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What’s the difference between doing a small proposal and a large proposal?

If it's not the value and not the page count, then what is it?

There are a number of ways to look at the size of a proposal, but one is more helpful than the others. Page count doesn’t necessarily translate into difficulty or effort. Nor does the number of items being proposed or the dollar value.

You could focus on the difference between the way large companies do proposals and the way small companies do proposals, but that’s an illusion. The things you do to win a proposal remains the same regardless of the size. Large companies and small proposals follow pretty much the same steps because they have to. The dollar amounts are different, and maybe the number of people involved, but the approach is the same.

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Small Business

If you think the difference between a large proposal and a small proposal is the number of people involved, you’re getting close. But where do you draw the line? When does a proposal become large? Is it three people? Five people? Fifteen people? A hundred and fifteen people?

How about when the person managing the proposal can’t write it all because one person can’t possibly know about everything that needs to be written about? Some companies (or business units within larger companies) have one or a few people who write their proposals, and they know enough about what the company does that they can write it themselves. They operate very differently from a company where the proposal staff have to bring in subject matter experts to help them figure out what to write.

A small company might offer services in several different domains, or in just one domain that requires a high degree of expertise to figure out what to do, resulting in proposals that the proposal team can’t write without contributions from subject matter experts. A large company is more likely to cover multiple domains, but that doesn’t mean that all large companies do.

When the proposal specialists can write the proposal on their own, instead of focusing on discovering what to write, they focus on aligning the offering with what matters to the customer. When they can’t do it all themselves, they have to work through other people. This changes things dramatically and most companies do a poor job of making this transition.

When the proposals specialists have to bring in subject matter experts, the proposal effort becomes far more complex. It is no longer about just doing the proposal, instead it is about:

  • Discovery. Resources and information need to be discovered. What do you need to know? Who needs to be involved? Where do you get what you need?
  • Management. Somebody needs to assign, coordinate, and set expectations in order to get people to work together as a team and produce a winning proposal.
  • Collaboration. How do multiple people work on the same document? How do you get information out of multiple people and onto the same page? How do you manage schedules and availability? How do you handle the logistics of working together?
  • Culture. Does the organization buy into the effort? Do people work as a team or as individuals? Are there territories in conflict? Is the organization in transition? Does it function by consensus or authority? Is it centralized or decentralized?

All of this is driven by the need to have multiple people contributing to the content of the proposal. It does not matter whether that proposal is being done by a large company or a small company.

Okay, but so what?

This impacts you because what you need to be successful with a proposal you are basically doing yourself (maybe with a little help) is different from what you need to be successful when you need to discover, collaborate, manage, and work the culture of the organization.

  • For a small proposal, you need things that will help you. You don’t need it all written down if you can keep it in your head. With a few reminders you can make it up as you go along. All you really need are some checklists. You don't need to explain everything or check anybody else's work.
  • For a large proposal, you need things that will guide everyone else to bring you what you need. You need a process that can set and communicate expectations. You need guidance strong enough for your weaker writers to deliver content as good as your stronger writers. You can’t just make it up as you go along. You can't just talk your way through it. You have to check everybody's work.

A small proposal needs someone who understands proposals and who can write and produce the document. A large proposal not only needs someone who understands proposals, but someone who can manage people across organizational boundaries.  They need a combination of writers and subject matter experts. They need production specialists. They need solution architects. They need review teams. They need a leader who can get the team where they need to be to win, even though no one on the team may report to them and everyone has competing priorities, differing levels of skills, and may not share the same level of interest in the effort.

If you are currently doing small proposals, but you want to do much larger proposals because they also bring much larger revenue, be prepared to invest in people, processes, tools, and your future win rate. You can't achieve a high win rate on the cheap or by doing things the same way you've done your small proposals.

Making the transition from small to large proposals

Making the transition from a company that does small proposals to a company that does large proposals is traumatic. You may have the wrong type of proposal specialists. Doers are not necessarily the best managers, and vice versa. The people you need to contribute to the proposal may not want to or know how. Culturally you have two different worlds — one world that does the proposals and one world that doesn’t think they do but now is being asked to contribute. You don’t have the process you need. And if you try to create it “in between” proposals you may never get it. Even if you can document the process, it takes a lot of work to get the organization to buy into it. People do not change easily.

But the real secret behind all of this is that there is no such thing as a small proposal.

Read that again because it’s important.

The reason is that we’ve left something rather important out. You don’t just need subject matter expertise, you need customer and competitive awareness. If you have a proposal specialist and work in a single domain, they may know enough about it to write a proposal. But how well do they know the customer’s preferences? How well do they know the competition? If you do business in a single domain, have only one major customer, and always compete against the same players, then maybe, just maybe there is such a thing as a small proposal.

But for everyone else, you still need someone who knows the customer and the competitive environment involved in the proposal to shape the context that all the text should be based on. And then you need reviews to make sure it’s right. Pretty soon you need a process, discovery, collaboration, management, cultural awareness and all the other attributes of a large proposal.

You also need a culture of growth. This is something you should have had from the beginning. A culture of growth is different from a desire for growth, or even a need for growth. A culture of growth makes it clear how everyone benefits from growth and what their role is in helping the company achieve it. When it's time to start doing large proposals, it's so much easier to get past the resistance if the company already has a culture of growth. If you wait until a large proposal to start putting that in place, it's just one more change to resist.

Whatever you do, don't just skip it. If you do, the business development or sales staff will avoid playing any role in the proposal. Maybe they'll drop by to add a few words of wisdom before they run away. Or maybe the company just waits until the RFP is released and doesn’t really have much in the way of customer or competitive awareness to share with the proposal writers.

Then the proposal team works as if they are on their own. Because they are.

Winning proposals need contributions, sometimes from technical subject matter experts, but always from those who have customer and competitor awareness. And they need to discover, collaborate, manage, and work their organization to get it. If you don’t institutionalize how they do that, people will act as if they are doing small proposals where it's someone else's job, the proposal team will be on their own and working in insolation, and your win rate will suffer. You'll be doing large proposals with a lower win rate.

Then as your company begins to recognize the need for a proposal process, your proposal team will join legions of proposal specialists who complain that their organization won’t follow the process. This is because you company still thinks it does small proposals. But the truth is they never did.

Start doing proposals as if they are large. As if there are many roles and people involved. Create a culture of growth. Learn what information about the customer, opportunity, and competitive environment is needed to win, and how to obtain an information advantage. And above all focus on win rate and the things that drive it. Just being aware of these things and doing them at a small scale will make a huge difference when you decide it's time to go large.

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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