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7 ways to transform your proposal process by focusing on questions instead of steps

Winning proposals is not based on task repetition

The proposal process is not about efficient repetition. It is not about managing the steps that go into creating a proposal. The proposal process is about problem solving. It is about solving the problems that might reduce your chances of winning.

The proposal process is not about efficient repetition. It's about problem solving.

If you base your proposal process on rigid repeatable steps, it will break because customers and RFPs are wildly inconsistent. A proposal process that’s repeatable and survivable involves steps like “create a plan to figure it out, because it will be different from last time.”  I’ve had a lot of fun getting processes like that approved in ISO 900X environments. 

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. The best way to support problem solving while achieving goals is not through steps. It’s through asking the right questions. By converting your process from a flowchart-driven step model to one based simply on a list of goal-driven questions you can:

See also:
  • Improve proposal contributor performance and proposal quality. Before you try to replace your entire broken and ineffective proposal review process, try supplementing it with questions. 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 standards have been met. When people are used to a question-driven process, then using questions during reviews becomes a simple incremental step instead of a revolution. You can synch your questions for proposal writing and questions for proposal review to validate that what was supposed to be done was accomplished. And do this in the real world. And probably do it faster than you do now because lists of questions can function like checklists. Bonus tip: Get people used to starting out by reviewing the list of questions for anything that should be added, changed, or dropped. This will not only make the questions more reliable, but will also increase acceptance.
  • Set and accomplish goals. You can use questions to make the process goal-driven. 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 thinking, than with people who are following. 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.
  • Streamline the flow of information. Questions carry information from one person to the next. Questions can transform information from one format to another. Questions can assess, consider, and validate information. Questions can make sure that the next person has what they need to accomplish their goal, while communicating what that goal is.
  • 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 their answers correlate with your win rate?
  • Fill your gaps and address your weaknesses. Did people answer all the questions but the proposal still ran into difficulties? Can you add questions that prevent the problems from recurring? You can write questions that force people to change procedures. You can write questions that change styles and approaches. You can write questions that change results. The right questions will improve your win rate.
  • Anticipate and solve 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.
  • Change behaviors. The right question at the right time ensures awareness. 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.

This is why the Recipe Library in PropLIBRARY has over 500 questions. It provides quick inspiration for guiding people through the problem-solving exercise that the proposal process really is.

When you ask questions 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. 

Process acceptance

A key part of gaining acceptance for the proposal process 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,” because they make doing the proposal easy. Even if some of the questions are hard to answer, that’s not the fault of the list. Figuring out what to do about critical questions you can’t answer is a key part of winning proposals. Hiding from them is a key part of losing proposals.

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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, 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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