It’s not just what people do. It’s more than process. When people do things together, sometimes they can’t change how they do things on their own. When they do things as an organization, they must change as an organization.
This applies to business and proposal development. Sometimes making a process change isn't going to be enough to start winning consistently. Sometimes becoming a winning organization requires organizational change.
Achieving change at an organizational level requires more than just authority. It also requires a new vision for the future and the leadership ability to get people to make the changes necessary to realize it.
But there's another problem. It requires leadership that knows what to do about the problem. Just becoming a leader does not automatically convey instant knowledge of how to solve all problems.
Most people promoted to leadership positions have come from organizations that weren’t that effective at business and proposal development. Their entire careers have been spent learning bad habits. And most people under the executive level don’t have a full perspective when it comes to organizational development.
When an issue requires changes to occur at multiple levels, such as at the worker, management, and executive levels, it can't be solved by any one level on its own. Grassroots solutions won't be enough. Some people will recognize the need to change, and be frustrated by their inability to herd the cats into a resolution. It needs an organizational response. This is more than a top-down mandate. Leadership requires more than a mandate.
Instead of levels, some issues involve crossing departmental boundaries. Sometimes these can be worked out by the departments in question, and sometimes differences in interests and priorities mean that it needs to be worked out organizationally.
These are some of the reasons you’ve been stuck. Luckily, there are some things that indicate you have an organizational issue and not simply a business development or proposal issue.
Ask yourself these questions
- Does the organization know what its bid/no bid criteria are? When it’s purely subjective at the executive level, people bring opportunities to the top and wait for a decision. When bid/no bid criteria are well defined and known by participants, they function as an organization to live up to the standard. If you’re wondering why you always feel unprepared at RFP release or never have a real information advantage, start here. It may help to think in terms of setting expectations rather than bid/no bid criteria. What do you expect your staff to bring to the table at the start of a proposal? What staff need to be involved before the bid starts? Do your salespeople know what information is needed to write a winning proposal? Do they know what information is needed to design the winning offering? If you haven’t communicated anything about bid/no bid criteria, that is what you’ll get.
- Are you writing and re-writing until the deadline? This is not a simple failure of assignment or schedule management. It could be that rather than thinking through the offering and bid strategies, people just start writing. It could be that people think a proposal assignment is just a writing assignment. The solution isn’t deadline enforcement, it’s to avoid setting things up so that every new idea or approach spawns a rewriting iteration and that the only way to assess whether something is a good idea is to try writing a narrative about it. Your organization needs to figure out how to think things through before jumping into writing. You need your organization to recognize that this destroys quality instead of improving it, and to do the preparation required to avoid it.
- Are you designing your offering by writing about it? There is no engineering methodology that I’m aware of that recommends you design things by writing narratives about them. Just because a proposal is a written deliverable, doesn’t mean that you should skip designing your offering and just start writing about it. Once your offering is in writing, any change spawns rewrite cycles that typically don’t end until you run out of time and submit what you’ve got instead of what will win. Validating that you know what a winning offering consists of before you commit it to writing will require the participation of your operations group and coordination between them and your business development, both probably before the RFP is even released so they are prepared to write a winning proposal when the RFP is released. This makes it an organizational issue and not just a proposal process issue.
- Do people know what your differentiators are? If you ask people at most service companies what their differentiators are, they’ll answer with descriptions of the contracts they have. Contract experience is a very weak form of differentiator. Everybody bidding thinks they have competitive experience. And most do. So other than experience, what makes your company special? And don’t make it all fluff. What makes your company special enough that a customer will consider it a reason to select you over someone else? If you leave that to the proposal team to figure out on their own, you’ll get watered down differentiators that don’t add up to much across your pursuits. Does your company’s strategic plan define its high-level differentiators and positioning? Does this sit on a shelf or flow down all the way to your proposals? To be a winning organization, you must start by being different in ways that matter.
- Do you treat business development and proposals as expenses or as investments? Expenses are to be minimized. ROI is to be maximized. Are you killing your win rate by treating proposals as an expense? Do you measure your business development and proposal ROI? Do participants know what your business development and proposal ROI is or what it needs to become? Are your people managing their business development and proposal efforts to minimize expenses or to maximize ROI?
- Do people show up for reviews without any written quality criteria or without having read the RFP? Does the review team have a leader? Have they met prior to the start of the review? Have they studied the RFP even more thoroughly than the proposal team? If they haven’t, it means their only role is to provide a minimum-effort subjective judgment. This is not how a winning organization approaches its reviews. It’s not a simple matter of scheduling the reviews. Training and leadership are required, as well as the participation of people at all levels of management. This makes how you review your proposals an organizational issue.
- Are people making up the process up as they go along? Is the process written down in such a way that anyone can follow it and not just the process owner? Does the process documentation sit on a shelf, or do people refer to it during execution because they find it helpful? Most organizations that say they have a business development or proposal process really don’t, and suffer as result. They have a process concept and maybe some milestones, but they are making up the details as they go along. This is not just a process failure, this is a failure to devote organizational resources and implement the change organizationally. It takes an organization to win.
- Is figuring out your bid strategies something that starts during the proposal process? Did you really approve that bid without knowing what bid strategies would drive the proposal? What makes you think those bid strategies will make it into the proposal if that’s how it starts? If your proposal team works in isolation, they will reinvent your company for every bid and will base their positioning almost exclusively on the RFP. This is not competitive. Harmonizing your bid strategies for long term success requires the executive level to work with business development to bring the right strategies to the start of the proposal, so that proposal writers know what points to substantiate. In other words, this is another organizational issue.
- Does your proposal quality methodology come down to having one review? It is not possible to validate all the things that should define proposal quality in a single review. A single review is not a quality methodology, it’s a failure masquerading as better than nothing. And simply adding more reviews without defining proposal quality and the scope of each review won’t cut it either. Changing to a process that validates all of the criteria that define proposal quality will require organizational change, but you can’t become a winning organization without being able to define and validate proposal quality.
- Outside of a quick statement at the kickoff meeting, does the first executive participation happen at the draft review? If this is the case, it means they’re showing up after the problems crossing organizational boundaries have already occurred. It means they’re too late to observe the interactions. It means they’re not participating in the organizational issues.
Subscribe to PropLIBRARY
Unlock our premium content, including the recipes, forms, checklists, etc. that make it easy to turn our recommendations into winning proposals.
The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.
In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.