I think it’s past time we busted this fallacious idea…
It seems like during every major proposal I’ve ever worked on, at some point someone has said, “We should already have this written some place.” People always assume that because a topic is similar, it can be easily recycled just by “changing a few words.”
If they could find it, they’d buy software that would let them type in the customer’s name, do the replacements, and spit out a proposal that is “ready to submit,” with maybe “a little editing.” You can even find software that targets people vulnerable to this myth. The reason it’s hard to find is that it only works for the simplest kinds of proposals where you don't know the customer, and even then it might not be a good solution if you want to win.
Imagine having your management plan pre-written in a file that’s ready to re-use. It’s dry stuff like your corporate organization and approach to project oversight. It’s stuff that doesn’t change much from proposal to proposal. Now imagine having two similar RFPs to respond to. Everything is the same except that (hidden in the pricing section that many proposal writers don’t normally read) it says that one RFP is for a firm-fixed price contract, and the other is for time and materials.
The points you need to emphasize regarding project oversight are very different between the two. On a fixed price contract, you need to show that you have excellent cost, schedule, and risk controls. On a time and materials contract, you need to show that you have excellent reporting and a broad range of capabilities. How many words would you have to change regarding your approach to project oversight between the two proposals? Probably most of them. Some of the details would stay the same, but the context would be totally different.
What if one customer prefers to have a single point of contact, and the other customer wants direct access to project staff without having to go through a “middle man?” How many words would you need to change where you introduce your project organization? The organization chart itself might not even change (although it probably should), but every aspect of it dealing with access, communications, and authority would be different.
Part of the problem is that people do not realize that similar is not the same. A push button proposal can only work if all of your proposals are the same. Even if every RFP is the same, every customer is different. If you want to win, every proposal should be customized to the particular customer that it is being sent to. And it can’t be just one paragraph at the beginning.
The number of words you have to change is always way more than you expect. This is because what needs to change is not just the names or certain key words, but what you are proposing and the reasons why. It’s usually easier to write what you need from scratch than it is to edit more than half the words in a paragraph.
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