Why a proposal manager’s job is nothing but problem solving

9 types of problems a proposal manager must be able to solve

Proposals really aren’t about management. Managers operate defined processes with resources and tools to achieve a defined outcome. Proposals are about adapting against a deadline and figuring things out. Proposals require leaders. 

Proposal management requires reinventing how you do things in order to fill the gaps and solve the problems you face

If you hand me a document and ask me to format it according the RFP specifications and give me sufficient resources and time, I can manage that. But if you hand me an RFP with structural and interpretation problems and tell me to figure out how to create something that will beat all competitors using resources that are not trained and only partially available with no customer insight, no one can manage that. It requires leadership. It requires reinventing how you do things in order to fill the gaps and solve the problems you face.

One big reason why companies don’t usually have a documented proposal process that they follow, is that no one in the company has figured out how to document a process that survives the real world. You probably don’t actually follow most of what you’ve been taught about proposal management for the same reason.

As much as they may try, proposal managers do not usually start from having set procedures and overseeing their implementation. They start by looking for gaps, asking questions, and assessing risks so they figure out what procedures are applicable:

  1. Can you figure out how to interpret the RFP's instructions? You can’t create the outline the customer expects if you can’t figure out how to cross-reference the things they’ve said in the RFP. Most RFPs make this somewhere between difficult and impossible.
  2. Can you figure out the customer’s approach to making a selection? You can’t help them see why your proposal is their best alternative if you don’t understand how they’ll make that assessment.
  3. Can you figure out the customer’s preferences? You need this to interpret the RFP. You need this to know what to offer. You need this to know how to present what you are offering. You can’t write from the customer’s perspective if you don’t know what that is.
  4. What kind of proposal manager do you need to be? Collaborative or authoritarian? Process driven or adaptive? Administrative or innovative? Manager or leader? Teacher or overseer? Producer or strategic visionary? Producer or winner? Different companies need different things from their proposal managers.
  5. Where are your resource gaps? You never have enough resources or the right kinds. But which problems are solvable? What should you do about those gaps? This applies to staffing, facilities, equipment, budget, and other resources.
  6. What are your stakeholders' expectations? Are there any disconnects between what you think needs to be done and what your stakeholders expect? Do you want to implement a collaborative review process? Or written quality criteria? Plan before you write? Will your stakeholders go along with that? Do they have needs that you need to incorporate in your plans? How do decisions get made? There are hundreds of decisions and trade-offs made on a typical proposal. Who will be involved in those decisions and how do you get them made quickly?
  7. How will deadlines be enforced? This is a simple question to ask. But the answers are so very complicated. Can you replace underperforming staff working on the proposal? Can you balance competing priorities for them?
  8. How are you going to track, mitigate, monitor, and respond to risks during the proposal? Will you do it formally? Informally? Make it up as you go along?
  9. Are you going to get involved in the writing? This corresponds with whether you will have or take responsibility for winning. Are you pushing paper or setting the standards for quality? Can you manage the proposal and take a writing assignment? Sometimes the proposal function is organized so that there is someone, typically a capture manager, focused on winning. And a review process that determines quality. And sometimes a company just says “we need you to manage the proposal for us.” Being a proposal manager is not a role until it’s defined. It’s probably several roles. But they can vary. It’s one more thing to figure out.

Now. Add those up and create an outline, schedule, and list of assignments that survives for more than a few days. You might have 24 hours to figure this all out. 

Then people will start changing their minds. Or the customer will change the RFP. Or you’ll learn something new that changes strategies or approaches. Or people will underperform.  Can you anticipate these things? Or do you just have to react when they occur? 

When we think of improving our win rates, we usually think in terms of improving our procedures, information, and techniques. Another thing you can do to improve your win rate is to make sure that problems are solvable. Huge amounts of time and money are wasted on proposals by not addressing problems quickly or effectively. Sooner or later your proposal manager is going to hit a brick wall and not have permission, resources, or the knowledge to solve a problem. Those tend to be the problems that are the most important to solve.


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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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