Understanding the difference between writing project documents and writing for proposals

Here's what technical staff working on proposals need to know

Getting input from subject matter experts is vital for winning proposals. However, the instincts of the people who do the work are often all wrong. Writing documents for proposals is different from writing project documents.

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It’s easy to get fooled. RFPs ask for documents related to projects in the proposals. They ask for things like:

  • Quality control plans
  • Risk mitigation plans
  • Staffing plans
  • Project management plans
  • Security plans
  • Safety plans
  • Implementation plans
  • Transition plans
  • And more...

Projects often require deliverables with the same titles.

However, what goes into a proposal is different than what you would submit as a project deliverable. In fact, submitting something based on the project deliverable in a proposal can cause the proposal to lose. This can be true even when they say the document is to be used on the project.

How can this be?

The proposal and the project have a different audience with different needs.

The evaluator of the proposal is not reviewing the document to determine if it is a good document for use on the project. They are evaluating the document to score it against the evaluation criteria and select a vendor based on that score. To serve this purpose, a document for the proposal must be easy to score. This generally means that it is organized per the RFP instructions and that it is optimized to fulfill the evaluation criteria. Doing this is more important than reflecting good project management practices. If you are lucky, the instructions and evaluation criteria will not be too far different from what a project document would typically consist of. However, you should organize, sequence, and use the terminology of the RFP and not organize it or articulate it according to your personal or industry preferences. 

In addition, a proposal is primarily used to make a selection and the plans or specifications it contains are secondary in function and importance. This means the first priority for proposal contributions is to explain why your approach is the best. The first priority is to differentiate your approach and not to explain your approach. The benefits of your approach are more important than the details of your approach. Why you have selected that approach may be more important than what your approach is. This remains true even when the RFP asks you to describe your approach, because of the way the evaluator uses the information.

All contributions to a proposal are contributions to how the proposal scores. The evaluators do not score your contribution based on whether it is a good quality control plan or a good project management plan. They score it based on the evaluation criteria. Whether or not your contribution is any good depends on how well it scores.

 

Scoring well is not some mysterious black art

Proposal scores are only partially subjective. Actually, proposal evaluation is a fairly mechanical, forms-driven process. You should study the evaluation criteria and prepare a contribution that stacks up well against them. You should try to envision the forms they use to do their evaluation scoring and make it easy for them to do so. Don’t write something primarily based on your expertise doing the work. Don’t write something based exclusively on the statement of work. But please, oh please, bring all your experience and expertise doing the work to improve how the proposal stacks up against the evaluation criteria. The evaluation criteria will typically ask you to demonstrate that you know what you are doing, but the words they use to do that are critically important.

The RFP may also ask you to demonstrate that you’re innovative, without risk, full of strengths and without weaknesses, compliant, responsive, prepared, flexible, or any other attribute or qualification. And when this is the case, the purpose of your contribution is to prove that you are the customer’s best alternative for achieving the attributes or criteria they are looking for, whether you are contributing a quality control plan, a communication plan, or something else.

The difference between an approach that demonstrates risk mitigation vs availability of resources vs flexibility and does so using techniques that differentiate you from the competition to enable the customer to itemize your strengths while also reflecting this customer's preferences, establishing RFP compliance, and not providing any weaknesses vs a plan that serves the needs of a project are huge. 

Form follows function. The function of your proposal contribution is different from the function of your project documentation. When you realize this, your experience and expertise can make you a hero by providing the insight and details needed for the proposal to prove that your company really is the customer’s best alternative.


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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