5 Things You Must Do to Avoid Proposal Failure
It is possible to eliminate the false starts and “do overs” that seem to plague proposals. Here are solutions that can prevent the most common ways that proposals go bad. They may not be easy to achieve, but they do make it clear what you have to do.
- Achieve executive level buy-in for process enforcement and adherence by the executives themselves. You’ve got to start at the top. Typically this means the Executive Sponsor of a bid, or the person with profit and loss (P&L) oversight responsibility and control of resource allocation. The problems you need to be on guard against are:
- Late starts due to indecisiveness or a failure to commit at the beginning.
- Radical changes in direction near the deadline because it’s the first time that the person in charge has actually looked at the document.
- Reviews that are not called for by the process, but required by the Executive Sponsor and usually introduced without warning.
You cannot prevent the Executive Sponsor from leading in a direction that is different from what you would choose. But what you can do is get the Executive Sponsor’s buy-in so that their own self-discipline prevents it. We recommend three strategies:
- Be up front and honest about what you want --- their support and enforcement of the process, starting with themselves.
- Let them know exactly what they can expect. If your process is not well defined, then they have no way of knowing what to expect from it. We designed the MustWin Process so that you can place it in their hands and they can see exactly want to expect at every step. Remember, they have the P&L responsibility and really want to know how things are going to go.
- Give them a chance to opt-out. Let them know that they are not forced to do it your way. Forcing them is just begging for resistance throughout the process. Instead, after showing them the process, ask them if they want what the process will deliver (efficiency, expectation management, quality validation, etc.). If they want that, then there are certain things they need to do in order to get it. If they want it, they are less likely to break it.
We have found it to be very effective to forge a pact with the Executive Sponsor based on you both having commitments to each other.
- Gain access to staff who are able to fulfill your expectations. Because many proposals do not have enough people assigned to them, people tend to think in terms of having enough staff. It almost seems unreasonable to ask for top quality staff when you can barely get staff of any quality. But you need to apply a filter, because staff who cannot fulfill your expectations are no good to you. However, you must be able to define your expectations. Consider these:
- Able to conceive of a winning solution to the customer’s problem and then write about it.
- Able to read an RFP and incorporate the requirements into the proposed solution.
- Able to formulate a content plan prior to writing and then to incorporate all of its instructions into the text when writing starts.
- Able and sufficiently available to meet the proposal’s deadlines.
- Familiar with both the technical terminology and the customer’s terminology.
Having some of what you need is not always better than nothing on proposals. Wasting time with someone who fails to deliver or delivers a broken write-up can leave you with no time to recover. Don’t simply accept the staff offered. If you expect to deliver a quality proposal, you need to filter your staff to make sure they can meet your expectations.
- Be able to articulate your expectations. Expectation management is critical to addressing the needs of a team of people and having their individual efforts align to create a document that will win over the hearts and minds of the proposal evaluators. Managing expectations is often easier than articulating them. Before you start the proposal, you should consider all of the many ways you will need to be prepared to state what you expect:
- Before the proposal starts
- At the start of the proposal
- When planning the content
- Before making assignments
- When enforcing the process
- When enforcing the schedule
- When preparing a validation plan
- Before assigning and guiding reviewers
- When receiving reviews and assigning changes/corrections
- Before finalizing changes
- Before starting production
- When preparing the proposal for delivery
Keep in mind that you will also have to manage the expectations of others. You may even have to articulate their expectations for them. Also consider all the various stakeholders who will be involved in expectation management. One of the reasons that our MustWin Process is so helpful, is that it documents the expectations of the entire team in a way that you can put into each person’s hands. If people don’t know what is expected of them, they probably won’t deliver.
- Define quality in objective, measurable terms. Defining quality will not only end arguments over whether the proposal is “any good” but will also enable you to measure progress against it. You should use a definition of proposal quality that:
- Reflects what it will take to win
- Makes clear what writers should deliver
- Is measurable
- Can be used to validate the design and execution of the proposal document
We go far beyond simply providing a definition for quality in the MustWin Process. We built the entire process around that definition. Instead of measuring performance against the outline or the deadline, we measure it by whether the proposal fulfills the quality criteria, which in turn are based on what it will take to win.
- Discover problems before it is too late. If you wait until you’ve got an end-to-end draft or until you can see the proposal the way the customer will see it to discover problems with it, it will be too late. Engineers don’t build a car and then begin the process of looking for problems in the design. They validate the design at every step along the way. They actually have it easier, because they have the luxury of time to develop a prototype. It might be more valid to compare building a proposal to building a rocket without having any engine tests before the launch. Instead of writing the proposal and then reviewing it, you need to hold reviews prior to writing so you know that what you're going to get will be what you need on the first try. The review that comes after the writing is just to make sure that what is produced is within spec. The MustWin Process provides a methodology for Proposal Quality Validation that enables you to validate the individual attributes of what you need in the final product so that you can check them as early as possible.
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