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How to get people to follow your proposal process by letting them opt out

How one company overcame the struggle for acceptance of their proposal process

In a past life I helped a company create a new proposal department. The company was part of a billion dollar government contractor. They had a history of business units not accepting process guidance from the proposal group. It’s not an uncommon problem. Does it sound familiar?

When people choose to opt in, you start the proposal with half of the battle for process acceptance already won.

The old proposal group kept saying things like, “If they’d only submit their drafts on time” or “if they’d only listen to us.” What they meant was “If they’d only do what they’re told.” They thought the solution was for someone to force contributors to meet the deadlines they set. They didn’t realize that they were just creating a control drama that they were always going to lose. Their response was to try to fight harder for control. It didn’t work. And while it took years, they ended up losing their jobs over it because they came to be seen as uncooperative instead of being value-added.

I was asked to create a replacement for the old, uncooperative proposal group. There was so much negative history that people had lost perspective. I looked at it as an expectation management problem. The business units had the wrong expectations for what it takes to win a proposal, and the proposal group had the wrong expectations for their role as a value-added support function.

The first thing I addressed was what the business units could expect from the proposal group. This is different from what the proposal group expects from the business units. As I made notes, the list grew beyond what I could fit on a sheet of paper. It was important to me to keep it to one page since I knew it would be difficult to get their attention. So I turned it into a poster. I could present it during meetings and I posted it in the proposal department.

One day we were discussing an important proposal that was coming up and how we should approach it. I decided to give the executive sponsor a choice:

We can work together in collaboration, with everybody giving their best efforts and treat the process as a set of recommendations.


We can ensure that you know what to expect at every step. You will know what each person is expected to do, including when and how, and who will make every decision. If you select this option you will be committing, both personally and for your staff, to following the process. And we will be committing to meeting the expectations it defines. We will do things by the book. Please examine it before you decide whether to commit to it.

Whichever way you decide, we’ll work just as hard to win the proposal.

What I learned from studying people's reactions to this approach is that executives desperately want to know what to expect. They’re used to being let down and constantly having to fight fires. When you communicate clear choices like “If you want this, here is how to get it” and then don’t try to force them, they no longer react as if in a confrontation or a power struggle.

Taking this approach requires that you organize and document your process differently from the way most people have theirs. Instead of a flow chart of activity or a data flow diagram, the process needs to show expectations and fulfillment. You can’t get away with merely having a way of doing things. You not only must create the book in order to do things by the book, but you must be able to follow your own book. And they must be able to follow it as well. When you commit to fulfilling expectations, you want them documented and you really don’t want to have to walk back your commitment.

This experience was very helpful when I wrote the CapturePlanning.com MustWin Process. Every activity that it defines addresses who has the lead responsibility, who plays supporting roles, and what needs to be accomplished. It is goal driven and goal fulfillment can be validated. When you look at it as a whole, it becomes easy to say “If we do it this way, you know what you are going to get.” It is designed so the process itself can start with review and acceptance by the Executive Sponsor of the pursuit.

By giving people a chance to opt out you really don’t stand to lose much. If they opt out, it just means doing things the same way you are doing now. Only you have explicitly told them that all they can count on is your best efforts. But when they opt in, then they have committed to following the process formally and you start the proposal with half of the battle for process acceptance already won. And while that doesn’t guarantee they won’t change their minds, it’s the fighting chance you need to be successful. 

Just make sure that they have a positive experience following your process, so they choose it again the next time. Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it…

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a 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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