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  • Proposal Teams Worry About the Wrong Things

    They say Nero fiddled while Rome burned. During proposals people argue while the deadline clock runs out. Take a look at some of the things they argue about. See if you can spot the common elements.

    Can we win?

    Many times companies go after an RFP because they can do the work, not because they can win the bid. Once the bid decision has been made, it’s no longer politically safe to ask “Can we win?” Besides, calculating win probability is a difficult and unreliable exercise. When you are assigned the task of completing a proposal, you are expected to believe with all your heart that you can win. Freed of the need to worry about whether or not you can win, most companies focus on whether they can complete the proposal in time and please the powers that be. This usually means that they worry more about passing their draft reviews than they do about winning.

    Instead, try focusing on “What will it take to be competitive?” You don’t want to challenge the powers that be who decided to bid by asking whether you can win. But you do need to do the things that will get your proposal selected over those of your competitors. If you do a good job of defining what it will take to be competitive, then you create a set of criteria that you can measure the draft against. Then the things you ask people to do and how you assess their progress will come into alignment with what it will take to win.

    Spelling and grammar

    Editing is important. But if you look at everything written about quality writing, you will find editorial issues way over-represented. Worry about winning first. Editing may (or may not) be a factor in whether you win. But it is only one factor, and not the one with the biggest impact. This does not mean that you should submit a proposal full of typos. It means that the risk of not winning because you have one here or there is lower than the risk of not winning because you failed to articulate why the customer should select you. You probably have a greater chance of the customer noticing a layout error than a grammar error. When you must set priorities, base them on their impact on your proposal’s evaluation score. Editors love to challenge you with “but you never know…” This is not a justification to go to the head of the line. Prioritization means you take risks. Worry about things in the right order.


    Style is even lower on the hierarchy of needs than editing. Most proposals run out of time long before style can be addressed. Some people try to overcome that by passing out a style manual or editorial guide to the subject matter experts on the proposal. As if the people who don’t have time to write their sections are going to have time to read about style and change theirs in addition to completing their assignment. You are better off asking them to focus on content and ignore style. Then bring editors in after the assignments are complete to correct it. It’s more efficient that way. Of course you’ll probably run out of time and have to skip it. But that’s because it’s a lower priority, and putting your lower priority up front to distract people with questionable writing skills to begin with is not the answer.

    Formatting the document for review

    I have seen companies go through a 48-hour production cycle just to format a draft the same as the final before giving it to the reviewers. Usually this is because the reviewers want to see the document the “same way the customer will see it.” This is a good goal. You may find that reviewers do a better job of evaluating a well formatted document. But is it worth the time? To answer that you have to ask yourself what you are asking the reviewers to evaluate. Are you asking them to evaluate the formatting or design of the layout? This would be a waste since it’s going to go through a number of change cycles after the draft review and get reformatted at the end. Besides, is that really what you want your executive reviewers worrying about? Are you asking them to evaluate how easy it is to find things in the proposal? The odds are that any problems are due to a bad outline and if you haven’t validated your outline before the draft is written, then it’s too late to do much about it. If you itemize the things you want the evaluators to consider, then you’ll probably find that their assessment does not require any special formatting. And if they want it just because they want it and as executives they are used to getting what they want, then you did a bad job of training them. You will get more out of spending time setting review criteria and training your reviewers than you will on providing them copy that is formatted. You need to discuss reviews, the criteria for the reviews, and what “ready for review” means at the beginning of the process, long before you actually get to the review to set the right expectations. It’s a question of priorities. What do you (and the executives) want to drop in order to move formatting for reviews up on the list?

    The Cover Graphic

    Multiply the number of people times the length of time they spend discussing the cover graphic. You may be shocked to find that it consumes hours. Should it? A well designed text-only cover can be just as effective. The next time you go to a book store, notice how many covers have no graphic at all. Next consider whether it has ever impacted your decision to purchase a book. Still, you want to project a “quality” image. So how much time is it worth? The best way to minimize that time is to reduce the number of people involved and the number of discussions. Keep it simple.

    Color Scheme

    Like the cover graphic, it’s not worth hours of discussion. Pick something and move on. Or print in black and white. Focus on articulating your message. Have you given the customer a reason to select you? Is it compelling? They will have a much bigger impact than your color scheme.

    How many graphics are there?

    A winning proposal may have no graphics in it. None. Nada. Zilch. But only if it has a strong message. And if it has a strong message, then graphics can help it jump off the page. In order to successfully use graphics, you must have the message. This means you must be able to articulate why what you are trying to communicate should matter to the customer. Once you have that articulation down, then you can consider how graphics can make that message clear. If the message isn’t there, graphics won’t save you. Instead of asking yourself how many graphics you have, try asking whether you have a compelling message that clearly articulates why the customer should select you. If you do, then ask yourself how you can enhance that message using visuals. It’s not the number of graphics, it’s the effectiveness of your message that matters. If you don’t have the right message, then you need to fix that before you can address the issue of graphics.


    Instead of worrying about your price, worry about the scope. More proposals are lost because you bid too many hours or too much work than are lost because your rates are higher. Even if the RFP specifies the number of staff and/or hours, it is still better to worry about how much value you are delivering than it is to worry about how many pennies you can shave off your rates before you will lose staff. What you propose to do and how you propose to do it will ultimately have the biggest impact on both your chances of winning and your final price.


    When one approach is clearly superior to another, people tend not to argue. They only argue when the difference between them is small enough to make the matter debatable. In other words, people tend to argue when it really doesn’t matter. Because arguing is stressful, people tend to worry when they anticipate an argument. In other words, people tend to worry about choices that really don’t matter.

    People also tend to argue when limited time and resources mean they can’t have it all. They argue because they don’t want their position sacrificed in order to meet the deadline. These arguments are the worst kind, because the clock is running out while people debate and deliberate.

    The result is that many of the things people worry or argue about on a proposal are either unnecessary or really about priorities. I find it curious how many of them have to do with production, which comes at the tail end when the deadline pressure is being felt the most. You’d think people would fight over the proposal plans or win strategies. Sometimes they do, but with plenty of time before the deadline, they either work something out or go into a passive resistance mode.

    Carl Dickson
    By Carl Dickson, Founder of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

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