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. Large companies do small proposals pretty much the same way that small companies do small proposals. And large companies do large proposals pretty much the same way that small companies do large proposals. The dollar amounts are different, and maybe the number of people involved, but the approach is the same.

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 they focus on trying to do the same thing, but working through other people.

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.

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 can’t just make it up as you go along.

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 leader who can get the team where they need to be to win. They may or may not have skills as a writer or be able to produce the document themselves (sometimes that can be a distraction from what they really should be focusing on).

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.

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.

The way most organizations get around this is that they trick themselves into operating like a small proposal by skipping that step. They just skip it. The business development or sales staff play no role in the proposal. Maybe they 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.

The proposal needs 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 they don’t institutionalize how they do that, like they do on large proposals, they will get treated as if they are doing small proposals, on their own and working in insolation.

Then as they recognize the need for a proposal process, they’ll join legions of proposal specialists who complain that their organization won’t follow the process. The organization still thinks they do small proposals. But the truth is they never did.



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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. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, 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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