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9 key risks to reduce during final proposal production

The proposal you submit is whatever comes out of final production

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 long before you get to the end of the proposal.  

To reduce your risk, 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. 

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  1. 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? Your proposal process should go beyond steps and provide scope definitions, decision criteria, deliverable specifications, and role descriptions. When you arrive at final production with an incomplete or broken proposal, you will have to do everything you can to fix it and eat the risks. But if you are making tweaks to satisfy someone’s idea of perfection that won’t impact your evaluation score, you should reconsider because you may be increasing the risk of failure instead of improving the proposal. Use process and criteria driven definitions of quality to get everyone on the same page before the next proposal. Quality is not discovered at the last minute. No formal quality methodology in existence achieves quality by missing deadlines, failing to define what needs to be created, and then making an undefined number of improvements at the last minute.
  2. Final changes. After your final review to make improvements, and your final review to make corrections, you still need time to make the changes. Going into “final production” with changes that haven’t been made is an oxymoron. Quality does not arise from oxymorons about what you are doing. Yet 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. 
  3. 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. Collaborative editing helps, but introduces risks of its own that multiply with complexity. 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.
  4. Formatting. If your proposal formats are standardized 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. 
  5. Graphics. Graphics communicate better than words. It’s that simple. But first you must have the message to communicate. It is good to have lots of graphics. But keeping it simple and going for elegance over ambition still applies. If you enter final production and are trying to figure out what graphics you should have, you have higher risk than going with fewer graphics. Your proposal messages matter more than the means you use to deliver them. Achieving a proposal with lots of well communicating graphics requires it to be done in parallel with the writing effort with the goal of completing the graphics before final production.
  6. Editing. A proper editorial review is an all or nothing step. It’s not as simple as 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, since just about everything else that needs to be fixed will have a higher impact on your potential win or loss. 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. People who want it all no matter what it takes often increase risk of failure instead of reducing it. Don't be a proposal hero. Be a proposal professional.
  7. 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. Complexity is what drives the risk that something will get left out or be defective in the proposal as submitted. Electronic submissions have their own risks related to website access, formats, content errors, etc.
  8. Preparation and packaging. You should itemize everything you’ll need for submission long before final production starts. Don't wait until you are ready to submit to find out whether you can access the customer's website, have the submission email address, or know how to do what is required. Allow enough time to double check both what is being submitted and how it is being submitted.  
  9. Delivery. How much risk are you willing to take? If a hard copy absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, are you willing to send it 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 a day or two early in case of technical difficulties with an electronic submission? 

The highest risk of a final production failure occurs before it starts. Final formatting and submission 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 when you are out of time. The investment you should make is in preventing the need for last minute changes instead of seeking out last minute changes. 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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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.

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