Why you can’t just follow the steps to create a great proposal

Why do you think most companies don't follow their own proposal process?

You can't follow the steps to create a great proposal, because the steps are different every time. Writing a winning proposal is based on a flow of information that can’t be turned into a sequence. Information gathering is not sequential. And you can never get all the information you’d like to have. Your proposal strategies are often built as much on what you don’t know as on what you do know. 

Instead of following steps, the things you do to create proposal include:

  • Discovery, to get the most information that you can
  • Strategy, for how to position against what you don't know
  • Reaction, to changes the customer made or the information you have
  • Coping, when you’ve got gaps to contend with
  • Recovering, when assignments are delivered late or incorrectly
  • Expectation management, to please many conflicting stakeholders and points of view
  • Perspective shifting, because it’s not about what you want, everything has to be delivered according to the customer’s perspective
  • Problem solving, to react to unpredictable issues everywhere you turn
  • Competing, forcing you to be the best and not merely good enough

Most of what happens during a proposal does not happen in sequence. Steps get repeated an uncertain number of times. Routine steps might not be applicable on a given day. New steps frequently have to be invented. 

The proposal process is not really about the steps, and if your process is based on sequential steps it is likely to fail. This is a major reason why companies don’t follow their own process. If your proposal process is based on steps, you should think about reengineering it into something people can follow.

You need goals instead of steps. Your needs and what you have to work with change from proposal to proposal. But what you are trying to accomplish doesn’t. You can build your process around your goals. You can arrange your goals so that accomplishing the first goal sets up what you need to begin work on the next goal. You can do things in whatever sequence makes sense in order to achieve your goals.

For example, you don’t need a compliance matrix to win a proposal. You do need an outline that reflects the customer’s expectations and that addresses RFP requirements where the customer expects to find them addressed. A compliance matrix is usually what you need to accomplish this. Except when it isn’t. And the very specific way you create a compliance matrix may get left behind when you have an RFP that has an unusual structure. But the goal remains the same. Whatever you do must result in an outline that reflects the customer’s expectations and shows you where the customer expects to see their requirements addressed.

Having the right goal helps you decide what you should do when you have to deviate from your precious steps. It’s how you know when your steps are applicable and when you need to be innovative. The right goal tells you when you are going down the right path.

How do you know when you have the right goals?

You should add to or change the way you’ve articulated your goals if:

  • You find yourself in a circumstance none of your goals addressed
  • A problem disrupts your ability to achieve a goal
  • A previous goal was followed, but didn’t deliver what is needed for the current goal
  • Participants couldn’t figure out how to achieve the goal

Careful wording of your goals can imply what needs to be done and even imply how to know when you’ve done something correctly.

A good way to test your proposal process goals is to ask which you can delete or combine, without reducing the quality of the proposal. You want your list of goals to be as short as possible. Likewise, you want to minimize the number of goals that have sub-goals.



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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.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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