What to do when the RFP gets too complicated to understand

With a complicated Request for Proposals (RFP), it can be hard to figure out what the customer wants. You can create a compliance matrix to allocate the requirements to your proposal outline, but with a complicated RFP there can be a combination of broad items that apply to whole sections, ridiculously specific items that are hard to integrate, contradictory items, ambiguous items, poorly explained items, items that use questionable vocabulary, etc. No amount of questions you can ask, even if you could get decent answers, will enable you to decipher it.

All a compliance matrix does for you is tell you which indecipherable items to address for each item in your outline. A compliance matrix will show you what to address in each section, but it won’t help you to understand how everything relates to everything else, or even what the customer really wants out of a messy RFP. It can still be difficult to figure out what to offer, let alone what to write.

The first thing we recommend for dealing with a complicated RFP is to separate the planning of your offering from the planning of the document. You need an offer that is compelling and compliant, but designing your offering by writing about it is the wrong approach to take. How you design the offering depends on the nature of what you do. However, you’re the expert. So design your offering using whatever approach or methodology works best. Then test it against the RFP requirements (it must be fully compliant), what you think will be compelling to the customer (based on any intelligence you’ve gathered), and what will be competitive (you should begin pricing it to verify its competitiveness).

As a parallel activity, begin planning the proposal document. The approach we recommend in our MustWin Process is called Proposal Content Planning. Because it is based on allocating the ingredients that make up the proposal into a shell document based on the proposal outline, it can help you see how the various pieces will look when presented as a document.

Taking the RFP requirements and allocating them to the document can enable you to see what sections you have and how they fit together. This, in turn, enables you to see:

See also:
Compliance matrix
  • How the requirements group so that you can speak to them in a logical or functional way.
  • Where you tell your story and say the things you want to highlight.
  • How to position what you plan to offer and present against the evaluation criteria.

When you look at the RFP on a section by section or item by item basis, you will see opportunities to deliver certain messages. But you won’t know where to do that in the proposal until you develop your Content Plan. That’s where you discover:

  • Too many of your highlights or messages fall into one part of the proposal, leaving other parts uncovered.
  • Some of the things you want to highlight either have multiple places or no place at all to address them within the document.

Without the plan, this is where your RFP frustration can boil over.

With a Content Plan, you can take a step back and think about how to deliver your message across the document.

Something else Content Planning will do is enable you to see how your offering fits into the document. Once you’ve validated what you plan to offer and it’s stable, you can add high level placeholders into your Content Plan so that you know where to discuss each aspect to achieve RFP compliance. It also gives you a mechanism to reconcile your messages with the offering, before the actual writing has started.

You can then validate the whole proposal prior to the writing to make sure you have accounted for everything. If you take a complicated RFP and start writing, then try to change the offering and/or the message, you’ll enter an endless cycle of trying to fix the document by re-writing it. You’ll never get it right because you’ll run out of time.

With a complicated RFP it will seem like the planning takes forever. It will seem like you should be allocating more time to the writing because you have a complicated proposal to create. But like any engineering project, you should invest more in planning when things get complicated and only build it once.

When faced with a complicated project, no engineer is going to recommend skipping the planning because it takes too much time and instead jumping right into construction so you can “see it” and then make changes until it’s right. You shouldn’t approach your proposal that way either.

You not only need to assess and integrate the requirements by bringing them together in a way you can understand, but you also need to bring meaning to them and a rationale that was missing in the RFP. Demonstrate to the customer that you can bring meaning to the project and not just simply respond to individual line items. That’s what a proposal plan should do for you.

If all your proposal plans do is turn the RFP into line items that you can write to, it’s not enough. Your plan should help you understand the requirements so that you can bring meaning to them. The way Content Planning does this is by helping you visualize how the requirements and your response come together. You can literally “see” where and how to add something to your response to give it meaning, and how to integrate the various sections of the proposal so that they add up to something that matters to the customer.

With Content Planning you can see where you need to ask questions like:

  • What is the purpose of this section or requirement?
  • How does it relate to the others?
  • What does the customer really want or need out of this?
  • How should we position ourselves?

The result is that a story starts to surface. Out of chaos comes order. And not just order, but something that gives your offer a clarity that your competitors will lack. Instead of simply struggling to respond to the complexities of the RFP, Content Planning gives you a competitive advantage.


Access to premium content items is limited to PropLIBRARY Subscribers

A subscription to PropLIBRARY unlocks hundreds of premium content items including recipes, forms, checklists, and more to make it easy to turn our recommendations into winning proposals. Subscribers can also use MustWin Now, our online proposal content planning tool.


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.

Proposal Help Desk
Contact us for assistance
In addition to PropLIBRARY's online resources, we also provide full-service consulting for when you're ready to engage one of our experts.

It all starts with a conversation. You can contact us by clicking the button to send us a message, or by calling 1-800-848-1563.