In a past life I was helping a company create a new proposal department. The company was more than 20 years old and had gone from being a small business to being part of one of the largest government contractors. They had a history of business units not accepting process guidance from the proposal group. It’s not an uncommon problem. Does it sound familiar?
The old proposal group kept saying things like “if they’d only submit their drafts on time” or “if they’d only listen to us.” They didn’t realize that they were just creating a control drama that they were always going to lose. Their response was to try to fight harder for control. It didn’t work. Though it took years, they ended up losing their jobs over it because they came to be seen as uncooperative instead of being a value-added.
I was asked to create a replacement for the old proposal group. They basically wanted to start over. There was so much negative history, that people had lost perspective. I looked at it as an expectation management problem. The business units had the wrong expectations for what it takes to win a proposal, and the proposal group had the wrong expectations for their role as a value-added support function.
The first thing I addressed was what the business units could expect from the proposal group. This is different from what the proposal group expects from the business units. As I made notes, the list grew beyond what I could fit on a sheet of paper. It was important to me to keep it to one page since I knew I would be swimming upstream to get their attention. So I turned it into a poster. I could present it during meetings and I could post it in the proposal department.
As I presented it, the message evolved. It became, “what you can expect and rely on from us — if you follow the process.” We offered them a choice. The proposal group could give them their best efforts and follow the process informally the way they had always done, or they could follow the process formally in which case everyone would know exactly what they would be getting at every step. The key was that it was that the business units that got to choose.
What I learned from studying peoples’ reactions to this approach is that executive managers desperately want to know what to expect. They’re used to managing projects where deadlines and budgets slip all the time, and even though promises are made with honest intentions, you should pad the numbers because you know that’s how it always goes. When you can communicate clear choices — if you want this, here is how to get it — and then don’t try to force them, they no longer react as if in a confrontation or a power struggle.
Taking this approach requires that you organize and document your process differently from the way most people have theirs. Instead of creating a flow chart of activity or a data flow diagram, the process needs to show expectations and fulfillment.
This experience was very helpful when we sat down to write the CapturePlanning.com MustWin Process. Every activity that it defines addresses who has the lead responsibility and what needs to be accomplished. When you look at it as a whole, it becomes easy to say “If we do it this way, you know what you are going to get.” In fact, the process itself starts with review and acceptance by the Executive Sponsor of the pursuit.
By giving them a chance to opt out you really don’t stand to lose much. If they opt out, it just means doing things the same way you are doing now. Only you have explicitly told them that all they can count on is your best efforts. But when they opt in, then they have chosen to follow the process formally and you start the proposal with half of the battle for process acceptance already won. And while that doesn’t guarantee they won’t change their minds, it’s a set-up that would please most Proposal Managers.
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