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Fire all your proposal staff and then hire them all again

Periodically the pendulum swings. Companies alternate between having specialized staff to prepare proposals and leaning on their operational or sales staff to prepare their proposals. Companies hire proposal specialists to improve their win rates and efficiency, building up large proposal departments. Then, some years later they get rid of them all to cut costs or decentralize. The competing issues never get resolved, they just trade places. Each time it swings, the arguments for or against are always the same.

If you are a small business that is thinking about hiring a proposal specialist or creating a proposal department, it’s not at all clear what you should do. Should you invest in building a centralized proposal department, or should you decentralize it and instead invest in teaching your operational subject matter experts how to do their own proposals? Depending on which way the pendulum is swinging at the moment, you’ll get advice advocating both approaches.

But the issue shouldn’t be about whether to have proposal specialists, it should be about why to have them.

When a company has proposal specialists, you rarely hear them discuss why they have them. It's as if having them is the goal and once you've got them you don't have to think about it anymore. If you don't give them a strategic purpose, your staff will just do what they can to help. Most proposal groups are very helpful, but not very strategic. Even when companies do have a strategic vision for the role of the proposal department, you often see a gap between the reasons a company says they have a proposal group and their actual behavior.

Here are some of the reasons why companies have proposal specialists:
  • To improve their win rate. If this is the reason, then the proposal group should have a say over the things that contribute to the win rate, including pre-RFP pursuit, process definition and implementation, content planning, win strategy development, quality assurance methodologies, and metrics reporting. If they aren’t involved in those things — if they can't raise the bar in each of those areas — you aren’t maximizing your ROI.
  • To lower the cost of proposal development. If this is the reason, then you need to set the bar really low, probably by focusing the group on production. The higher you set the bar, the more expensive the resources required. While you can make the argument that a proposal group with more capability is a good investment, that’s a different consideration than cost control. You're either trying to maximize your ROI or minimize your costs. If your primary goal is to minimize the costs related to proposal development, then you need to focus more on efficiently pushing paper and make winning (which requires investment) a secondary goal.
  • To centralize knowledge management. If you do the kind of proposals that can benefit from recycling content (and if you’re not in a commodity or product business, you probably don’t), then it makes sense to have someone tending the content garden. It requires a lot of effort.
  • To define and implement the process. If you want to get good at proposals, you must have a process. What most companies do is hire proposal specialists, give them proposals to do, and never actually define the process. They end up with a way of doing things, but no fully documented process, and gaps where they make it up as they go along. Training is occasional, if at all. There is a difference between doing things in an orderly way and having a process. If you want defined roles, repeatable procedures, written guidance, defined quality, and something to actually train people on, you have to invest in making it happen. Creating it “between proposals” won’t get you there. If you want your proposal specialists to function as experts who define and implement the process, then don't use them as your primary writing or production resources.
  • To provide expertise. Good writing, solid editing, consistent formatting, and quick production all require significant expertise. Proposal management also requires significant knowledge and skills. Proposal management and proposal writing are completely different skills. It's not enough to create a proposal group to provide expertise; you need to understand what type of expertise you want out of them.   
  • To provide leverage. A little bit of specialized proposal capability can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the resources coming from operations or sales. But are they teachers, producers, or resources? Are they one of the resources who make the proposal happen, or do they help others to make it better than they otherwise could?  Some of the most successful proposal groups we've seen employed proposal specialists as on the job trainers or coaches, to help the team actually doing the proposal do it better than they could on their own.  In this model, one proposal specialist improves the quality of many proposal contributors.  But it can be difficult to find resources to complete a proposal, and it's easy for companies to start using their specialists to fill gaps when they can't find enough people to staff the proposal effort.  When this happens, they lose their leverage and the pendulum starts to swing the other direction.
  • To take ownership. Of what? Of getting something submitted? Of the offering? Of the message? Of the resources that it will take to prepare it? Of winning? Or of the resources required to do that? If you want someone to lead the effort, you should be clear about which direction you want them to take it.
One of the reasons that the pendulum swings away from having a proposal group in a company is that they end up with the wrong expertise, level of authority, process, and cost structure to meet the needs of the organization. Creating a proposal group is a strategic function. These strategic choices can’t be left to a mid-level administrative manager without the resources or authority to accomplish them.

Strategically, it might make sense for your company to have a lean, quick, and low cost proposal support function that leaves the message to the sales function. Or you might want a group that can lead the development of the message and guide the company through how to win in writing. The approach that's right for your company depends on its circumstances and your strategic vision for how it should win new business.  Resource ownership, cost structures, and where you think it’s best to invest in your company’s growth all factor into the choice. For the proposal group to remain an asset, it must understand what kind of group it’s supposed to be. In the absence of direction, most will seek to be helpful, seek to increase the company’s chances of winning, and quickly find themselves in turf battles over process and resources as they go in a direction that is different than where other people think they should go.

If you're leading a proposal group (or filling a leadership void), then go up the chain and talk about the company’s strategic vision and what it means in terms of roles, resources, and process. If you're an executive with a proposal group, start talking to them about what kind of group they should be, what their goals should be, and how they should accomplish them. It’s not so much the strategy, but the implications of it that matter. Most people will not fully realize those implications. Change will likely result. Maybe even disruptive change. But embrace it instead of fearing it, because the pendulum will bring on change if you don’t.


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By Carl Dickson, Founder of CapturePlanning.com



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