Jump to content
PropLibrary Content

Proposal fear. CYA. Accountability. And proposal win rates.

Plus 14 things to do so you can win without fear

Your company is losing proposals because your people are afraid to lose proposals

This is true even though most companies lose more proposals than they win. Maybe it's the large value and huge amount of effort that's on the line. Maybe it's the fear of being blamed.

The people you most need to grow your business often live in fear. And it’s not a productive fear. It’s an accountability avoiding I don’t trust you to watch my back I’m not going to take a risk win rate limiting kind of fear. Sometimes it’s an I need some CYA to avoid getting blamed if something goes wrong and I'd better blame someone else first kind of fear. It’s not a healthy let’s all maximize our chances of winning by making expectations clear or let’s take some calculated risks together so we can beat the competition kind of fear. It’s the kind of unproductive fear that hides while making you more likely to lose.

Do you know anyone like this or resemble it yourself from time to time?

Looking in the mirror

See also:
Organizational Development
  • Business Development. Have you known business developers who avoid process because they are limited by how open and willing to share each customer is? Or who don’t want to be held responsible for providing information they can’t always get? Or who don’t admit what they don’t know and can’t find out? Or who don’t want to be held accountable if the information they get from one source is wrong or if that source does not participate in the decision? Have you known business developers who obfuscate and avoid participating in the proposal where spoken words become concrete? Have you noticed how they stay in prospecting and avoid closing? All because of fear. Fear reinforced by incentives that have negative side effects.
  • Proposals. Have you known proposal specialists who are terrified of being blamed for a loss because they are the last to touch the document? Have you noticed they sometimes create a process that’s not actually documented but they still blame people for not following it? When reviews are performed inconsistently and ineffectively, have you known proposal managers who sandbag the reviews by running out the clock and lumping everything into a single review that can’t possibly consider everything it should, so they can pick and choose which comments to ignore and which to take action on? Have you seen proposal specialists retreat and just focus on production, which is the only thing they control, rather than helping people prepare winning content? All because of fear.
  • Reviews. Have you known executives who participate in reviews just enough to take credit, but not enough to establish accountability for oversight? Who demand "quality" but will only say that they know it when they see it? Or who create strategic plans that are all about the financials and encourage bidding anything, with meaningless positioning statements that have nothing to do with winning proposals? Or who arrive at reviews unprepared and avoid defining quality, let alone validating all its components on every bid? Have you known executives who don’t enforce deadlines, but expect people to be grateful when they expense some pizza because people are working a late night because deadlines were missed? All because of fear.

When the corporate culture is too heavy with fear, they tend to submit merely compliant proposals that are low on price. If you do a minimally decent job you'll almost never lose because of compliance and nobody gets blamed for losing because of price. Of course, compliance isn't enough to win consistently so you'll have a low win rate, but people will avoid bringing that up. Instead, when they do win they'll convince themselves that bidding anything is a good way to win and their undocumented process is just fine. This is how unhealthy fear dooms a company's win rate.

Why do most companies "play it safe?" The answer is "Fear." They hedge their bets, don't go out on a limb, and get by just well enough that it takes away any incentivize to change. The effort and risk of changing never seems worth the cost. The fear is still there, quietly changing people's behaviors and eating away at your win rate.

How much higher would your win rate be without this fear?

The problem is that a good proposal is not enough to win.

What if people weren't afraid of losing, didn't stay on defense, and went on the offense to win your proposals? What if the entire company was willing to change in order to become what it takes to win? When you see companies that are shooting up and seem to be on an extended winning streak, do you think their culture plays it safe?

How do get there? What are some practical, achievable things you can do to create a culture of growth?

  • Create an environment where you can have clear expectations without turning them into threats. People want to fulfill expectations. That should be enough. People who don't want to fulfill expectations should be let go. 
  • Focus on positive incentives instead of negative incentives. Reward accomplishment. Do not penalize failure.
  • Intrinsic rewards instead of extrinsic rewards. Encourage, inspire, and support. Don't pay or penalize, whether it's abstract or concrete. For example, instead of enforcing deadlines, try enabling them.
  • Set standards for what constitutes a valid process. It's not enough to say you have a process. If the process falls apart without a particular person leading it, it's not a process. It's just their way of doing things. If someone can't learn the process well enough to execute it from your documentation without requiring someone to "show" it to them, then it's not a process. It's a habit. A valid proposal process will be minimal (everything removed that does not directly contribute to your win rate), will survive the real world, and will be easier to follow than to skip. Here's how to recognize whether your proposal process is broken.
  • Define proposal quality. You can't expect it from people if you can't articulate what proposal quality is
  • Implement a bid/no bid decision process that doesn’t put people through low probability pursuits that are understaffed and being bid just because the company can.
  • Make sure people understand how ROI, overhead, and trade-off issues impact staffing and resource allocation decisions. Of course you're understaffed. When people understand why and see a path to fixing that, they'll buy in and help you grow your way out of it.
  • Make sure the potential upside of winning is far greater than the fear of making mistakes. You want people avoiding mistakes because they want to win and not because they are afraid of being blamed.
  • Make trustworthiness as important as performance when people accept a proposal assignment. Completing assignments that fulfill the quality criteria by the deadline should be rewarded and not just winning. Winning will come when people fully commit to their proposal assignments instead of treating them as their last priority.
  • Involve reviewers as collaborators and supporters, not as critics or drive-by lecturers. Make sure reviewers are as dedicated to their role as the rest of the proposal team. Or at least that they show up prepared. Never permit executives to show up unprepared. It sets a bad example for everyone else.
  • Make sure people are emboldened to take risks and foster a culture that recognizes the necessity. Plan and manage risk. Don't punish it.
  • Make sure people realize that you don't have to do proposals — you GET to do proposals. The difference is important.
  • Overcome fear with inspiration, at all levels of the organization. This is more than just having pep rallies. This is about giving people a reason to believe in what they are doing. Make sure they understand that growth is the source of all opportunity for a contractor.
  • If you're not sure about whether you have the right staff, watch how they interact during a pursuit. Many truths will be revealed that hide behind the metrics you are tracking.

You know how you can’t win a proposal if the customer doesn’t trust you?

You also can’t win proposals if your people are too afraid to trust you and each other.

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

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, 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.

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.

Sign up for our free newsletter and get a free 46-page eBook titled "Turning Your Proposals Into a Competitive Advantage" with selected articles from PropLIBRARY.

You'll be joining nearly a hundred thousand professionals.

Sign up
Not now
  • Create New...