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17 things I'd want to know before taking on a job in proposal management

What you don't know can hurt you. And lower your win rate.

A lot of improvisation usually goes into proposal efforts. Proposal management is often an assignment to figure out how to do something while doing it. This can result in conflicts in expectations. Conflicts like these are best resolved before they manifest. Plus it’s good not to set yourself up for failure by going in with the wrong expectations.

The list below is written from the proposal manager’s point of view. And it applies to consultants as well as employees. But you can also use it as an organization trying to figure out how to best win new business. Proposal development is something that the entire organization participates in. Expectations run in both directions. The more clarity the organization has regarding expectations, the better it will be at focusing on winning.

Even if you can’t answer some of the questions below, you’ll be better off making the attempt and realizing where you have some issues to work through than trying to settle things as they come up. 

So, putting issues related to budget and pay rates aside, along with the specifics of a pursuit (like the deadline), here is a list of things I’d like to know before taking on a proposal management gig:

See also:
Proposal management
  1. Are you responsible for winning or just submitting what you’re given? If you’re responsible for winning, you need a say in everything that goes into what it will take to win right down to the bid/no bid decision. You also need to be involved in developing the pursuit strategies and the efforts that begin before the RFP is even released. If you’re just a part of a winning team, then you need to know, and only be responsible for, your part. This is an important discussion that should not go unspoken. And it should take place not only between the proposal manager and his or her supervisor, but between all of the executives because it relates to how the organization wins. Make sure everyone understands how the role will be defined before taking the job.
  2. Are you supposed to lead, write, run the process, or produce the document? Should you take ownership? And if so, of what? The document, the process, or the win? And how many hats can you reasonably be expected to wear? Should a leader also take a writing assignment? Or should the person responsible for winning also be responsible for editing? Where should a proposal manager focus and how should they prioritize things? This decision should be made while considering the impact on your win rate and ROI.
  3. Are expectations clear? You need to know what is expected of you, and your team needs to know what you expect of them. This applies to everyone involved. And it should not go unspoken. Most of the conflicts in proposal development come about as a result of differing expectations that go unresolved. Talk about expectations in both directions before you take the job. 
  4. How will priority conflicts be handled? Proposals need contributions from people who have other things to do. How will that be managed? More important, who will be responsible for managing that? Usually it's just left for people to figure out. This creates all sorts of potential problems. It's hard to succeed in proposal management when you can't get the input you need. Before you take the job, it's good to know how priority conflicts will be handled.
  5. Who is responsible for achieving and validating RFP compliance? Are the writers, the proposal manager, or the review team responsible for validating that RFP compliance has been achieved? If the proposal is rejected or scores low because of a non-compliance, will that reflect on the proposal manager or someone else? This is important, because RFP compliance is not always objective. With strict page limitations, risks must be taken. Those decisions should be validated. But by who?
  6. Who is responsible if the proposal loses? Proposal development is a team sport. How will individuals be held accountable? You’d be surprised how much some companies' win rates are held back because their proposal teams are afraid of doing something wrong. Talk about what happens if you lose a proposal before you take the job. It will tell you a lot about the culture you're about to step into.
  7. Are you a process administrator or a process creator? Are you supposed to follow and implement a process (that exists), or are you supposed to (invent if necessary and) put in place a process? Are you supposed to invent and implement a process while producing a proposal? Or "between" proposals? And what does that mean? If you are supposed to implement a process, what about training (who is responsible for it and how will it be carried out?)? If you are just supposed to follow a process, what about the (inevitable) gaps?
  8. Who is responsible for the offering design? This is more complicated than you might think. If you are responsible for compliance, then what do you do about an offering that is non-compliant? Are those responsible for offering design also responsible for reading and understanding the RFP? What about the evaluation criteria and developing and implementing pursuit and pricing strategies? If you are responsible for winning, can you achieve that without being deeply involved in each of these?
  9. Are you responsible for production? Things need to move quickly at the end of a proposal. If you’re trying to process last-minute change iterations when you should be providing quality assurance, guess what you won’t be doing? If you are the bottleneck, then forget about accelerating the process by doing more than one thing at a time. Everything is a trade-off. But trade-offs should be made with everyone’s eyes open. See also “Are expectations clear?” above.
  10. Who is responsible for wording and editing? If you are responsible for editing, do you have the authority to make changes? If you are responsible for compliance or winning, do you have the authority to improve the wording? Or are you only responsible for submitting what you are given? Is there a contradiction between your goals and your authority? Do you really want to make subtle distinctions between proofreading and copyediting, which will inevitably lead to conflicts within the team? Settle who owns the words before you start.
  11. Are you responsible for identifying the staff to work on the proposal? This starts with the budget, because that limits the number of people involved. But once that’s settled, who is responsible for finding the right staff, deciding between employees and consultants, taking them away from other work, onboarding them to the proposal, and overseeing their performance once it starts? Since every proposal is always understaffed, it would be good to know.
  12. Are you responsible for filling gaps? No matter what your answers are to the above, there are going to be gaps. Sometimes it’s because an expectation went unfulfilled. Sometimes it’s because of a change. Or a curveball delivered by Murphy’s Law. Who is responsible for filling the gaps? In content, proposal staffing/assignments, process, reviews, information, etc.? Is the proposal manager responsible for getting the job done and the gap filler of last resort? Does the proposal manager have the authority to go with that responsibility?
  13. Who defines proposal quality? Is it the proposal manager, the review team, the executive sponsor, or someone else? Will whoever defines proposal quality also be responsible for articulating proposal quality criteria? Who is responsible for fulfillment? And how will proposal quality be validated? Not addressing this leads to the worst sin in proposal development. You want to know what the standards are, how they get defined, and how they are measured before you become responsible for meeting them.
  14. Are you responsible for review administration, leadership, and training? Are you responsible for planning proposal reviews? Defining the review process? Conducting reviews? Coordinating them? Will someone else be the review team leader? Who trains the reviewers? Defines the quality criteria they should validate? Since in many ways the review process often essentially is the proposal process and how proposal quality is defined, validated, and enforced, you don’t really know what you are doing until this is addressed.
  15. Who makes customer contacts? If additional information is needed, are you responsible for or permitted to pick up the phone and talk to the customer? If not you, then who? Who owns the customer relationship? Is the person responsible for making customer contact also responsible for obtaining the information needed to win? This becomes important when you have a time-critical need for information that only the customer can supply.
  16. What are your responsibilities for the teaming process? Who identifies teaming partners? Negotiates with them? Interacts with them? Makes sure they fulfill their proposal assignments? Replaces them when necessary? See also “Are expectations clear?” If the company always has teaming partners on its proposals, you will always be dependent on them.
  17. Who can compel proposal contributors to work late or on holidays? Sometimes it’s necessary. Who decides? And who has the authority to order food for people working late? As proposal manager, you will be responsible for meeting deadlines. No matter what.
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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.

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