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Avoid Getting Caught in the Business Development Growth Trap

Most companies have poorly defined business and proposal development processes. Any chance at improvement is often squashed by having even worse enforcement of any processes that they do have. When we talk to proposal specialists, their number one complaint is that people won’t follow their process. At the last conference we attended I think I figured out why this problem is so widespread.

The problem starts when companies are small businesses and has to do with how they grow. I talked with one company that went from 40 people, to 80 people, and next year will be at 300 people. Another company I talked to went from 20 people, to 40, and then 200. This kind of growth is not unusual. Once a company is established and proven, they start to land larger contracts. But what really matters is not their total head count. What triggers the trap is that they went from just 2-3 people involved in business development to 5-10 people (at multiple locations) involved in business development.

The Business Development Growth Trap happens when companies start with a couple of key people who are struggling to keep up and have a successful way of doing things, but never find time to properly document their process. When they grow into a group of dispersed staff, each new person brings skills, capability, and experience. In the absence of any other direction, each person does things the best way they know how. Since most are quite good (that’s why they got hired), the company continues to grow. But even just a year later, as the company evolves, precedents are set and their corporate culture for business development becomes based on groups who have developed their own ways of doing things.

The Business Development Growth Trap is sprung in that year of expansion and becomes harder and harder to escape as time passes on. Ultimately it limits the potential of the company because their business development and proposal functions are not coordinated and are not able to efficiently take advantage of best practices and lessons learned. Some groups do a good job, some groups don’t. The company marches on, never realizing how much bigger and better it could have been. Until that fateful year of expansion, the trap could have been avoided. But once you are in it, you get sucked in like quicksand.

Once the trap has sprung:

  • Changing business development procedures will be disruptive and could impact the company’s continued growth.
  • Processes that are not fully documented cannot spread ("I know how to do it" is not sufficient for others to follow).
  • It costs far more in time and training to implement a standard process.
  • The business units or operating groups are now large enough to be small companies of their own, with sufficient power and control to resist a process roll out.
  • Anything less than a top level mandate to implement a standard process will probably fail.

This is the Business Development Growth Trap. If you don’t have your process fully documented when you shift from just a couple of business development/proposal people to more than a handful of people spread throughout the company, you may never get the chance to get everyone on the same page. What really makes the trap vicious is that before the growth surge, you will be too overloaded to have the time to get the process properly documented.

So how do you avoid getting caught in the Growth Trap? One way is to implement our off-the-shelf process documentation. Each time a new person comes on board with business development responsibilities, you can sign them up and download a new copy for them. It puts you in a position of being able to say “this is how we do things” before they fill the void with their own approach. It also enables you to implement a fully documented process while being assigned proposal after proposal.

If you have fallen into the Growth Trap and there are now a number of people involved in business development, there are basically two approaches you can take to getting out of the trap. Both require that you have your process documented in order to have something you can standardize on.

If executive management is decisive and strong, you can ask for a mandate. The mistake most people make is that they ask for a mandate before they have the process fully documented and ready for implementation by others. If you get buy-in at the top, you can’t take time to document the process before you start implementing or you risk losing your mandate. You need to have your fully documented process in hand when you ask The Powers That Be to implement and enforce it. The decision-maker needs to see it in order to support it. And you both need to be able to distribute it in order to mandate it.

If your company is decentralized or indecisive, you will still need your process fully documented before you start. You’ll have a tough time selling the idea if you ask people to accept doing proposals your way, over their doing things their own way. But if you have a fully documented process and ask everyone if it is something the company can standardize on, that is a different question. It gives everyone something to rally around. It also gives you a negotiating tool — if someone has discovered a good approach, has an innovation, has special circumstances, or there is something that someone wants to be able to keep doing, you can write it into the process documentation.

If you are still a small business, the future success of your business is riding on whether you can avoid the Growth Trap. If you do not avoid it, you will find it increasingly difficult to implement the best practices for pursuing and winning business. You may never be able to get everyone on the same page and will struggle with getting people to follow your process. You will never reach your full potential.

If are a large business now realizing that you have already been caught in the Growth Trap (possibly many years ago), you need more than to simply get people to follow your process. You need to get everyone on the same page and keep them there. The only way to achieve that will either be by executive command or a rallying point that people can see and accept. You will be working against the inertia of the status quo. If the company is not feeling any pain, they will keep marching along without realizing how much bigger or better things could be. If they are feeling pain, they will be more willing to change, but everyone will have an opinion on what that change should be and you could be seen as a distraction.

Most people are familiar with the value of having a fully documented business development and proposal process for achieving efficiency, improving quality, and boosting your win rates. However, sometimes having your process fully documented is less about the formality of having it well defined, and more about having something scalable that can keep up as your business grows and hires new staff. Most people don’t realize that the business development and proposal process may be the single most important thing in the entire company in determining whether the company reaches its full potential.


Click here to Learn More About Our Off-the-Shelf Process Solution ] 

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By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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