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Everything I learned about proposals was wrong

Everything I learned about proposals in my early days turned out to be wrong.

First I learned that storyboards are how you should plan a proposal. I watched the proposal manager who taught me that fail so badly at getting people to go along with the idea that she ended up leaving the company. I was taught that if people would just try them they’d love them. It took me a long time to realize that storyboards are a poor way to plan the content of a proposal, that the people who resisted actually had good reasons, and that there are more effective approaches to planning proposal content. In past issues we've written three articles explaining why this is so.

Then I learned that every proposal must have a red team to review it. I participated in hundreds. Every one was different. Some were huge production efforts that sought to create a finished-looking document. Some were on a rough draft. Some had formal scoring and debriefing procedures. Most left it up to the reviewers to figure out how and what to review. Some produced valuable feedback. Most were a charade. Reviewers were inconsistent and unguided. Proposal Managers gamed the system to make sure comments were not “disruptive.” But by far the worst was when people would start adding colors. Since one review was too little too late, add an earlier review and call it a “pink team.” Then add a final review and call it a “gold team.” If the red team fails, then have a second redder-than-red team review. All this did was take an inherently flawed review concept and multiply it. When we started thinking about what an effective process should be, we ended up throwing out color team reviews and replaced them with something better. We've written a couple of whitepapers on why it's time to evolve beyond the Red Team.

I learned that you should start a pursuit before the RFP is released. Unfortunately, that’s all that was said. And as a result most companies have proposal processes with nothing on the front end, or two separate processes that are not integrated. Much business is lost as a result. In order to develop an effective process, we had to start at the moment the lead is identified, to make sure that you are ready to win when the RFP is released. And since some pursuits can’t start before the RFP is released, we had to figure out how to make it adapt to them as well. If you do that, you end up with something that adds value regardless of when you start. We made our approach to achieving pre-RFP readiness part of our MustWin Process.

I learned that you should always start a proposal with a kickoff meeting. This one sounds safe enough. But having “kickoff” meetings is part of why people think the proposal starts at RFP release. Here's an article we wrote with an alternative to the venerable kickoff meeting.

I learned that all proposals should have themes. But that was only a half-truth. It’s not the themes that matter. What matters is what they add up to. The individual statements and phrases are not necessarily better than nothing if they don’t add up to anything. Here's an article on why themes are not enough to win.

With all of these methods I was told that it will be successful if you only do it just right. Most proposal managers spend their entire careers making improvements, trying to get people to see the potential value of doing these things, never seeing it work out as planned, and enduring a conitnuous struggle. All of them can succeed in particular circumstances or when you modify them so much they become something different but keep the name. None of them should be taught as a best practice. There are better approaches for all of them. So let’s not burden the future proposal managers of the world with obsolete practices they’ll hopelessly waste their careers trying to get to work. And here's a whole collection of articles on what needs should drive the proposal process and how to get people to accept it.

Instead, let’s teach them what a successful process should achieve and what should result from a successful process. Let’s teach them that pre-RFP and post-RFP should be integrated and define what a proposal needs to be successful so it can be obtained before the proposal itself actually starts. Let’s find ways to brief people into a pursuit without implying that it starts at RFP release by calling it a “kickoff” meeting. Let’s teach them to plan the content of a proposal based on ways that are efficient, that participants can see value in, and that contribute to validating the quality of the proposal. Let’s teach them what a quality proposal is by defining it and validating that the draft reflects it. Let’s teach them to understand their process needs and not pretend that the methods are the requirements. Then we can show them the methods we use. But let’s not teach them to hold on to methods that do not meet their needs just because we couldn’t think of anything better. Let’s teach them what it means for a process to be good and effective, and then honestly assess what we’ve got and what we need to improve. Let’s take a fresh look at it and develop something that actually meets our needs together. Then maybe we’ll be the ones doing the learning.

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By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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