Uncertainty works against creating a winning culture because it breeds trust issues. But the solution is counter-intuitive. To fix the trust issues related to uncertainty, you should build a proposal process that does not trust anyone ever. You need to eliminate the need for trust. When your process functions without trust, then trust will flourish. I told you it's counter-intuitive.
It's not that your people aren't trustworthy. Or that they are fallible. But they have multiple competing priorities, and probably have limited experience and training. Even experts have difficulty making accurate estimates and predicting the future. And we're all working with less information than we'd like to have.
So to maximize your win rate, build your proposal systems and processes so they expect people to fail. Build systems that make failure difficult. A system that resists failure is a system that does not trust easily.
The result can be an environment in which people failures are rare. And that ends up being a great way to increase trust.
Here are 15 ways you shouldn't trust people working on proposals:
- Don't trust people to figure out what to write on their own. Implement an approach to planning what should be written that provides enough detail that you don’t have to trust anyone to figure it out on their own in isolation. Implement an approach to validating your plans before you start writing so you don’t have to trust people to get the plan right on the first attempt. Then you can trust that they know what is expected and you can validate what they deliver against it.
- Don’t trust that a decision to bid will be made promptly. Deciding whether to bid and incur the costs of a proposal can be difficult when you don’t have a clear understanding of your chances of winning. Unfortunately, this is most of the time. Time can be lost just finding an available slot on everyone’s calendar to discuss it. The problem is you’ve waited too long to decide, and it’s a symptom that all you have to go on is the RFP. There shouldn’t be a single bid decision. The decision to pursue should be made early and revisited frequently along the way during the pre-RFP pursuit. People should be poised to start immediately upon RFP release. The bid decision after the RFP is released should simply be about whether the RFP contained any surprises. When you do this, you can trust that people know what to expect at RFP release and aren’t losing time waiting for a decision because it’s already been made. It’s easier to stand down quickly than it is to start up late.
- Don't trust people to design the right offering and then write about it. What is the best thing to offer? Is it the most expensive? Best performing? Least expensive? Don’t trust people to write about it until you have systematically considered it. Only start writing when you have consensus regarding what the offering design should be. Then you can trust that you won’t have late stage “do overs” from people waiting until the proposal is fully written to change the offering.
- Don’t trust your project manager’s opinion about customer satisfaction. While it’s true that project managers may not want to report that their customer isn’t particularly impressed by your company, they also may not know. How many vendors have you had that, while you didn’t complain, you didn’t really like either? In addition, how many people does your project manager interact with? On many projects, it’s a fairly small number. They may not see the whole picture. You need multiple opinions from multiple sources to understand what your customer thinks. When you create procedures, prepare for your recompetes, and involve other people to collect this information, not only will you develop a better understanding of the customer, but you can trust that your project managers will have more opportunities to set expectations with the customer and improve performance, leading to better past performance assessments and higher win rates.
- Don’t trust your sales people to provide the information needed to win the proposal. Though they’ll never admit it, they probably don’t know what that is. The questions you need answers to won’t come up naturally in conversation. Tell your sales people what information you need. Itemize it. Help them build their sales process around it. They’ll never be able to get all of it. But you can trust that they’ll begin trying and put you in a better position for being able to write a great proposal.
- Don't trust that you’ll get resources based on what you need. Budgets are about what the company thinks it can afford, not what the people doing the work think they need. Instead of basing your budget requests on need, try basing them on Return on Investment (ROI). Things that impact your win rate, whether they raise it or lower it, directly impact the company’s ROI. If you care about budgets, then track your ROI and what correlates with your win rate. Learn to do the math that shows what a change in win rate means to the company’s finances. For example, learn to show the impact of staffing on your win rates, and by how much that change in win rate exceeds the cost of adding the staff. No other argument will be nearly as compelling. Focus less on your needs and more on delivering ROI and you can trust that people will want you to have the resources needed to achieve those ROIs.
- Don’t trust your customer. Assume they prefer someone else. Assume they will change or cancel the bid. Assume the RFP was written by a competitor. Assume they will misinterpret everything you say. Assume they will be looking for excuses to throw your proposal out. Assume they will contradict themselves. Assume the people you have talked to will not participate in the evaluation, and that the evaluators will have a different agenda. Gain all the insight you possibly can, but it will never be enough to trust that you really know them and what they’re up to. Build your pursuit process to dig deeper than the intel you think you have and contact others at your customer’s organization.
- Don’t trust your proposal assignments. If you get a proposal assignment without a set of quality criteria that have been validated and will be used during proposal reviews, or without a validated offering design, then there is a high risk that you’ll have a lot of rework coming after the proposal reviews. Participate in discussions about proposal quality, ask for written quality criteria, and separate offering design from writing and you’ll be able to trust that the reviewers are looking for how to improve the message and not changing the offering or strategies late in the game.
- Don't trust people to pass the review. What’s the point of getting to the review and then finding out it’s wrong? Running out the clock is the most popular way to sandbag the review. Instead of trusting them with all that time, try giving proposal writers the review criteria up front, and measure progress by how many of the criteria have been met. Then you can trust that they’ll know what they need to do to pass their proposal reviews.
- Don’t trust people to show up prepared. They will not have read the RFP. The proposal is not their only assignment. When they make time for the proposal you can’t trust that they’ll also make time to prepare for the proposal. You should embed preparing into the assignment. You should schedule preparation completion deadlines and make them accountable. And since RFPs are sometimes open to interpretation, there is some value, even though it may seem time-consuming, to reading the RFP as a group and talking through the issues. You do not increase the burden by making sure people do something they have to do anyway, like reading the RFP. All you are doing is preventing them from skipping it while telling themselves they are just cutting corners a little to manage their schedule overload. Make it so they can’t show up unprepared and you’ll be able to trust that they know what is required.
- Don't trust proposal reviewers to know what to review. If it is left up to them individually, you’ll get random and conflicting feedback that may even run counter to what it will take to win. Effective proposal reviews need review team leadership, training, procedures, and quality criteria. If a review is worth having, it’s worth doing right. Don’t leave it up to them to figure it out and simply “have reviews.” Make reviews about what you need to validate and not just showing up, and you’ll be able to trust that the reviewers will give you the feedback you need.
- Don't trust anyone to know what proposal quality is. If they can't articulate what proposal quality is, they don't know what proposal quality is. If it's not measurable, they don't know. In practice, this means that if you don’t have written proposal quality criteria that have been validated and agreed to, then no one knows what proposal quality is and it comes down to whims, authority, and last-minute revisions. Get everyone on the same page regarding what proposal quality means and you’ll be able to trust that they are all trying to achieve the same thing.
- Don't trust your executives to enforce your proposal process. They are often the ones most likely to ignore it. The only counter to this is to create a process that people want to follow and build into it the guidance that they need to be able to follow it. Make your process revolve around setting expectations. This turns your process into a tool that the executives can use to know what to expect and to inform people about their own expectations. This gives them a reason to be involved in the process and to ensure that everyone achieves what is expected. Do all this and you can trust that people will follow the process.
- Don’t trust your price proposal to support your technical approach, and vice-versa. Don’t let the people responsible for the proposal's pricing work in isolation. Do those bid strategies you’ve written about lowering prices and risk impact your numbers? Do your numbers support your approaches? What about those claims about what it will take to do the work? Does your pricing volume say the same things about price realism? If you document your Proposal Content Plans and offering design prior to writing, then you can identify the points of coordination without having to read the full narrative. This makes it possible for you to trust that your strategies, approaches, and prices are presented properly in both volumes.
- Don’t trust your production staff. Don’t let them do their own quality assurance. I’ve seen proposals with hundreds of pages get tossed because someone left a one-page form out of a proposal by mistake. Don’t wait until final production to start thinking about how you’ll know if any mistakes have been made. Don't make your production staff take all the risks. Work through it all at the beginning so they’ll know someone is standing by them at the end. Then you can both trust each other.
When your systems don’t require trust, it's easier for your people to trust each other. When your process doesn't require trust, your people will perform as a stronger team. When your systems permit failure, people don’t trust each other and this works its way into your organization's culture. If you want better teamwork, stop trusting your people to do whatever they think is right in that moment and put in place the checks and tracking systems that enable them to work in a coordinated manner. Teamwork is what you need to win proposals that are bigger than one person.
But I still think it’s fascinating how building systems that don’t trust people is what is needed to develop trust in an organization.
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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.
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