Proposal risk increases as the deadline approaches. A simple mistake at the last minute can ruin a great proposal and all the effort that went into creating it. And yet, your best opportunities to mitigate the risks at the end of the proposal happen before you even get there. In each of the following areas, consider what is at risk, what the stakes are, and what you can do about it. Then think about whether your efforts are proportionate to the risks.
- Final reviews and approvals. This is what destroys many otherwise good proposals. How many review iterations? Can you fit one more in? Can you ever be satisfied? Will your need to constantly tweak things lower quality instead of raising it? How about actually defining your reviews, having a finite number, and defining their scope and who should participate? Scope definitions, decision criteria, deliverable specifications, and role descriptions are why you should have a proposal process. They’re also the difference between whether you have a process, or just a way of doing things. When you arrive at final production with an incomplete or broken proposal, you will have to do what you can and eat the risks. But if you are adding risk to make tweaks to satisfy someone’s idea of perfection that won’t impact your evaluation score, you should reconsider. Use process and criteria driven definitions of quality to get everyone on the same page before the next proposal.
- Final changes. After your final review to make improvements, and your final review to make corrections, you still have to have time to make the changes. Going into “final production” with changes that haven’t been made is an oxymoron. But it happens all the time. It is best to organize so that final production occurs after final review changes have been made, even if you do it section by section. It may seem more efficient to jump in and start final formatting and production in between review iterations, but facilitating poorly scoped reviews performed without any decision criteria or deliverable specifications by arbitrary roles is not going to achieve efficiency or quality.
- Configuration management. The number of authors, files, and versions increases the likelihood that edits will be made to the wrong file or that the wrong version will be used in production. The more complex the proposal, the more time should be invested in configuration management to carefully track all the moving parts and prevent a disaster at the tail end of the proposal.
- Formatting. If you have your formats predetermined and they are efficient, this is a straightforward step that depends mostly on the complexity (number of tables and graphics primarily) and the page count. Simplicity and elegance in formatting is better than complexity and ambition. Using features that only a few know how to use (or can be taught) limits the number of resources that can be employed to help. The more complex your formats, the more time will be needed for quality assurance. Keep it simple. Put the time and effort into your message.
- Graphics. Graphics communicate better than words. It’s that simple. But you to have to have the message to communicate. Lots of graphics are good. But keeping it simple and going for elegance over ambition still applies. However, if you enter final production and are trying to figure out what graphics you should have, you’d be better off with just text. The message is what matters. Achieving a proposal with lots of well communicating graphics requires it to be done in parallel with the writing effort and complete at final production.
- Editing. A proper editorial review is an all or nothing step. It’s not like having someone with “good grammar” skim it for obvious errors. You can’t rush an editorial review. Reading and checking every word, requires reading and checking every word. If you blow your schedule, you probably have to skip it. It should be the first thing to go. Trying to do otherwise means increasing the risk and lowering the quality of the entire final production, which is where the entire proposal actually gets made. You don’t want to do that. If you make it your declared policy that missing the final production deadline means skipping the editing, this provides some incentive not to blow the schedule.
- Reproduction and assembly. While hard copies are requested less and less these days, when they are you still have to allow time for it to be done carefully. Complexity, driven by the number of binders, tabs, foldouts, files, inserts, etc., will slow you down more than page count. And the number of copies. But complexity is what drives the risk that something will get left out or be defective in the proposal as submitted.
- Packaging. For hard copy deliveries, you should have everything you’ll need, including boxes, filler, labels, etc., all lined up. Don’t forget a quality assurance process (or at least a second set of eyes) to count and check what’s going into each box and that you have properly followed the customer’s instructions before it’s sealed. Allow enough time to do it correctly.
- Delivery. How much risk are you willing to take? If it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, are you willing to send by two carriers and put someone on a plane to hand deliver it? If it absolutely, positively has to be there by the deadline, are you willing to complete your proposal two days early so you can produce a duplicate set and have it ready to send again if delivery is not confirmed two days before the deadline? How much is the proposal worth and how much did you spend on its production? Is spending a few thousand dollars (or even 10-20 thousand) on delivery an excess or a good value for the insurance?
The highest risk of a final production failure occurs before it starts. Formatting, reproduction, packaging, and delivery risks are relatively low compared to the risks of poorly executed reviews, final changes, and configuration management. Unanticipated review and change iterations don't mean rushing final production. They mean reducing quality assurance during final production. They mean increasing the risk. If that is where the risk is, that is where you should invest to mitigate your risks of proposal failure. How you end the proposal writing phase usually has more to do with the success of your preparation for proposal production than the production effort itself.
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