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Case Study: Preparing for Your First Proposal

The Chesapeake Story

This is a continuation of a series of articles started in a previous newsletter about a company called The Chesapeake Center. I worked with them while developing the CapturePlanning.com MustWin Process, and they helped test many of the steps and forms. Their CEO, Bob Rogers, was kind enough to give me permission to write about our experience working together.

Start With A Plan

In order to prepare for the first major proposal after we started working together, we began working on the proposal planning documents. To the future Proposal Manager I was training, it seemed like a lot of paperwork. My challenge to her was to tell me which, if any, of the plans would not be needed. I believe that if there is anything in a proposal process you can get by without, then it shouldn't have been there in the first place.

This first proposal would prove to be a major eye-opener because it connected the things we did "up front" with the things we needed later. This proved to be a recurring theme for the entire proposal and one that helped them accept and understand the need for the steps in the process on their future proposals.

It's one thing to read that you should develop win strategies before the RFP is released so you can allocate them to the document, so that the proposal authors can substantiate them and you can achieve a proposal built from the ground up to achieve your win strategies and a competitive advantage. It's another thing to arrive at a draft without anything to discriminate yourself from the competition and see exactly how much better off you would have been had you followed the steps. It's even more clear when you can show them the pages in a written process book that they left blank. Having the reminder in writing also helps to ensure that they get it right the next time.

Lesson Learned: One ounce of doing a proposal is worth several pounds of process documentation if you don't have much experience. Maybe I'll create an exercise for a future proposal course that involves doing the process in reverse chronological order. Start with a finished proposal, and backtrack everything you need to get there. When they're done (and they have to be the ones doing it), they should find that information is created and staged in exactly the same places as are called for in the process.

Not Ready For RFP Release — Déjà vu!

As soon as we tried to complete the planning documents, we found that we didn't have all the information we needed. That is because the pre-RFP steps had not all been followed. This is not unusual at all. I can't remember ever working on a proposal where everyone felt they were fully prepared. In this case, the reason they didn't have all the information they needed was that while they had begun implementing the pre-RFP process, and had started using the forms, they weren't diligent about having pre-RFP Readiness Reviews. They were still learning how. Unfortunately, the result of not having the reviews was that the forms had empty fields that no one had challenged and now they didn't have the information they needed.

It is human nature when a form asks you a difficult question to skip it --- if you can get away with it. The purpose of the Readiness Reviews is to find any holes and figure out how to get them filled so that you will be prepared at RFP release.

What Do You Do Now?

One good thing about the way the process was set up is that it provides traceability. There are specific connections between what they needed after the RFP was released, and the questions on the pre-RFP forms. If you don't have something, you know exactly what it is, where it should have come from, and who should have provided it.

Lesson Learned: Hold Readiness Reviews, make sure all of the questions are answered, and verify that forms are completely filled out. This provides much clearer direction than the more typical "be better prepared for the next RFP."

It also put us in the position of knowing exactly what we needed to research and accomplish. Instead of having to develop a plan from scratch to deal with being unprepared, we had specific action items from the written process sitting in front of us. Because of this, when we had our meeting to validate the proposal plans it was more like a training exercise. Instead of focusing on describing the deficiencies and what to do about them, we focused on the links between pre-RFP and post-RFP success.

Building The Right Foundation

Another thing that became apparent was how much of the plans were re-useable. For example, the schedule page became a template that just needed new dates for the next proposal. The first effort in a new process is always the hardest. Creating the plans for future proposals would be much quicker. The best way to achieve having a written proposal plan for every proposal is to make it quick and easy to do so. The process we followed was designed to deliver the information needed so that it could be cut and pasted onto a template proposal plan in minutes instead of hours. Once they went through one, they saw that it was possible to complete it quickly if they had all the information. This is something they probably didn't believe before (although they were nice enough not to say it out loud). But the best part is that they saw the consequences of trying to do a proposal without having properly followed the pre-RFP steps and how much harder it makes things.

Because future plans would be easier to prepare and the pre-RFP information more complete (due to the Readiness Reviews), it would also be possible to do a better job on the Content Plan. Of all the proposal plans, the Content Plan is the one that I most closely link with success. The more complete it is, the more you know what you are doing and can validate the drafts. On Chesapeake's first proposal, the Content Plan consisted of little more than headings taken from a compliance matrix and placeholders. Many of the themes and win strategies that should have been developed pre-RFP were either missing or did not match up well when allocated to the outline.

Déjà vu All Over Again

When the Content Plan was handed off to the technical staff, it was largely ignored. They did what they had traditionally done and started from their own re-use files. Luckily our schedule called for early draft "check-ins" well ahead of final draft reviews. We had time to re-direct the authors. Sometimes re-directing authors to do something other than what they are used to can be difficult (like pulling teeth). In this case, we were able to clearly show that what was being produced was not RFP compliant. We also took the step of re-allocating what the authors had written to the Content Plan/outline and marked the wholes that needed to be completed. This made it easier for the authors and helped ensure that they understood what was expected.

Because we had created a Content Plan, even if it was a basic one, we had placeholders for themes. The contributors were still struggling with understanding how to write themes. It didn't help that they did business in a commodity market with evaluations based largely on price. They tended to skip the themes.

However, the placeholders in the Content Plan made it easier to approach the themes through a process of elimination. They also made it easier to develop themes that fit the structure of the proposal and to see how the themes added up to the overall win strategies. While the process called for developing win strategies during the pre-RFP period, it's hard to do this when you can't see how they impact the document. Going through the process of linking a list of win strategies to a Content Plan, and then writing to substantiate them and ending up with a document that is built around the win strategies, was really helpful.

Validating The Proposal

Once the writing had sufficiently progressed, we began implementing the Validation Plan. The first thing we discovered was compliance problems. There were many keywords from the RFP missing in the response. They had not checked compliance as thoroughly as the Validation Plan called for. We went down a long list of validation items. Going through the list helped them to better understand what is required to develop a winning proposal.

Lesson learned: Even though the process calls for verifying the Validation Plan at the beginning of the proposal and the items to be validated should be incorporated into the Content Plan, it might also be a good idea to go over the Validation Plan with the writers before they start to help ensure that expectations are clear. This way it is all spelled out for them.

Making changes after the reviews was straightforward --- fix specific validation items and then reevaluate them. It was a process of elimination and they managed to execute it without backtracking or second guessing areas that had passed their evaluation. The result was a smooth production process and a proposal submitted on time.

Waiting For Award

The proposal has not been awarded as of this writing; however, it was a recompete and the finished document better addressed the evaluation criteria, provided more reasons to select them, and addressed compliance in greater detail than their previous proposals. I think they have excellent chances and can't wait to hear the good news.

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