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11 ways to transform your proposal process

Winning proposals is not based on efficient task repetition

The proposal process is not about efficient repetition. It is not even primarily about managing the steps that go into creating a proposal. The proposal process is about problem solving, starting with figuring out what will it take to win. It is about solving the problems that can reduce your chances of winning. Each time you execute the proposal process you will encounter new, unanticipated problems that mostly result from the customer asking for things in different ways. This is where you should focus. This is what you must obsess on and get good at. 

If you base your proposal process on rigid repeatable steps, it will break because customers and RFPs are wildly inconsistent. Even small differences will break most processes. Even though it is our nature to want to make proposals routine, they are not. Proposals are a series of problems within problems to be solved in a competitive environment.

A certain amount of repeatability can help set expectations and keep everyone on the same page. However, achieving repeatability is not the path to maximizing your win rate. Solving the problems and variations better than your competitors is the key to maximizing your win rate.

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Your proposal process should be based on problem solving and not on task repetition. And problem solving means being flexible about how you fulfill your goals. A goal-driven proposal process is much better than a procedure-based proposal process for solving problems that can't be anticipated. To transform your process into one that achieves your goals and maximizes your win rate, instead of mechanical steps, try focusing on:

  1. Improving proposal contributor performance and proposal quality. Before reengineering your proposal review process, try simply supplementing it with questions for people to address during reviews. Questions can set the foundation you need to start moving reviews from subjective opinion-fests to quality criteria based validation. Proposal quality criteria are simply questions that assess whether quality standards have been met. When people are used to a question-driven process, then reengineering your process by changing the questions becomes a simple incremental step instead of a revolution. You can also synch the questions that both the proposal writers and the proposal reviewers use for guidance. This helps the writers to know what to write to pass the review and it helps the proposal validate whether what was supposed to be done by the proposal writers was actually accomplished. 
  2. Gaining proposal process acceptance. A key part of gaining proposal process acceptance is to make it easier to follow the process than it is to make it up as people go along. Instead of creating questions that are a burden, create questions that deliver what people need to accomplish their goals and questions that enable them to think things through more quickly. When you do this well, people will naturally pick up the lists of questions, which you might encourage them to call "checklists" or "cheat sheets" because they make doing the proposal easy. People covet checklist driven proposals and always love a cheat sheet.
  3. Passing the proposal process minimization challenge. Encourage people to point out anything in the process that is unnecessary or that won't matter. You should challenge them to point out anything that can be dropped from the process without lowering your win rate. This will not only make the process more reliable, but it will also increase acceptance. 
  4. Setting and accomplishing goals. Instead of mandating procedures, focus on what you need to accomplish. Then move on to "What do you need to make that happen?" and "How will people know if they've done what is needed?" With just these questions you can start to see how the combination of goals and the right questions shapes the process better than boxes on a flow chart. Questions can get people thinking about how to accomplish things and meet standards instead of going through the motions with steps. I’d much rather work on a proposal with people who are defining goals and thinking about the best way to accomplish them, than with people who are simply following and only doing what they are told. The right questions can inspire thinking. Sometimes I don’t even care what the answers are. I just care that they are well thought through and position us to win.
  5. Streamlining the flow of information. Answering questions carries information from one person to the next. Questions can transform information from one format to another. Questions can be used to assess, consider, and validate information. Questions can make sure that the next person has what they need to accomplish their goal, while simultaneously communicating what that goal is. When the information is uncertain and what to do with it depends on a lot of factors, like we typically encounter in preparing proposals, the flow of information is better managed through questions than procedures.
  6. Accumulate metrics you didn’t even know were possible. Did people skip questions? Which ones? Did they give any shallow non-answers? Over a series of proposals, what can you learn from the way people answered the questions? How do the answers correlate with your win rate? You can gain insights you otherwise would have missed that unlock win rate improvements that make it all worthwhile.
  7. Filling your gaps and addressing your weaknesses. If people answer all the questions but the proposal still runs into difficulties you can add questions that prevent the problems from recurring. You can write questions that force people to change procedures. Or even behaviors. You can write questions that change styles and approaches. You can write questions that change results.
  8. Lessons learned and continuous win rate improvement. You can implement a continuous win rate improvement program simply by improving the questions that define your process regularly and raise the bar every time. It helps when you encourage people to use the lists of questions as checklists. It makes it easy to check in with people after each proposal, get feedback (formal or informal), and tweak the questions for next time. Just don't let the lists grow too long or you'll start to see resistance. You can even have business line or customer specific sets of questions.
  9. Anticipating and solving problems. You can write questions that prompt people to be on the lookout for indicators of problems. You can write questions that simply prompt people to consider the risks. You can write questions that ask if people have taken mitigation actions. You can write questions that ask whether certain people have been notified about unpredictable problems. You can write questions that keep people informed, on the lookout, and guide them to the right response. Since proposals are about problem solving, you can use this to shape the entire development effort.
  10. Changing behaviors over time. The right question at the right time can set expectations, be a reminder, and prompt action. The right question at the right time forces a choice. Very few people will intentionally do things to harm a proposal, if they are aware and don’t have conflicting priorities. The right questions can address both of these. 
  11. Building in expectation management and communication. Everything you do on a proposal comes with expectations that flow in every direction. Ignore them at your peril as they are the number one source of proposal friction. Instead build in clarity. Everything you do should come with communication before, during, and after. And every communication should clarify expectations. Instead of focusing on proposal reuse, try creating communication templates so that this becomes easy to do.

Timing matters

Ask the right question at the wrong time and it will have no impact. The right time to ask a question depends on what has been done, what comes next, what resources are available, and the person being asked. Focus less on dates and deadlines, and more on goals and dependencies. Also, since far more time is spent thinking and talking about a proposal than actually writing it, you can use questions to accelerate thinking and discussion. You can use questions to greatly reduce open-ended circular discussion and rumination that never ends. But you have to anticipate what and why people ruminate, so that your questions can eliminate the need before it occurs. 

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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.

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