to do” and focus more on reducing uncertainty for everyone (including yourself) at all levels.
  3. Time. The deadline is the deadline. The clock is ticking. The closer you are to the deadline, the higher the risk of any issues that occur. This also applies to expectation mismatches. The closer the deadline, the more risk, and the more stress caused by any previously unknown expectation mismatches. The entire proposal process can be thought of as an exercise in time and expectation management. 
  4. Decision fatigue. A typical proposal involves hundreds of trade-off decisions regarding what to propose and how to present it. Sometimes I wonder if the irrational desire to automate proposals stems more from decision fatigue than it does the desire to make proposal work go faster. Streamlining proposal decisions by making them criteria based and mapping contingencies can do far more to improve your proposals than turning them into an assembly line.
  5. Fear and blame. A culture of fear is by far the largest contributor to proposal stress. And the number one symptom that an organization has a culture of fear is that the people working on proposals obsess over CYA. It also shows up in people avoiding decisions, avoiding working on proposals, seeking permission to do routine things, and seeing authority as the most important thing required to get proposals done. Focusing on expectations is a good approach because it works for both consensus-driven and authoritative environments. It also reduces arbitrary and random interactions.
  6. Interpretation. The RFP rules all, but they can be woefully unclear and require interpretation that comes with inherent risk. The same is true, hopefully to a lesser degree, in your proposal process documentation, assignments, and even the things people say. The more emotionalism that seeps into people’s interpretations, the more stress will result. In extreme cases, interpretation can lead to catastrophizing. Encouraging people to look past interpretation to what is objectively real can help.
  7. Personality. I wasn’t going to mention this as a source of stress, but even when expectations are clear, the proposal process reduces uncertainty, and people aren’t working in fear of being blamed, some people are easier to be around than others. Protocols and procedures for how people interact can help. The way we talk to each other can either act as a lubricant or as an impediment to working together. And while you can’t change another person’s personality, you can set an example. 

Most attempts to reduce the stress in the proposal environment involve not showing the stress. Pushing it down doesn’t resolve the stress and may actually make it worse. Fortunately, there are some things you can do. They are not quick or easy, and won’t produce immediate results. But providing a light at the end of the tunnel, or the possibility of a better future, can have the biggest impact on reducing stress. 


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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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