35 ways to tell when your proposal process is broken and hurting your win rate

Don't give up. These problems are solvable. Here's how to recognize when it's time to seek change.

Your proposal process is broken. But don’t feel bad. Everyone’s proposal process is broken. And while it might be easier to accept that the proposal process can always be improved, it's better to be honest about just how broken it is. 

I have worked on countless proposals at a few hundred different companies. Some proposal process implementations are better than others. But all of them have serious defects and people are usually in denial about it. This doesn’t get their proposal process fixed. In fact, it makes their proposal win rates lower than they could be. This might be the single biggest thing keeping companies from maximizing their win rate.

When people don’t know how to fix their proposal process, they sometimes conclude that it’s the environment that’s broken and not the process. The truth is they’re both broken, and while you might not be able to change the environment, you can change the process. And maybe fixing your process will improve the environment.

When problems appear unsolvable, people stop paying attention to them. They stop thinking of them as problems. Many of the issues on this list are tolerated by most companies, because they don’t believe they can fix them. 

Rather than evangelize about our process recommendations, this article is about how to recognize when your proposal process is broken but solvable. 

See also:
Proposal Management
  1. People talk about the proposal instead of creating a tangible plan for the proposal
  2. People bring information to the proposal instead of what to do about it
  3. Any research done before the RFP is released doesn’t end up being useful for preparing the proposal
  4. Intelligence gathering is based on whatever people are able to find instead of discovering what it will take to win
  5. The top reasons given for bidding include “we can do the work,” “we have the experience” or “the opportunity is perfect for us”
  6. The compliance matrix isn’t validated before proposal writing starts
  7. The proposal outline is reviewed at Red Team
  8. The top goal after receiving the RFP is to start writing
  9. People think it’s easier to skip the process than follow it
  10. Proposal writers don’t know what the reviewers expect
  11. Self-assessment tools aren’t provided to proposal writers
  12. Proposal writing starts from copy recycled from a past proposal
  13. Proposal writers can’t tell you how to achieve RFP compliance
  14. Proposal writers can’t tell you how their sections will be scored or what they need to do to achieve a top score
  15. Proposal writers either don’t start from the points they are trying to prove, or don’t know what points they should be proving
  16. Proposal writers have questions that could have been answered, but no one asked the questions
  17. Win strategies are developed after proposal writing starts
  18. Win strategies aren’t validated until the Red Team
  19. Your plan for what to say in your proposal doesn’t go any further than a compliance matrix, outline, and occasionally some attachments like a list of themes
  20. People figure out what to propose by writing about it
  21. Key documents don’t make it to the proposal writers
  22. Key documents are ignored by the proposal writers
  23. The highest priority for proposal writers is completing their assignments and not getting the top score
  24. The highest priority for proposal writers is their other work
  25. Single points of failure
  26. Color team labels are used and no two people define them the same way
  27. Reviewers arrive without having read the RFP
  28. Reviewers decide what to look for on their own
  29. No two reviewers define proposal quality the same way
  30. Reviews don’t start until the proposal is in finished form or “the way the customer will see it”
  31. The most important person changes everything when they finally get around to looking at it
  32. There are no written proposal quality criteria
  33. Priorities and decisions aren’t based on the potential impact to the score of the proposal
  34. Decisions are based on what you think, instead of what the customer thinks
  35. Someone thinks there’s a better way than what it says in the RFP

How many of these occurred during your last proposal?

Rather than trying to solve them one at a time, look for common root causes. If you solve the root cause, you can fix many problems at once. For example, most of the items related to the proposal review process are a result of not defining proposal quality or having written proposal quality criteria. Many of the items related to proposal writing are a result of giving up on finding a way to plan the proposal before you start writing it. 

Solving some of them will require you to look at things differently. The proposal process is not about paper. Sure, it ends up on paper, but how it gets there is the result of a flow of information. Information must be sought, recorded, transformed, validated, and guided into a winning proposal. If you start by asking yourself how to create the document, you’ll end up with problems like those above. However, if you start by asking what information you need, where it comes from, and what guidance the other people you work with need to gather, then record, transform, and validate that information, you will see much better results.

Our first transformative moment came in 2001, when we used this way of looking at things to create the MustWin Process. That’s how we know the problems above are solvable. We not only wrote the process, but we’ve had nearly two decades to test it in practice.

See also:
About MustWin Now

The MustWin Process, however, is still document-based. Working with teams of people to create a document is like herding cats, even with a well-documented process. In 2018, we had our second transformative moment when we did some proposal software research and development based on information gathering, transformation, and validation and tripped across a completely different way of doing things. The result was MustWin Now. Instead of focusing on document assembly, MustWin Now focuses on solving problems like those above. It's not a tool for automation, it's a tool for winning.

Along the way, we discovered a curious thing. Instead of thinking about the process, people using MustWin Now think about working with the information in front of them as it becomes the proposal. They stop trying to jump straight into writing. They do proposal content planning without thinking much about it, because they don't have to create a document called a "plan" before they create the document that is the proposal. Content planning in MustWin Now feels more like getting ready to write. And when they do start proposal writing, they have specifications to self-assess against. When proposal reviewers look at the draft, they have the same specifications to work with instead of making it up as they go along. It’s as if the “process” disappears and people just start working on the proposal using the tool.

Whatever approach you take, and whether you take it online or offline, the problems above are solvable. Don’t stop trying. But also, don’t keep doing the same things and expect them to suddenly start working. Feel free to reach out to us with your questions, or to get our hands-on help on implementing the solutions we’ve discovered.
 

The MustWin Process

PropLIBRARY Subscribers who are signed in will see additional information and links for the MustWin Process documentation here. The MustWin Process and related online training comes with a subscription to PropLIBRARY and includes over 160 premium content items. Even better, our online software, MustWin Now comes with a PropLIBRARY Subscription at no extra charge.


Access to premium content items is limited to PropLIBRARY Subscribers

A subscription to PropLIBRARY unlocks hundreds of premium content items including recipes, forms, checklists, and more to make it easy to turn our recommendations into winning proposals. Subscribers can also use MustWiin Now, our online proposal content planning tool.


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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