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Survey Says! Which of the Seven Problems Cause Proposal Managers the Most Pain?

Family Feud with Richard Dawson was an American household favorite for over a decade, illustrating our collective fascination with surveys, polls and all types of “Most Lists”. Could be curiosity about how others think; could be an interest in finding out how our opinions measure up to those of our peers or maybe some sort of human need to gather and sort information. Whatever the underlying psychology, we at are likewise interested in survey results.

Early last month we manned an exhibit at the NCA-APMP Professional Day in Fairfax, Virginia. We really wanted to talk to people about the topic of a series of white papers Carl had been working on entitled “Solutions to Seven Unsolvable Problems of Proposals.” If you’ve ever been an exhibitor at a professional conference, you may know how tricky it can be to entice people to approach your booth. Folks tend to be fearful that vendors will try to sell them something or, worse yet, extract from them their business card in order to harass and solicit them well into the future.

Since all we wanted to do was talk to people, we needed to devise a non-threatening way to engage them. We came up with the idea of conducting a fun survey. We asked them to vote for which of the “Unsolvable Problems” they felt were the worst. For visual appeal, we used brightly colored jelly beans as “ballots” which were cast in glass jars. The survey was fun and the conversations that spun out of it were most intriguing.

Here’s what we learned:

25.5 % of those surveyed agreed that the biggest problem in proposals is “No one follows the process”. “Bidding less to win more” was the second biggest problem with 24.2% of the vote. Not far behind with 20.6% of the jelly beans was “Never being prepared at RFP release”. These top three problems ganered more than 70% of the votes. If you put them in sequence you get something like:

  • People don’t do what they need to do to prepare for RFP release.
  • Even though they’re not prepared, you still can’t convince them not to bid.
  • And when they start the proposal in spite of the lack of preparation and your warnings, you can’t get them to follow the process needed to submit a quality proposal.

It’s a wonder that people win any business at all.

There was a tie between “Reviews aren’t helpful” and “There’s always a train wreck at the end,” each of which had 18% of the jelly beans. If you think about it, these are closely related to “They won’t follow the process.” If you treat these three as a single category, it gets 61.5% of the entire vote. If you also think of “Not being prepared at RFP release” as a process acceptance issue, that figure jumps to 82.1%!

Only 3.5% of participants felt that “Training is only for the chosen few” was the biggest problem and only 2.6% chose “The team argues over proposal quality.” I would have predicted that since a lack of training and turf battles over who gets to set the standards for the proposal are major causes of process meltdowns they would have received more votes. But it’s clear that the biggest problem that proposal managers perceive in doing proposals is that people won’t follow their process.

The white papers that led to the survey offer solutions to these recurring problems that are based on new approaches developed for our MustWin Process. When we realized that the traditional approaches would never provide solutions to these recurring problems, we went back to the drawing board. When you look at the recurring problems as a set of requirements, it is possible to build a process that solves them. But most people start from a set of assumptions instead of the right requirements when they try to build their process. They end up with something that doesn’t meet their own needs, let alone those of the people they are asking to follow it. No wonder most of them see process acceptance issues as their biggest concern.


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