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How to Avoid the Wrong Proposal Lessons Learned

At the end of their proposals, most folks either don’t think about lessons learned, draw the wrong lessons learned, or do nothing to change as a result of their lessons learned. That’s why we built a process for handling lessons learned right into our process documentation. Lessons learned should be about driving change. You must be able to define the change. Change must be tangible. If it isn’t, change won’t happen. If change doesn’t happen, there can’t be any improvement.

The result is that most of the lessons learned end up being about the same things. Since nothing has really changed, it’s the same things, over and over. One reason people fail to implement lessons learned is that their process is not written. If your process is not tangible, then it’s hard to make changes to it tangible. Another way that people fail is that they have a written process, but the lessons learned don’t change what is written about the process. Again, if the change isn’t tangible, then the odds of people remembering, following, and carrying out the change are much lower.

Below are some of the common problems people have on their proposals. We’ve also included some of the wrong lessons learned from the problem. These are either lessons learned that can’t be acted on or ones that point you in the wrong direction to fix the problem. Finally we’ve included the actions we recommend that you take if you are experiencing this problem.

Problem Wrong Lessons Learned Better Lessons Learned Actions to Take
We started too late We need to start faster You need to make sure you have what you need to get started ahead of time and you need to be able to quickly decide whether to bid. Implement a process to get you ready to bid. When a lead is identified, it should follow that process instead of going straight into proposal development. Also implement a process for making bid/no bid decisions that specifically target eliminating indecision.
We rewrote the proposal because the draft wasn’t what we needed We need to plan the writing better You need to integrate how you plan the writing with how you review it. You need a process that you can execute without backtracking. Implement a method for planning the content that provides a way to identify everything that will go into the proposal before you write it and gives writers and reviewers the same quality criteria.
We had a crash near the deadline We need to start earlier You need a process that lets you balance the time available to plan, write, review, and produce. Implement a scalable approach to content planning. Focus your reviews on what needs to be validated while leaving how you perform the reviews flexible.
People kept making changes We need people to follow the process You need a process that gets everyone’s input and reviews it before you turn the proposal into a difficult to change narrative. Implement a method for planning the content that identifies everything that should go into the proposal. Get everyone involved with the review of the plan to ensure it is valid before you start writing. Then make subsequent reviews about verifying that the plan was followed and not about rethinking the plan.
People didn't follow the process We need to force people to do what's best You need to give them a chance to opt-out or buy-in. Let the executive sponsor decide whether to do the proposal by the book so they know what to expect or to just give it everybody's best efforts. Make sure that your content planning actually makes it easier for the writers to complete their assignments. Document your process expectations in sufficient detail that you can hand it to them so they can make an informed choice. Make going from your plans into proposal writing an easy process of elimination.
The proposal was compliant, but didn’t “sell” We need to start inserting “themes” You need to base the proposal on what it will take to win from the beginning. Implement a method to identify what it will take to win at the beginning and then base your content planning on that.

In the “actions” column we’re trying to strike a balance between pointing you in the right direction to invent a solution and telling you about our own. Our MustWin Process is built around lessons learned just like these. So it addresses:

  • Getting ready to bid 
  • Making bid/no bid decisions
  • Planning the content so that you identify everything and validate it before you start writing
  • Building a proposal around what it will take to win
  • Getting writers and reviewers on the same page regarding quality criteria
  • Getting consistent results from proposal reviews
  • Avoiding backtracking
  • Managing change without disrupting the proposal
The purpose of this article is not to sell you our process. It’s to point you in the right direction and let you decide whether to build things by yourself or just use ours. Along the way, hopefully we can turn our lessons learned into improvements for all of us.


We get a lot of inspiration from the discussions
in the group on LinkedIn. So can you!
Now with subgroups for international proposals and grants
(Click on the more pull down and then click subgroups)

The MustWin Process addresses all these lessons learned and more

Our Off-the-Shelf Process Documentation
provides step-by-step guidance to help you:

  • Get ready for RFP release
  • Develop win strategies
  • Produce a winning proposal
  • Achieve quality assurance
  • Comes with online training!

Click here to learn more about it

By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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