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Is Your Proposal Department Empowered or Crippled by the Way It’s Organized?

People who work on proposals often feel powerless to implement the processes and practices that they know can have huge benefits for their companies. When I speak to groups of proposal professionals, people often ask questions like “How do I get them to follow our process?” Many of them won’t get results from techniques for building process acceptance because of the way their companies have organized the proposal function. How you are perceived within your company, whether you have a fighting chance at control over your own destiny, and whether you are doomed from the start has a lot to do with how your company draws its organization chart.

Government contractors tend to have the most dedicated resources for responding to proposals, because that's the only way they get new business. The proposal function is often a separate department, and usually centralized. The Director of the proposal department at a government contractor has real authority over the proposal process. Usually. Some government contractors, especially the smaller ones, may not be able to afford dedicated proposal staff and use operational staff to do most of the proposal work. In these companies, the business units are used to doing proposals their own way. Some companies give their business units complete profit and loss responsibility, including discretion over how they invest in proposal development.

In companies that are not government contracts, how they approach the proposal function depends on the nature of their offering and of their sales cycle. Companies that deal in commodities tend to treat the proposal as an administrative process at the end of a sales contact. Companies that have a complex sales environment are a wild card. Sometimes the proposal process is administrative and sometimes it is professional. It depends on the company.

Where the proposal function sits on the organization chart tells you a lot about how the company perceives its value. The proposal function sometimes reports to an operational manager and sometimes it reports to a sales manager. Sometimes the proposal function is delegated to individual business units, and sometimes it's a corporate function.

The proposal function itself is composed of parts: proposal management, proposal logistical (resources, databases, etc.) support, proposal writing, and proposal production. Most companies do not have dedicated staff for all of these parts. The ones they leave out tell a lot about what they think is important and where their needs are.

If there is no dedicated production staff, then the proposal manager is either acting as a production person or trying to use non-specialized administrative staff to perform complex proposal production. These organizations often associate proposal management with administrative support. The opposite can also be true — some organizations have a proposal production function, but no proposal managers. These are organizations that see the proposal function completely as an administrative function.

Proposal functions tend to evolve as a company grows. Companies start small and their staff often have to fulfill many functions. A proposal department may consist of one person whose responsibilities include both proposal management and production. As the company grows, a precedent established can become part of the culture. If the company grows the proposal function by first hiring production staff, then the business units will take ownership of the process and the production function will be seen as administrative support. If/when the company does hire a proposal manager, that person will be swimming upstream to get the business units to follow the process.

When companies have dedicated proposal managers with authority over the process, they perceive it as a specialization. When the executives themselves follow the process, they perceive it as a specialization that requires specific expertise.

Business development is very similar. Some companies make it part of their operational units and some make it a centralized function. In some environments, the proposal is vital to closing the deal and needs to be handled with care. In other companies, the proposal is just a formality and the emphasis is on the sales process instead of the proposal. That is why in some companies, the proposal function is considered sales support and is part of the business development organization, but in other companies the proposal function and business development/sales are organized in parallel. This distinction determines whether the proposal function is controlled by the business development/sales manager or if it is equal in authority.

If you are working within a proposal group, there may be very little you can do to change things unless you can influence your company’s next reorganization. But what you can do is articulate how things are organized and what that means for your role in the company. The organization chart is generally not driven by the proposal function. In fact, the proposal function is often dropped in it somewhere as an afterthought. What you can do is start the company thinking about what kind of proposal function it wants. Does it want an administrative proposal function, or does it want one with the ability to implement best practices and authority over the process? Or does it give its operational units profit and loss responsibility and wish to leave it to them to figure out how to best allocate those resources? Does it want the proposal function to be a minimal cost/low overhead operation, or is it willing to invest in the function if it can be assured of a positive return?

Helping your company to understand the strategic ramifications of how they approach the proposal function is a great way to help them realize that the proposal function is vital to the company’s strategic interests. If you can’t explain the strategic issues, then either you don’t belong that high up the organization chart or they aren’t willing to listen. In any event, it’s likely to be a long term campaign. It’s also one that’s probably quicker and easier to achieve by finding a company that sees the importance of the function the same way that you do. The next time you find yourself looking for a new job in the proposal field, take a good hard look at how the company, and in particular, the proposal function, is organized.

By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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