Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.


Basics: Executive buy-in

 January 30, 2018
by Paul Heron

Many proposal teams have experienced “higher-ups” jumping in just before submission to demand (sometimes major) changes to the response. This typically happens in high-stakes opportunities, forcing the team to reschedule work and even neglect other proposals with concurrent deadlines.

These changes may be valuable—even critical to winning the business. The issue is timing, not quality. How can teams engage senior decision makers and gather their input earlier in the process, so they don’t become last-minute disrupters?

Managing executive engagement

Minimize last minute surprises by formally soliciting input at critical points in the process. Key opportunities follow:

  • Bid/No-bid decision: A structured bid/no-bid decision process focused on factors related to the prospect, project, competitors, and internal implications is the first opportunity to engage senior people and solicit their input.
  • Strategy: Preparing a complete, well-structured strategy document is the next opportunity to get input from execs. See this post on developing a proposal strategy.
  • Pre-kickoff reviews: No matter how well managed, a bid/no-bid decision is always based on imperfect knowledge. Before kicking off a large team of solution experts and content developers, subject your documented strategy to a blue team proposal strategy review and, in the case of large projects, a black hat proposal strategy review. At a minimum, these reviews will affirm and strengthen your strategy. In some cases, they’ll lead to a major course change or abandonment of the pursuit altogether.
  • Proposal reviews: Conduct a red team review when the proposal is 50-75 percent complete. Focus on assessing how well the strategy is expressed in the response. See this post on organizing and managing a proposal red team review. Close to the deadline, conduct a gold team review focused mainly on contractual risks and pricing. Despite their intended focus, gold team reviews always turn up gaps and errors, so build time into the schedule for post-gold review editing.

Scale to suit and execute well

For large AFP proposals Complex2Clear supports, executives from consortium member companies gather at an agreed location and sometimes meet over multiple days. Everyone receives the document in advance and arrives armed with specific input.

Clearly most projects don’t warrant this much executive time. But rather than skipping reviews entirely, we recommend scaling them to fit the opportunity. A two-day review could become a half-day or two-hour session.

In all cases show senior people you respect their time with careful preparation and crisp execution.

Keep your expectations reasonable

Despite your best efforts, last minute disruptions will still occur, for good reasons and bad. Persist in encouraging early engagement and, over time, the incidents should diminish in frequency and intensity.


Need help managing your proposal process?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Basics: Management

 January 23, 2018
by Paul Heron

Our last two posts made the case for documenting a proposal strategy and running a proposal kickoff that motivates, informs and directs your subject matter experts.

The next step is managing to the submission date. That’s the subject of this post.

Managing SMEs

Manage SMEs closely to avoid surprises at content deadlines. Rather than simply seeking assurance they’re making progress, break down their writing assignments and review their results at each step.

This approach is especially critical in consortium responses, where the requirement for consistency of approach and writing style runs up against a variety of corporate cultures.

Consider adapting the process below and roll it out at kickoff, getting SME buy-in on dates for each step:

  1. Ask SMEs to use the strategy and tools provided at kickoff to analyze and plan their sections, including ideas for visualization. Output should include a client needs analysis and bullet points for key items to be covered in each subsection.
  2. Conduct an initial review with new-to-the-process writers to answer questions and provide encouragement. Do this within a few days of kickoff.
  3. Evaluate the plans as submitted for completeness, compliance, client focus (responsiveness) and integration of win strategies.
  4. Review each plan with the writer, providing feedback and making notes for follow up.
  5. Depending on the quality of the plan, ask the writer to proceed to drafting or schedule a review of the updated plan.
  6. Ask SMEs to begin by focusing on one subsection at a time, so you can identify and catch flaws early on. In addition to compliance and responsiveness, evaluate any commonly-agreed structure.

Ask writers to insert placeholders for visualizations they’ve identified. As soon as rough graphics are available, provide them to writers for comment and captioning.

Managing schedules and attachments

Most RFP responses include a variety of forms and attachments. It can be tempting to ignore these until just before submission.

That’s a mistake. We’ve seen several examples where the designated signer or “the person who handles those” is unavailable due to vacation, illness, etc.

Save yourself grief by making a list of all these items and being proactive about collecting them well before the proposal is due. Examples include:

  • Financial statements
  • Bank references
  • Incorporation certificate
  • Insurance certificate
  • Performance bond
  • Agreement to license a proposed technology
  • Safety and compliance records

Use an ATOC

Set up an annotated table of contents (ATOC), or similar tool, to document and track all the components of the response and the status of each in near-real time. Share it with section leads as a way of keeping everyone aligned on content assignments and deadlines.

Next week’s basic: Executive buy-in



Need help delivering quality proposals on time?

Contact Complex2Clear

Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Basics: SME alignment

 January 16, 2018
by Paul Heron

Nothing causes chaos for proposal managers like content that is incomplete, non-compliant, unresponsive, confusing, far too long—and/or late.

In most cases, content is drafted by subject matter experts (SMEs). Although they have the needed technical knowledge, few SMEs are natural writers. Add the fact that SMEs typically handle proposal assignments in addition to their “day jobs,” and it’s no surprise draft content is often less than stellar.

It’s safe to assume SMEs would rather get content right on the first draft and avoid the frustration of multiple rewrites and last-minute marathons. The solution is tools that can guide them to better results.

Giving SMEs the tools they need

Instead of simply circulating the RFP and assignments to SMEs with deadlines for content, prepare for and conduct an in-person kickoff.  Use the kickoff to provide guidance and clarity on the following:

  • Requirements and scope: Describe the project requirements and scope for each of the response sections. Explain why the contract is both important and winnable.
  • Strategy: Provide the proposal strategy described in last week’s post. For maximum relevance to content developers, explain how the strategy can be expressed in each major section.
  • Structure: Provide section outlines as an aid to organizing content. Breaking content requirements into half-page or one-page chunks will make drafting more approachable for SMEs, improve consistency in multi-company projects, and help drafters work to page limits. Encourage SMEs to suggest graphics to visualize important aspects of their content.
  • Style conventions: Provide a proposal style guide containing general guidance on plain language writing, short forms for the prospect and the project, how to refer to project partners, subcontractors and reference projects and how to handle acronyms, abbreviations, numbers and symbols, etc.
  • Workflow and protocols: Explain when, how and to whom drafts should be submitted, including the file management platform and versioning rules.

Distribute this information in hard copy, so team members can make notes during the kickoff. Be sure to schedule ample time for questions.

Set expectations at kickoff

The proposal kickoff is the place to motivate, inform and direct SMEs. Like an army going into battle, SMEs need to understand the proposal is worth winning, that there’s a plan for success, their roles, management expectations and next steps.

Some proposal managers frame the information described above as an author contract that each SME enters into for the duration of the proposal. This framing adds weight to the guidance and to the importance of meeting deadlines.

The next step is to maintain the momentum created at kickoff through close management.

Next week’s post will deal with management basics.


Need help keeping your proposals on track?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Basics: Strategy

 January 9, 2018
by Paul Heron

We’re kicking off the new year with a month devoted to proposal basics—that handful of things you need to get right to submit consistently strong RFQ and RFP responses.

First on our list is strategy.

“Answer all the questions” is not a strategy

Meeting all the requirements results in a compliant proposal—which only means it’s eligible for evaluation. But, assuming you have strong competition, your proposal needs to move beyond compliance and make the case for selecting your offer over others.

For this reason, it’s essential to develop and agree on a strategy, before kicking off content development.

Components of proposal strategy

  • Making a bid/no-bid decision: A thoughtful bid/no-bid decision, based on a consistent process involving key management stakeholders, enables better and faster decisions on new opportunities. See our series on bid/no-bid decision making, including our free bid/no-bid decision tool for more.
  • Understanding the prospect and project: Strategy begins with understanding the prospect’s underlying issues and strategic priorities, beyond simply what’s stated in the RFQ or RFP. Deep understanding enables you to design the ideal solution; it also convinces the prospect that you have insight into what’s involved in delivering the project.
  • Knowing your strengths: In addition to showing you understand, show the prospect you have the experience, capabilities and people to fulfill the contract. A winning strategy includes specific facts and examples that demonstrate strength, rather than empty claims.
  • Competitive intelligence: In tight proposal competitions, small differences among the top two or three contenders often make the difference between winning and losing. Rather than counting on evaluators to spot your unique advantages vis-à-vis competitors, identify them as part of strategy making—and decide how and where to express them in your proposal. For more, see this post on positioning your offer.
  • Documentation: Capture your strategy in a document that can be shared with the entire proposal team at kickoff, and that can be used to evaluate content and to guide reviews.

Strategy always pays off

We recommend taking about 10 percent of the response window to develop and document strategy before kickoff.

Some clients balk at the idea of devoting this much precious time before starting to develop content. But these are often the same clients who wind up endlessly rewriting unsatisfactory content—because subject matter experts (SMEs) were unclear on strategy.

To put it plainly: If you don’t have time for strategy, you don’t have time to write the proposal.

Next week: Providing SME guidance



Need to manage your proposal process better?

Contact Complex2Clear

Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Favourite posts of 2017

 January 2, 2018
by Paul Heron

Welcome to 2018—a year of better bid proposals.

To get off to a strong start, follow the links to our top picks from our 2017 blog posts. 

General knowledge faves

Multi-stage processes formerly used only for very large projects are becoming more common in smaller procurements. If you’re seeing requests for qualifications (RFQs) for the first time (or struggling to get shortlisted) be sure to check out the series on RFQ basics, proving capability, showing alignment and achieving a single voice response.

If you’re looking for more rigour in evaluating your proposal efforts, begin with this post on bid/no-bid decision summaries, and then read these posts on win-loss reviews, win-loss interviews, win-loss reporting and win-loss review analyses.

Strategy faves

Our posts on the dangers of rebid complacency and how to avoid complacency will help ensure a smart and hungry competitor doesn’t scoop your good client at rebid. Whether or not the opportunity is a rebid, additional safeguards against going to battle with a flawed strategy include Blue Team and Black Hat reviews.

After reading this caution against the search-and-replace obsession, check out these posts on when you can re-use proposals and how to identify and pre-build customizable content.

Proposal management faves

Avoid pain and embarrassment by ensuring you own the RFP right from the start. Then use a compliance matrix and an annotated table of content or ATOC to ensure completeness and manage content delivery.

A well-planned and executed kick-off sets the right tone and direction for proposals. Read our four-part series on kick-off goals, preparation, participants and agenda to make yours a success.

Content development and design faves

To clear up a common source of confusion, see this post on the difference between a cover letter and an executive summary.

Challenged to get writers using plain language? Here’s our link to our all-time favourite guide to plain language—and it’s free!

If you want to use more and better visualization, but never seem to have the time, try building in graphics right from the start, using section storyboards.

While we’re on the topic, graphics don’t have to be challenging—or expensive. Read these tips for creating low- and no-budget visualsfast and easy infographics, using meatball charts and easy proposal callout graphics. Flowcharts make processes easy to understand for evaluators. These two posts explain when to use flowchart diagrams and step-by-step instructions for building them.

Want more?

See our blog index to explore the rest of our 2017 (and earlier) posts. And visit our blog page every Tuesday or subscribe to our monthly blog summary (see the form at right) for a fresh injection of winning ideas.


Need more help increasing wins in 2018?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 





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