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What does it mean to design quality into a proposal?

Spoiler alert: It requires change. But it's worth it.

Designing quality into a proposal means building a process in which defects aren't created. Designing quality in doesn't just mean making sure you get it right the first time, it means eliminating the possibility of defects. It is a very different approach from creating a draft and then inspecting it. 
Most existing proposal processes are based on creating a draft, then inspecting it, then re-doing it as needed. Instead of a proposal designed to win, this model results in fixes applied to fixes that only end when the deadline is reached. Creating a proposal process that designs quality in means following a different process and having very different expectations.
Before we can jump into how to do it, we have to address what a proposal defect is

If we define proposal quality as reflecting what it will take to win, a defect is something that runs counter to what it will take to win. The magnitude of the defect is directly proportionate to how it impacts what it will take to win. Thus, while you might consider a single typo to be a defect it is, in all likelihood, an inconsequential one. However, failing to comply with the RFP requirements, ignoring the evaluation criteria, or scoping the offering wrong and blowing the price are defects that can ensure a loss. The trick is to be able to define what it will take to win.
For proposals, designing quality in means building a process that ensures we deliver proposals that reflect what it will take to win. You should note that this does not ensure a win. That is not up to us, it is up to the customer, and it occurs in an unpredictable future. What you can do as a company is define what you think it will take to win, and confidently deliver that. 

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Designing quality into a proposal starts with how you design your offering 
Building a proposal around what it will take to win and doing that without defects means you need to know what you want to offer before you start writing. Offering design is an engineering process, and while it will require specifications to be documented, designing your offering should not be done by writing about it. But you may select any engineering design methodology that fits the nature of what you offer. The goal of offering design is to ensure that what you intend to offer fulfills what it will take to win before you create a narrative draft of the proposal based on it. 
You should validate your offering design through whatever testing, reviews, approvals, or stakeholder participation is necessary. As an example, an offering design that is too expensive to win, non-compliant, or doesn’t reflect the evaluation criteria would fail this validation and should never make it into the proposal. Zero time should be spent writing about it. Before you can validate your offering design, you need to be able to articulate what it will take to win in the form of proposal quality criteria. To perform the validation, you need to establish that each criterion related to what it will take to win has been fulfilled. The good news is that much of this can be checklist simple.

Thinking things through instead of writing and re-writing

While the offering is being designed, you should also be designing the proposal, with a separate plan for the proposal content that identifies what you need to say and how you need to say it. This plan should address the structure of the proposal and how you should present the details of your offering. It should explain to proposal writers how to position things against the evaluation criteria, competitive environment, and what you know about the customer. It should explain what points need to be made and how to incorporate your bid strategies and differentiators.  The Proposal Content Plan should also be approved before turning it into a narrative. 

Designing quality into the proposal means having thought through the offering and its presentation before you create a narrative draft. This is the only way to create a draft that is without defects, and fully incorporates what it will take to win.

Indecision works against your ability to design quality in

During proposal creation you will face many decisions that need to be made. To design quality in, decisions need to be validated or approved as they are made. Designing quality in requires a series of validations and approvals with the key stakeholders and decision makers instead of waiting for milestones like drafts.

Creating a draft for someone to inspect means you’ve fallen back on the old model and are not designing quality in from the beginning. The problem with the old model is that when the review and validation of decision waits for a draft, changing the decision requires an entire draft production cycle. This is not only time consuming against a deadline, but it tends to result in the next draft being a kludge instead of something created with the final decision in mind. Designing quality in means making sure you have made the right decision, and then writing it into the proposal.

Poor corporate decision making is the real reason companies stick with the old model of inspection and repair. They can’t decide an issue, so they delay until a draft is produced. A better approach is to improve your organization's ability to make decisions so that quality can be designed in. If you don’t do this, you are unlikely to be competitive against an organization that does.

Don't fall back on old habits

When you design your offering separately from writing about it, design your proposal content before you create narrative, and validate decisions as you go along, you have the right foundation for designing quality into your proposals.

If you catch yourself correcting the message in writing, then you failed to think it through before writing started and have fallen back on the old model of writing and correcting. The new model is not based on correction at all. It is based on collaboration. Proposal writing, decisions, and validation are all one collaborative process. Reviewers are part of this collaboration and not occasional drive by correction police.

Don’t fear running out of time

Regarding time management, note that designing quality in takes less time than preparation, inspection, and rework. The types and amount of information that need to be gathered to win a proposal are the same with either model. The time it takes to make decisions is the same with either model. The amount of review time is the same. However, the amount of work product created and wasted effort is less when you design quality in. In addition, there is less risk and likelihood of production costs spiraling out of control.

The most important consideration is the impact on your probability of winning. Which would you rather submit, a proposal that was designed to win, or a proposal that consists of fixes applied to fixes until the clock ran out? 

Designing quality in through continuous validation enables much better time management than having one or more back-end reviews. Better time management leads to a better proposal, higher win rate, and being more competitive than companies that follow the old model of write and fix.


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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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