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5 Things I learned from developing a whole new proposal process

What I learned when I threw aside approaches that don't work, started over, and invented a whole new proposal process

  1. Traditional approaches are hopelessly obsolete. Like most folks, we struggled with the traditional “best practices” for years and never stopped struggling. They can't be reformed — they must be replaced. The breakthroughs came when we decided to stop the insanity, throw them out, and start over. 

    The whole concept of color team reviews is deeply flawed. No one achieves consistent success with them unless they completely redefine them and keep the color team names for tradition's sake. We’ve covered the reasons why in a series of articles and whitepapers.

    And storyboards are something that never worked, right from the beginning. The principals are sound but the implementation is tragic. So we threw them out as well. If you want to know more about that, check out this recorded presentation.

  2. If you start over you can get past the roadblocks. Starting over causes you to look at your needs in a whole new way. Normally when you develop a proposal process, you start by mapping out your milestones: kick-off meeting, drafts, reviews, production. When you start over, you can’t think like this. You have to ask some deep questions like should you even have a “kick-off” meeting and if the answer is “yes” what does that mean? When you start over, you look at your core needs. You don’t need to have proposal reviews. You need to achieve flawless quality. So how do you achieve that? An even more pressing need is the need to win. So how do you achieve that? When you start over you can build a process that actually fulfills your needs. If you want to get technical about it, we’re talking about “reengineering.” You can “google” it.

  3. The review process is the process. To ensure that you achieve what you want (like winning), you need some means of verifying that what is being produced will achieve the desired outcome. You need some kind of quality assurance, or a review process. But what is it you really need? We discovered that in order to validate that the proposal had certain attributes and achieved certain goals, we needed to double check those specific things. We settled on “what it will take to win” as the standard or ultimate goal those items should achieve. We threw out the idea that a proposal review process is series of meetings and instead turned it into series of validations, some of which can occur at meetings, and some of which might not.

    But once we developed that framework, we found that what you need to validate can change from proposal to proposal. So we built defining the list into our process. And if “what it will take to win” is your standard, you need to define that as well.

    Having a review process means you have to consider things that happen before the reviews and build them into your process. Your review process creates the standards by which everything gets measured. It sets the goals. The result is that everything that happens early in the process is impacted by the review process. How you approach quality ends up driving the entire process.

  4.  Work backwards. Instead of starting at the beginning, we started at the end, with what we wanted to achieve and how we were going to ensure we got it. Then each thing we added to the process resulted in other things that needed to be added earlier in order to make sure that it would happen. It’s all about goals, action items, and information. If you want writers to produce something that reflects the things you are going to validate, what information do they need and what are the things you are trying to validate? If the things you want to validate are based on what it will take to win, then how and when do you define that? We found ourselves working backwards. In fact, as we went backwards, we found ourselves going right past RFP release, with things that needed to be done going all the way back to the moment the lead was first discovered. Instead of treating this part of the process as someone else’s job, we embraced it and ended up creating a process to ensure that RFP activity would deliver what was needed at RFP release to prepare a winning proposal.

  5. Pre-RFP and Post-RFP are completely co-dependent. One of the things we discovered is that you can’t escape the need for information about what it will take to win. If you turn that into quality criteria you can build a proposal around it. If you don’t have it, you can’t. It really is that simple.

    This means that the process of gathering customer, opportunity, and competitive intelligence must deliver certain information or the proposal will be based on guesswork. It also means that you can specifically say what information is needed and use that in bid/no-bid decisions and contingency planning. It means you can achieve a smooth transition from sales into the proposal, because everyone can anticipate expectations and information can be in the right format at the right time.

Where our journey ultimately took us... When we completed the process and realized that we had something that fully integrated pre-RFP research with content planning, and provided a way to quantify and measure both progress and quality, we were kind of surprised. We had achieved some things that at the beginning, we didn’t think could be done, and really weren’t what we set out to achieve. But we ended up there because of the way things are linked and how dependent the process is on the flow of information. Once you make that first step of throwing away the way things “are supposed” to be done and really look at what you need, you can make a radical leap forward.

In our articles, we give away the theory and foundations behind our approaches. You can freely use the article above to make improvements to your processes. Take it, run with it, and see where you end up. And let us know so we can all learn and grow. If you want all the details mapped out, along with the forms, and checklists you can put immediately to use, you can purchase our off-the-shelf process documentation. Either way, we’d like to start a revolution to overthrow some of the outdated conventions that are holding our industry back.


You can use our off-the-shelf process documentation to solve key problems, fill a gap in your process, or put a new one into place quickly.

By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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