Don't Fall for Bad Business Development and Proposal Advice
You’ve been getting a lot of bad advice about business development and proposal writing. You might even believe some of it. It probably came from some really well intentioned, highly experienced experts who didn’t realize that it doesn’t apply to you. If you ask questions like these at an association meeting or on a public forum like LinkedIn, you’ll probably get responses from people who are certain they know the right answer:
The answers you get will probably be right — for other companies. But will they be right for you?
- Who should write the proposal (a proposal specialist or a subject matter expert)?
- How many people should be involved?
- How long should it take?
- Should you use boilerplate to accelerate your proposals?
- How many reviews should a proposal have?
- When should you start a proposal?
- Who has the final say-so?
- How should you plan the content of your proposals?
- What should you do to get people to follow the process?
- Should you use consultants or internal staff?
You see, your company is different. If you want to compare apples to apples to make sure that something is relevant to your business, you really need to understand those differences. The right approach for another company, even one in the same industry, could be the wrong approach for you.
- Who is responsible for prospecting and who owns the lead? Some companies have sales people, some have business developers, and some use project managers. Sometimes they find the lead and hand it off to someone else for pursuit, and sometimes they stick with it. Some companies have a very long, complicated sales cycle with many options, and some are just a transaction. Some require a lot of information to complete the sales cycle, and some do not. Some are technical and some are not. Some companies want centralized control over the sales funnel, and some decentralize it by giving their business units profit and loss responsibility. The result is that the answer for who should find the lead and who should be responsible for pursuing it can vary from company to company, even in the same industry. This in turn impacts what information you gather, who should gather it, who they deliver it to, and who should oversee it.
- Who owns the win? If you win the bid, who are the stakeholders? Who gets credit? Who gets rewarded? Who gets to keep their job? Who has to fulfill the terms of the contract? How much of that influence translates into a say over how that lead gets pursued? It's not as simple as defining a role and saying they are in charge.
- Who contributes the resources? Who contributes to the pursuit? Every group, department, or individual involved increases the number of stakeholders. Which of them get a say in how it's pursued? In some organizations, there are dedicated bid support resources. In others, all of the contributors come from operations. Most are somewhere in between. Who leads and who follows? Who's really in charge when the resources are owned by someone else? Which are you and how does that impact the approaches that make sense for your organization?
- What expectations do people have from the proposal function? Do they expect a proposal specialist or group to prepare the content? Or do they expect them to not touch the content and focus on presentation? Or just edit the document to remove any errors? Or focus on production? Or do they want the proposal group to show them how to win? Are they prepared to do what that takes? Do their expectations need to be corrected? Whose job is it to correct them? This impacts when and at what level people get involved in the pursuit just as much as functionality or process.
- What size (of bid, of company) is it? If you do a lot of small dollar bids, you need a different approach than if you only do high dollar bids. The amount of time and effort you put into a bid may have more to do with the size of the bid than the size of the company. Will your approach apply too much or too little effort to achieve an appropriate return on investment? You don't want to over or under engineer the approach. Questions like should you automate, should you use boilerplate, how many people should be involved, how long should it take, should you use consultants or internal staff all depend on the size and complexity of the bid and the nature of the offering. If you are a large company, you (theoretically) have more resources to draw from. But if you don’t have those resources, you need to plan for approaches that enable participants to wear multiple hats and may have to be satisfied with less specialization.
- Formality: Does everything have to be in a particular format, using particular forms, filled out and submitted in a particular way? Do you have a particular style that you must conform with? These can be mandated by the customer, or they can be internal directives. Some industries tend to be more formal than others. Will the approach you have in mind achieve the right balance of flexibility, message, and formality?
- Hierarchy or homogeneous? Are roles in your organization strictly defined and hierarchical, or are they loosely defined and people just do what it takes? Do you have to "go through channels" to get things done? Do people get upset when you ask them to do something outside of their normal scope?
- Democracy or dictatorship? How are decisions made in your organization? Is there a “chain of command?” How much consensus is required to reach a decision? Or do managers have complete authority? Are decisions quick and arbitrary? Or is getting a decision like herding cats? An approach that assumes the wrong decision making style exists within an organization will most likely fail.
- Lead or manage? Do you want the people involved to figure out what to do and figure out ways to achieve it, or do you want them to stick to what they are supposed to do (whatever that is) and do it as efficiently as possible? Do you want support staff to crank proposals out quickly and efficiently, or do you want them to figure out what it will take to win and guide and put pressure on the organization to do what it takes? This may come down to what kind of organization the executives want to have, and there are reasons for them to choose one over the other (such as the type of offering and the sales cycle). If expectations aren’t clear and communicated, then your staff may end up taking the wrong approach and either feeling like they’re beating their head up against a wall, or being expected to achieve something without being allowed to do what it takes to achieve it.
- Is there a career path for it? Are people involved in a business pursuit, seeking to get promoted outside of business development or within it? If a bid manager wins, do they become a project manager or a more senior bid manager? This impacts how much attention participants pay (and to what), how skills are developed, training requirements, how much oversight is required, and how you (and everyone else) invest for the future.
- Culture and the blame game: Organizational culture has more to do with the success of a process than most people realize. It may not be enough to announce a process or even mandate its use. Does the organization embrace process? Is it centralized or decentralized? Is there consensus regarding its needs? Does it lean in any particular direction (technical, sales, structured, chaotic, congenial, confrontational, etc.)? Why do people want to win? Is it a desire to succeed or the fear of failure? How do decisions get made and resources allocated? How do teams form and function? Are people loyal to themselves, their department, the pursuit team, or something else? How do conflicts get resolved? How does the organization learn and change? How will a given approach mesh with your organization's culture?
Within the same industry, companies can be very different. Those differences will impact which approaches will work and which will fail. The answers to all of the questions at the beginning of this article depend on the characteristics of the offering and the organization proposing it. So the next time you get business development or proposal writing advice, especially if it is pronounced as "THE" way to do something, make sure it applies to your circumstances, the attributes of your organization, and the nature of your offering.
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