29 techniques for dealing with uncooperative proposal contributors

There's good news and there's bad news...

One of the joys of managing proposals is that none of the people who are drafted to contribute to the proposal actually report to the proposal “manager.” And frequently they are expected to contribute to the proposal after all of their other responsibilities are taken care of. It can be like working two jobs. So even when they want to help out, they often aren’t the most enthusiastic and cooperative people to depend on.

Organizations that want to grow will do everything to ensure nothing gets in the way of people cooperating.

I recently had a discussion about this with a friend of mine, Chris Ryan. He's an expert in organizational improvement and management consulting and brings a different perspective to the proposal arena. He clued me in to some studies regarding human performance improvement. Apparently Thomas Gilbert is often credited with inventing the whole thing. He showed that some of the things that drive behavior are individual, but some of them are organizational. For example, each individual has their own knowledge, capacities, and motives, but environmental factors like information, resources, and incentives can actually play a larger role in their ability to contribute to something like a proposal. 

Proposal managers are great at solving things at their own level. But you can’t maximize your win rate without also addressing the organizational level. 

Techniques at the proposal level

Here are some of the techniques that we can use on our own, without involving The Powers That Be:

  1. Manage expectations. Also known as “proactive scolding.” I prefer to think of it as a preventative. This should be your standard opening.
  2. Just-in-time training, in all its forms. A major reason why people don’t cooperate is that they don’t know how to do what you’ve asked. Building in training, often without calling it “training,” is a great way to get past the hurdle.
  3. Job aids. What can people reference or use that will make completing their assignments easier?
  4. Anticipate information dependencies. When people don’t have the information they need to do what you’ve asked, things grind to a halt. Anticipating that and proactively providing that information smooths cooperation. If you don’t have the information yourself, then providing the workaround or source to get it is the best you can do.
  5. Persuasion. Sometimes we beg and plead. Sometimes we threaten. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all technique that works in all circumstances. 
  6. Work the chain of command. Sometimes you go over people’s heads. Sometimes you persuade The Powers That Be to publicly support you. Sometimes you get them to shuffle resources in your favor or reduce the workload of proposal contributors. Sometimes The Powers That Be are not available and you’re on your own.
  7. Conflict resolution. Advanced techniques for conflict resolution can help you get everyone on the same side and balance the competing priorities.
  8. Make it easier for them to do what you need than it is for them to fake it on their own. If you ask people to put effort into following “the process” because it will “pay off later,” you’ve already lost half of them. But if the steps in your process make it easier for them to complete their assignment and get back to their “real” job, you might just get some cooperation out of them. Think tools, checklists, recipes, and guidance instead of process, steps, and mandates.
  9. Oversight. No one likes someone hovering over them while they work. But if you can structure frequent checks, especially ones that aren’t obviously checking up on people, you’ll get more cooperation. Some people procrastinate. So give them more deadlines. Instead of two weeks to complete writing a section, give them two days to plan it, a day to write the introduction paragraph, etc.
  10. Self-assessment tools. Enable people to know when they are on the right track without having to ask. Equally important, you also enable them to see when they are not on the right track.
  11. Alternatives. The more alternatives you have, the fewer points of failure. Can you replace people? Can you switch them to another task or role? 
  12. Automation. If we can’t force them to cooperate, maybe we can get the computer to do it for us!
  13. Team building. Don't just think of team building as morale boosting and cheerleading. Think of it as collaboration. Can you change the collaboration model to reduce the amount of friction that's leading to a lack of cooperation?
  14. Peer pressure. Sometimes you don’t need the chain of command to apply pressure.

And now for the bad news

All of these techniques have their limits. Collectively they amount to a smaller chance of improving cooperation than any one of the organizational approaches below can achieve. They amount to keeping honest people honest and enabling people who want to cooperate to do so.

Getting The Powers That Be onboard regarding the organizational issues ultimately decides your success and the organization's win rate and growth. But you can usually get a proposal out the door without their explicit support when you have to. 

This is what should motivate The Powers That Be to lend a hand. Getting by will not maximize your win or your ROI. Most already realize this, though, and are trapped in an ROI dilemma and negative incentives of their own that exaggerate the chances of winning and minimize the resource requirements to do so.

Techniques at the organizational level

Now let’s take a look at some organizational improvement techniques that can have a profound impact on how well people cooperate during a proposal:

  1. Incentives, consequences, and rewards. Think beyond financial incentives for participating in a proposal. Think about intrinsic rewards. Growth is the source of all opportunity in an organization. Make sure people realize it. Make that realization personal.
  2. Capacity planning. Of course there aren’t enough resources. But is there a light at the end of the tunnel? What is being done about it? Is it getting attention or being ignored? 
  3. Role modeling. Are the behaviors you need to maximize the organization's win rate being demonstrated? Role modeling trumps lecturing. Every. Time.
  4. Environmental support. Is the environment supportive? Does it facilitate cooperation? Or is there a lot of organizational friction that impedes people’s ability to get things done?
  5. Resource allocation. Are resources allocated to maximize ROI? Is the proposal function being treated as a cost to be minimized or an investment to be cultivated?
  6. Data driven decision making. Proposals are all about ROI. ROI discussions should be data driven and not opinion driven. Is the right data being tracked to support this? 
  7. Open dialog. Can these things be discussed? Will someone listen?
  8. Interventions. This can include everything from clarification and priority resets to appraisals, coaching, and supervision.
  9. Compensation. Think beyond the paycheck. How about a day off after working the weekend? Or covering meals when working late for a week straight? Meditate on what the word “compensate” means and a world of opportunities can open.
  10. Culture. Is the reality of your corporate culture different from your aspirations? Are you building a winning culture, or is your company’s culture just happening?
  11. Reengineering. Your staff can’t decide it’s time for a reset without you. They will only be as committed to it as you are.
  12. Job and work design. How are positions defined? What are the expectations, risks, and rewards that go along with them? Is the way your staff see their positions in the organization getting in the way?
  13. Staff and capability development. What capabilities do you need in your organization if you want to maximize your win rate? Are you growing them? How should that impact your proposal staffing and resource allocation decisions?
  14. Competition. A little bit of the right kind of internal competition between people and business units can change how people cooperate. For better or worse. How does this impact your culture?
  15. ROI. ROI. ROI. Is it worth it? Do the math. Every time we've worked through it with companies, we've found that small increases in win rate pay big returns. But what this article shows is that the investment of executive attention can also pay big returns.

How many of the items on the second half of this list can your staff address on their own?

And now for a little bit of good news

You may not need to do much to get people to cooperate beyond getting out of the way. Most organizations are full of cruft (that's a technical term, look it up) that gets in the way of cooperation. Fix that and people will often naturally work together.

But while you're changing things for the better, why not give them a little encouragement? 

Just don't do the same ol' same ol' that has never worked and isn't going to this time

Training is everyone’s “go to” for improving things. We need to change, so we better start training people. We want to improve, so people need more training. People don’t cooperate, so let's send them to training. But training fails to address the organizational issues. Gilbert said, "If you hold a gun to a man's head, and he can do what you ask, then he doesn't need training." Yet we go to training all the time because it's far easier than almost any other intervention. Training informs people without changing all the organizational issues that get in the way of them cooperating. Just because you know how to do something or what needs to be done, doesn’t make doing it your highest priority.

Another popular technique is tools. Since we can't hire and fire, let's get some tools. But introducing tools into an organization with uncooperative staff and immature processes probably will not end well. Going back to the Gilbert reference above, think in terms of what's needed for performance improvement. Tools can be a part of that, but wrap them with everything else needed to perform.

If your win rate depends on people cooperating during proposal development, you should start at the organizational level. It matters more. Your proposal manager may be an amazing hero. But the management during a proposal will not change the culture of the organization. If you assume that the proposal manager will do what it takes to prepare the proposal, you are right. They will find a way to submit proposals using uncooperative people. Submitting is not the same as winning. Organizations that want to grow will do everything to ensure nothing gets in the way of people cooperating. 

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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

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.

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