Most of the wasted effort that occurs during proposals occurs as a result of poor decisions or the failure to be ready at three critical moments in time during the development of the proposal. A little bit of effort applied at those moments can prevent a ton of waste later.
1. The Bid/No Bid Decision
First, the obvious: If you decide to bid something you can’t win, the entire effort is a waste. While true, that’s usually not very helpful. Companies don’t bid things they can’t win when they know they can’t win them, unless they are setting the stage for a future win. Companies bid them because they don’t know they can’t win them. They make their decision based on limited or non-existent information.
The problem isn’t how they made the decision. The problem is that they permitted circumstances that force them to make a decision without the right information. Perhaps they should always decline bidding when that’s the case. But that’s not realistic either.
The key point is that bad bid/no bid decisions are more often a result of insufficient information than they are of deciding wrongly.
The bid/no bid decision is the point in time where the failure to obtain the information needed becomes clear. At that moment of clarity, when you realize that you are having trouble deciding because of what you don’t know, if you decide to bid and continue anyway you guarantee that a higher percentage of your proposal effort will be wasted.
The reason you increase the percentage of waste is because if you don’t have the information at the moment of decision, you certainly don’t have it to give to the writers who need it to write a winning proposal. They will be forced to start writing without the right strategies and information, while attempting to learn them as they go.
What this really means is that you guarantee they will have extra re-writing cycles to correct the things they didn’t know when they started. And if the information never comes, which is usually the case, it means you will be re-writing until the time of submission without ever getting to a draft that reflects knowledge of what it will take to win.
Most of the effort that goes into writing a proposal like that is wasted effort. That’s “most,” as in more than half. That means you doubled the cost of producing the proposal on a pursuit that you knew at the time of the bid decision you were not prepared for and would be a low probability pursuit.
This in turn means that by investing in getting the right information, you can cut the proposal effort in half. Or do twice as good of a job of producing it. Where should your company spend its resources? Re-writing to make the most out of a pursuit you were unprepared for, or investing the time it takes to be better informed about the next bid?
2. Proposal Startup
When the proposal is starting up is a critical moment. Either you can articulate why the customer should select you, what differentiates your bid, and what the results of selecting you will be for them and do it all from the customer’s perspective, or you can’t. You find this out when you prepare the outline. Either you can take the outline further and give the writers guidance regarding the points you are trying to make, or you can’t.
If you leave it up to the writers to figure out what points they should make as part of their writing assignments, you guarantee wasted effort. Either they will choose the wrong points, or more frequently, no points at all beyond RFP compliance. Inevitable and unnecessary re-writes will follow. Each re-write cycle is characterized by the writers taking longer to think about it because they lack the right information. Sometimes they just get stuck. Sometimes they work around the issue without actually solving it, completing their assignment with the hope that the reviewers won’t notice.
At best, you make some points. But they are probably not based on any real customer insight. You continue to re-write in search of more and better points until you run out of time and ship what you have instead of what the proposal should have been.
Are you connecting the dots yet? Failure to have customer insight at the time of the bid/no bid decision means insufficient guidance to writers and extra re-write cycles result with no hope of creating a proposal that reflects what it will take to win. Your bid strategy amounts to consuming twice as much effort in order to be a little better than your competitors.
Where should your company spend its resources? Re-writing until it figures out what the proposal should say, or anticipating the questions that writers will have and that will drive your win strategies so the first draft can reflect them?
3. Proposal Reviews
Proposal reviews are when most false starts are discovered. Your writers get to the review, after following the meager instructions they were given, only to be surprised that the reviewers don’t like it and expect them to do it again.
The really cruel part of this is that it can happen with a perfectly good proposal. The problem is that the writers and reviewers are working from different instructions. This is a kind way of saying that most reviewers are asked for their opinion and make it up as they go along, creating a moving target for the proposal writers.
If you can’t give the writers sufficient guidance regarding the points they should make, how can the reviewers use those same points as quality criteria? If you do not define the quality criteria before the writing starts, you guarantee the worst kind of wasted effort. You guarantee that towards the end of the process, close to your deadline, you’ll trigger re-writes.
Where should your company spend its resources? Performing heroic acts after a late stage review that caught everyone by surprise, or putting in the effort to define your review criteria before you start writing?
The lack of criteria to bring writing and reviewing onto the same page is an information problem. It is really an extension of the same information problem that showed up during the bid decision and proposal startup. The reason there are no review criteria is that people don’t know what they should be, because they don’t know what it will take to win.
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If you continued to connect the dots, then you’ve realized what all three key points in time have in common. It’s information.
Failure to deliver the right information at those key points in time is what drives the vast majority of proposal waste. And at each of those key moments, you know how it’s going to turn out based on whether you have that information.
If you want to eliminate the vast majority of proposal waste, all you have to do is deliver the right information at those three key moments. To deliver it, you have to anticipate what you will need later and ensure that you get it before you start. Companies have difficulty motivating to do this. But when you realize that instead of resorting to win-rate destroying templates or laying off staff you could cut your proposal costs in half, would that help motivate you?
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The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.
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