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Thoughts On Discipline In The Proposal Process From A Proposal Veteran

The last 20 years has seen substantial acceptance in the Federal marketing arena, of notions of applied process in proposal development. Responding to Federal requests for bids has become more complex, leading to increased task specialization and professionalism. References, for instance, to "pink teams" and "black hat reviews" are common enough to be accepted as understood in context (even when they patently aren't).

Nearly all companies bidding on Federal contracts either have processes in place or a longing intention of having them. And there is now sufficient evidence to support the idea that such processes can actually make a difference, particularly in order to successfully pursue large procurement opportunities.

Despite all this, it is also evident there is trouble in River City. The challenge, particularly in small and mid-sized companies, now seems threefold: (1) convincing folks to follow the process, any process, (2) providing sufficient sheltered time and resources to work the process, and (3) fighting a nagging suspicion that the process, even when followed, might not be as efficacious as hoped. Any conversation with proposal practitioners tends to circulate back to discussions of how to make the process work, how to tinker with it. One industry expert, Carl Dickson of CapturePlanning.com, has gone so far as to make a case that our sacred review structure is flawed and needs to be replaced with documented performance measures.

The reality is, in a world of layered multi-tasking and conflicting priorities, it is difficult to bring sufficient focus to a proposal team to produce positive results from what is essentially orderly madness. What we want, after all, is not only (1) a responsive, compliant document delivered on time, but also (2) one that does not have to be produced by Herculean efforts. We all want to have lives outside the war room or simply at least time for our other jobs.

Discipline in the process

I'd like to suggest something more modest, something that might be useful in a number of venues, large and small: Focus on the discipline in the process, whatever process. The trick, from this perspective, is to think through ways to enable process participants to do three things:

  1. Learn whatever methods they need to accomplish their assigned proposal task
  2. Use those methods consistently
  3. Apply self control-i.e., apply methods when needed and as needed

Small and mid-sized companies do not have the luxury of fully dedicated proposal resources. Most people in the process have day jobs. They often face conflicting or unclear priorities, and there is usually a substantial disconnect between actions and outcomes in the proposal process. This is because of the complexity of the Federal procurement process: Until you have substantial experience with half a dozen proposals, it is hard to appreciate the strange things that are asked for and the odd outlines one is required to follow.

I have come to believe that three elements enhance the discipline in the process, that is, the sensible application of the appropriate methods:

  1. Management directive and emphasis-As always, direction comes from the top. In order for folks to seriously attend to proposal development work, the messages have to come from senior management.
  2. Training-We need to think through training and not just annual business development training. Because proposal development isn't their regular job, most participants need focused training on what is required of them for this proposal, this time.
  3. Structure of the environment-In some ways, this is the most important because by structuring the environment effectively we can leverage (1) and (2). There are three aspects of the environment that are easy to structure and that, when structured, make proposal work easier for participants:

    1. Space-This is about where one does the proposal work.
    2. Choices-Here we limit the choices that people have to help them focus on the right things
    3. Activities-These include whatever traditional process elements are in play; the key is simplifying and focusing them

Space

Having dedicated space is, of course, the logic behind the idea of a proposal war room. In today's distributed work environment with teaming partners far and wide, what is needed is a virtual war room more so then a physical one. We are talking about a designated workspace for each opportunity effort. Everything goes in it; nothing stays outside.

There are software programs, such as Privia by Synchris, and network organizational structures that enable such a venue. No matter how clumsy the mechanism, the proposal team gains substantially by structuring the workspace-and eliminating multiple emails and document versions. The trick here is gaining and maintaining control over the document. Version control, at its most basic, is essential for sanity and security.

Effective version control, which is best maintained through a dedicated space, helps writers be responsible ("this is yours, with your name on it") and, as necessary, gets them off the hook (documenting who took over and made those changes). Doing both of these helps reinforce the expectations the proposal team has for the individuals, which in turn reinforces the discipline applied by those individuals to the proposal.

As part of structuring the space, the proposal manager should use all the tricks of the trade for preparing the document: templates, checklists, etc. When you think of these from a discipline point of view, a few enhancements suggest themselves. Instead of just handing out a section template, what about personalizing it with the specific file name to be used and the correct (and only) section numbers to be used. Many do this now, but it helps to think of doing it not to make the proposal manager's job easier but to make the writer's job easier.

And this is where focused training comes in: Specifically, how do you use the template or checklist? This also provides an opportunity for reinforcing things like language consistency.

By structuring the space from the start-and this means from the start of the opportunity, not just the start of the proposal-a substantial benefit accrues to the team in terms of continuity and consistency.

Choices

Templates, of course, are the traditional way of limiting choices. Enhancing these with lists of words to use and not use, as well as specific win themes adds a level of structure. And storyboards take this aspect about as far as it can probably go.

But where else do choices need to be limited? One challenging area is in reviewing and commenting on proposal sections, both in process and at any formal review points. The objective here is to limit the choices available to reviewers-i.e., we need to tell them what we need in the review. At the same time, we need to provide them sufficient latitude to be helpful when so inclined. A technique for doing this can be the ubiquitous comment sheet, but one that is further tuned to this particular proposal and this particular review. For instance, push reviewers into commenting relative to the client's evaluation criteria. Don't ask them to do this; make it difficult for them not to do this.

One of the more effective combinations is to provide training to reviewers, supplemented with checklists. "Training" here and elsewhere is really a euphemism: talk to the participants, explain what is expected, and give them feedback. It is not particularly a sit-down, watch-a-PowerPoint-presentation effort.

Activities

Because so many of the proposal participants don't regularly work on proposals, requirements and expectations should be laid out with clarity. The best way to do this is by using roles and functions, rather than personalities to organize and motivate the proposal team.

This means clarifying the difference between capture manager, proposal manager, proposal coordinator, proposal writer, and proposal reviewer. We also need to specify, for this individual, in this role, at this time, on this proposal:

  • What are their responsibilities and what expectations does the team have for them in this role?
  • What should they not be doing?
  • When should they be done?

Summary

I believe that we need to change the conversation slightly, away from process and towards enhancing discipline given whatever the state of your process might be. This is most important in proposal environments that suffer from a lack of dedicated resources, such as in small and mid-sized companies.

By structuring the proposal environment-the physical and virtual space and the methods and processes-it makes it easier for people to do the right thing, especially people who don't do proposals for a living.


By Ric Mayer, President, Snowden, Mayer, and Associates



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