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Why we do not recommend color team proposal reviews

Color team proposal reviews make companies less competitive.

Warning: This article challenges things people may have learned about proposals when they got started. It's okay to learn better ways of doing things. But I find it amazing how much resistance there is to change in this area and how much it holds improving proposal quality back. So forgive me if I'm a little too honest...

With the thousands of subscribers and hundreds of companies we’ve worked with, we’ve never seen one use the color team model to achieve consistently effective proposal reviews. Frequently color team reviews end in disasters that could have been avoided. Occasionally, we’ve seen companies do what amounts to inventing their own proposal review methodology, giving it color team labels, and then claiming they follow the color team methodology. But we discourage even doing that, since it carries forward some of the flaws in the color team model. 

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't have proposal reviews. It just means that following the color team model for proposal reviews will put you at a disadvantage compared to other companies that actually define and validate proposal quality.

The color team review model was a great first attempt at quality control for proposals, but we now have much better methodologies for quality assurance. In fact, proposals are one of the last areas where people ignore quality methodologies.

Color team proposal reviews are mostly ineffective, obsolete, and not worth preserving. They linger on only as a bad habit, a product of resistance to change terminology that lowers win rates. The primary justification that people give for its continuing use is that it’s better than nothing. But the alternative to color teams is not doing nothing. The alternative is a methodology that does a better job of validating the things that define proposal quality. The color team review model neither defines proposal quality nor validates its specific attributes. As a result, color team proposal reviews do not deliver quality assurance.

Color team reviews are not a best practice. They stand in the way of best practice. Color team reviews are actually a bad habit that you need to change. If you’re still clinging to color team proposal reviews, here are some of the defects that led us to these conclusions.

The scope of color team proposal reviews is not well defined

See also:
Red Teams

Take the popular Red Team review as an example. Most Red Teams try to review: capture strategies, the proposal outline, production quality, RFP compliance, accuracy, effectiveness of the approach, persuasiveness of the writing, completeness of the document, how you stack up against the evaluation criteria, implementation of win themes, and incorporation of customer, solution, and competitive awareness. Is it any wonder they never fulfill their goals? Or that you can’t get participants to focus? Or prepare ahead of time? Or that they always degrade into subjective preferences when reviewers run out of time, but need to deliver feedback without admitting they didn't finish? What does it even mean to "review" a proposal?

Having an open-ended, un-scoped review of undefined quality attributes is never going to work. Why would you even attempt to set proposal reviews up that way? People keep beating their heads against the wall as if they are doing something wrong when color reviews don't work. However, the problem is not the people. The problem is the defects in the model they are trying to implement. If you provide the scope of what is to be reviewed, define the quality criteria you will assess by, and choose appropriate methods for validation you’ll find that the color team proposal review model doesn’t do what you really need. There aren’t enough colors and sit-around-a-table reviews are not the best way to validate every quality criterion (even if the color team model has a way to define them).

All color team proposal reviews suffer from a similar lack of scope. Some companies have Blue Teams, Pink Teams, Red Teams, Green Teams, Purple Teams, Gold Teams, White Teams and occasionally other colors. Is a Pink Team review an outline review, win theme review, capture strategy review, storyboard review, draft review, production plan review, or all of the above? Is a Red Team an early draft or a complete draft review? Is the Blue Team a progress review, lead qualification review, win strategy review or an assessment of readiness for RFP release? I've seen these reviews conducted every which way. Just never effectively. Companies define the colors according to the convenience of the moment. In practice, color teams are a subjective exercise that does not fulfill the very real need for quality validation.

Most color team reviews are fishing expeditions where reviewers see what they can find. Reviews like this do not produce results on purpose ― they produce them by chance. Every proposal specialist you meet defines the various color teams differently. Color team labels mean so many things to different people that they have become meaningless. 

Even if you did define the scope, for anyone else to know how you define it requires training and constant reminders since a color label tells you nothing. The result is that when you use color team labels, no one really knows what you’re talking about except in the broadest sense. Each person has a different concept of the scope and is certain theirs is the right one.

Sometimes color team reviews are advocated by someone with a particular technique they are convinced "works," but in reality only works when they implement it. A process that depends on a particular person to implement it is not a process. A process that can’t be implemented the same way twice is just a way of doing things. No matter how skilled, a review team lead is not a process, either. You need a proposal quality process and not a culture of personal dependency.

A side effect of continuing this madness is that it ensures that nearly all reviewers come into a color team review with the wrong expectations regarding what to look for and what to do about it. Even if you could fix color teams, you’d still have to retrain everybody before every proposal. If your staff have been taught the color team model, you can't count on their consistent performance, no matter how skilled or well-meaning they are. They may have good eyes, but the process is irremediably flawed. And in the future, everyone who hasn't been retrained will show up trying to do things the flawed way. One of the benefits of not using color team labels is that it forces recognition that expectations have changed. There really is no other path forward.

It’s better to design quality in than to apply corrective patches against a deadline

Checking in from time to time to see if the proposal is broken so that you can fix it is one way of catching defects that should have never been made. It’s good to inspect to catch errors and you will always need to check your work. But it’s better to prevent errors in the first place. It’s even better to design out the possibility of errors. If you care about the quality of your proposals and realize what improving your win rate can do for your company's bottom line, this is very much worth looking into.

The color team model does not design quality into the proposal on the front end. With other proposal review models you can at least ensure that the proposal writers are using the same criteria the proposal reviewers will follow later. You can compare what was written against what it was supposed to be. But even before the reviews, the writers can use the same quality criteria the reviewers will use and prepare the right proposal the first time. 

It is possible to design quality into the very first draft of a proposal, it's just not possible using color team reviews. Adding more colors that check to see if it's broken is not the same as designing quality in at the beginning.

Designing proposal quality in at the beginning reduces the need for defect inspection. But it also requires a different model for proposal quality assurance. Instead of open-ended un-scoped reviews, it requires defining what proposal quality is, the criteria used to measure it, and then building the writing process around the implementation of those criteria. Not only do you need to get rid of open-ended un-scoped reviews, to build quality into proposal writing must also not be open-ended or unguided. 

There are also issues of collaboration vs. correction and collaboration vs. objectivity. One of the beneficial attributes of color team reviews is that participants are supposed to be objective. Being separate from the proposal team, they can look at the proposal with fresh eyes. However, looking at the proposal with fresh eyes when it is closer to the deadline than to the RFP release date is a bad way to try to improve quality. That's a huge source of last minute radical course changes. A quality methodology should lower risk and not raise it. Objectivity is most relevant to validate decisions made regarding offering design and win strategies. Both should be validated very early in the proposal lifecycle and not late in the game.

The expertise and experience of color team participants can sometimes be more beneficial if used at the beginning, instead of much later. But then those participants are no longer objective when the review comes. Objectivity is a good thing. But other good things can outweigh it. Many organizations are too small to achieve real objectivity anyway. Those organizations are better served by models that are more collaborative, and involve validating decisions as they are made instead of late-cycle corrective meetings.

The issue isn’t really objectivity, it’s quality. What is the best way to achieve quality in your organization? Does the color team model deliver what is needed to validate that your proposal is built around what it will take to win at each step, or does it deliver subjectivity and last minute surprises?

There is no good time to have a Red Team

You can have your Red Team too early, or you can have it too late. If you have it too early, you are asking people to review a document that is incomplete and different from what the customer will see. If you do it too late, the document will be more mature, but you will be out of time to make any changes. If you only have one review, it can be worse than having no reviews at all.

This is why people add “pink team” reviews, or have follow-up Redder-Than-Red Team reviews. Adding colors will not solve the problems inherent in the model. Needing to add colors isn’t proof that you did the proposal wrong. It's proof that the color model has defects. 

Experienced opinions are still just opinions

The color team model tends to degrade to simply gathering the most experienced people available and getting their opinions. Nothing more. However, these people are rarely available. And when they are, they usually can’t dedicate the time that a good review requires. They don’t even come close to fully validating all of the criteria necessary to establish proposal quality. There isn’t enough time. The color team review model is in the way of actually achieving proposal quality. 

It is not realistic to expect senior staff to be available to participate in an unlimited scoped review of every proposal a company produces. When you don’t have a definition of proposal quality or criteria to validate, this is the best you can do. But when you define proposal quality and identify quality criteria, you can involve additional staff, validate most criteria without it being a major production, and achieve better proposals as a result.

Color team reviews usually lack leadership and accountability

Color team reviews rarely address who oversees the reviews, holds reviewers accountable, calls them to order, instructs them in their mission, and teaches them how to do their job. Usually it defaults to the Proposal Manager to direct the Red Team, consisting of staff who are more senior and difficult to direct. All while trying to produce the proposal.

Leadership by default is not a best practice. Every step in an effective workflow must have oversight, accountability, guidance, and training. This is the role of a leader. To be effective, every review must have one.

Better than nothing is not good enough

The primary justification for the ineffective color team model is that it is better than nothing. This is actually debatable. But a better way to look at it is just to replace the color team model with something that does a better job of increasing your win rate. 

When you look at the need to validate quality, you should be asking how quality is defined and how people will know it when they see it. If you do not do this, your competitors will. Sticking with an approach that is merely better than nothing dooms your company to declining win rates. An improved win rate is worth the investment in change. 


P.S.: If you read the above and think “That’s because they are doing it wrong. If they only did it the way I do mine it would work so much better,” you need to review the part about how a process that’s dependent on an individual person isn’t really a process. Or the part about how the only way people are successful is when they create their own methodology and give it color team labels. You haven’t fixed the defects inherent in the model, you’ve just invented your own. Congratulations! 

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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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