Why does everyone assume every proposal should have a proposal manager? Before you respond, take a deep breath and contemplate that. There are alternatives to the traditional proposal manager-led hierarchy.
If you think that proposal managers have all of the responsibility and none of the authority to do their jobs, maybe the problem is you have the wrong management model instead of a lack of authority.
Most of the conflicts that are endemic to proposal development come from a lack of clarity regarding expectations. Do you need a proposal manager who:
- Tells everyone what to do? Does this include deciding what everyone should write?
- Is a facilitator, who helps other people to make the decisions, including what to write and how?
- Runs the process and produces the document, but stays out of what’s getting written?
- Is a mentor? Who provides specialized experience and expertise so that your staff can function at a higher level?
- Is just one part of a package of support services that you can request? Do you do things differently based on what’s needed for a particular pursuit? Do you have a range of capabilities and offer to help or lead as needed?
Who owns deciding what to offer? How to present it? What words to use? Defining the bid strategies? Setting deadlines? Enforcing deadlines? Who is responsible for doing what it will take to win? Deciding who does things usually requires participation by The Powers That Be.
If you can decisively say it’s the proposal manager who should decide these things and everyone participating agrees, that’s great. But in most companies, these responsibilities get shared. And they often get muddy. And that means the model that has the proposal manager as the clear authority might be a bad fit for some companies.
Here are some considerations for what type of proposal management will work best in your organization:
- What is your decision-making culture? Is it consensus-driven or authoritarian? Is it centralized or decentralized? Do you want one person with clear accountability for the proposal, or do you want other stakeholders involved? A proposal can impact a large number of people and require contributions that cross organizational boundaries. Do you want one person to force the issue or should everyone get a seat at the table? Your corporate culture matters here, because it will set an expectation regarding who gets to participate in making decisions.
- Do you need proposal development to be collaborative or controlled? Which is more important, enabling everyone to contribute, or ensuring that people do as directed? The best answer for you may be different from other companies.
- How much subject matter expertise do your proposals require? Depending on what you offer, you may need experts to write the proposal. Or at least contribute to it. Whether the subject matter experts (SMEs) write the proposal or not depends on the expertise required, the availability of staff, and the level of expertise that the customer’s evaluation possesses. Billability and economics are also considerations. There is no single right answer for whether SMEs should do the writing or make the decisions. But the answer you choose will impact what approach you should take for proposal management.
- How much proposal specialization do your proposals require? If the RFP instructions and evaluation criteria are complex and require background knowledge, like they do with government proposals, you may need someone to direct, facilitate, or guide your staff to do what it will take to win.
- Do you have large proposal teams or small proposal teams? And are they the same people every time or different? The amount of direction that a few people who do all the proposals need and that a few dozen people of varying skills and experience need are completely different.
- What are the size, scope, complexity, and deadline? Is it a big proposal effort? Is it complicated? Do you have enough time to pull it all together? Do you need precise coordination and discipline?
- Will the same people needed to make decisions be participating in the proposal reviews? You can’t have objective proposal reviews if the people who make decisions about approaches and bid strategies are also the reviewers. If that’s just the way it is in your organization, then embrace it. Go for a collaborative process that prevents defects instead of one that focuses on discovering defects after the fact.
- How mature is your proposal process? Is it fully documented, completely implemented, and proven? Or is it half-baked and more of a way of doing things than a process? Do you need someone to introduce a process or help guide you through it? Is one of your goals to help your staff develop their own skills and capability to do proposals in the future?
- How well trained is your staff? Do they have the skills needed? Do they have the knowledge needed? Just because they’ve worked on proposals in the past doesn’t mean they're good at it.
- Are your resources really available? Whether you have a proposal manager or not, if your pursuit is not adequately staffed, it is doomed to failure. You could put a lot of effort into figuring out the best approach for you, only to have it fail because it was staffed with resources who really aren’t available.
- How much do you want to win? If you can't afford to staff the proposal properly, including a proposal manager, you probably have other priorities that are more important than winning. Have you considered the ROI? If you are planning to just get by with the resources you have, will that result in the best ROI? Have you calculated how much investment in opportunity pursuit maximizes your return? Have you calculated where putting that investment maximizes your win rate? Why not? If you think you know it without looking at hard data, you're probably wrong. Rules of thumb aren't.
Conflict resolution and strategic development
The odds are that more than one of the above applies to you. Not only that, but there’s a good chance you have conflicting answers. What do you do when you have a complex proposal with lots of stakeholders against a tight deadline with people who have conflicting priorities and can’t be relied on, that seems to beg for direction, but also have a consensus-driven culture?
Ask yourself what your strategic goals are. Do you want to centralize or decentralize the proposal function? Do you want to develop the skills of your staff, or make do until you can hire the expertise you need? Do you want the operating units to figure out their own needs, or do you want this to be a corporate support function? Is responding to RFPs critical to the growth of your company? What’s your real mission?
To begin the long-term effort of resolving the conflicts, start today by taking a step toward your strategic goals. There will be problems with whatever decision you make. When that’s the case, it’s best to confront them strategically.
Do you need a proposal manager at all?
Not having a proposal manager does not necessarily mean that no one is accountable. Maybe whoever wants to pursue the opportunity should be responsible for the proposal. Or maybe whoever gets a proposal assignment should be responsible for the completion of it, without someone called a proposal manager with responsibility but no authority hovering over them.
What if instead of someone leading the process, the process was self-administered? What if each phase had goals to be achieved by people playing certain roles? What if each goal had quality criteria mapped to it? What if instead of assignments being made against the outline, they were made against functional roles or activities? What if each person playing a role knew both the goals to be achieved, and the quality criteria that would be used to define success?
Then it might be nice to provide a mentor people could consult if they need help fulfilling the quality criteria. If the quality criteria are done well, people could self-assess whether they are doing quality work, without waiting for a future review. Maybe instead of a process, people need a guide that explains the goals, quality criteria, and self-assessment.
Maybe editing could be provided as a service. Maybe the proposal department becomes a service catalog instead of an organization competing for ownership of the proposal. Maybe people should ask for support services instead of being given a mandate to turn control over to someone else.What model is right for you?
Or maybe you really do need a proposal manager and the above is heresy. That’s okay too. The point is to understand your needs. Because they are different from everyone else’s needs. The nature of what you offer and the answers to the questions above will determine what the right approach is for your company. There is no single approach that is right for everyone. There isn't even a single approach that is right for everyone in a given market.
And perhaps more importantly, whether or not you decide you need a proposal manager, asking these questions will help you implement your decision better. Don't just go through the motions and do things the way you think you're supposed to. If you want to maximize your win rate, challenge yourself by asking questions and keep doing it until you have solid answers for all of them.
If you can’t get people to follow your proposal process or complete their assignments, then maybe the problem isn’t a lack of cooperation. Maybe you have the wrong proposal management model. It’s a question worth asking.
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