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Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.


Managing the final stretch

 July 30, 2019
by Paul Heron

This month’s series explains how to manage large narratives to submission. Recent posts focused on preparing proposal writers for success, pre-Red Team management, and running a Red Team review. This post provides guidance for managing from Red Team to submission.

Immediately following Red Team, provide section leads with annotated narrative(s), and confirm they understand and have committed to making required updates.

Pens down

During or before the Red Team review, set and communicate a “pens down” date. This is the point at which all post-Red Team updates are due. For most proposals, assuming pre-review narratives were largely complete and compliant, section leads should require less than a week to submit for pens down.

Copy editing and proofing

Following pens down, the core team copyedits the narratives for smoothness, grammar, one-voicing and consistency in the use of acronyms, short forms and capitalization. This is often an intense period—but nothing like the panicky efforts to rewrite entire sections that often characterize poorly managed proposals.

Editors should identify instances where Red Team input was not integrated, and/or where content is unclear. When these flaws are found, do not send the sections back to the authors. Instead, retain control of the narrative, by sending a snippet and question via email or using screen-share to make the correction. This is faster and reduces the chance of corrupting a nearly perfected document.

Gold Team review

A Gold Team review, typically by senior executives, is standard for most teams. It aims to confirm the offer aligns with the requirements, is viable, and entails an acceptable balance of risk and reward. If the proposal has been well managed, with a sound strategy, clarity on requirements and well managed reviews, there should be no surprises at Gold Team.

Final tweaks and preparation for submission

Correct any flaws identified at Gold Team and prepare the proposal for upload as text or PDF(s) to the issuer’s portal, or for printing and binding. If printing, have the printer make one copy and do a page-flip with the core team to catch production flaws before printing and binding.

The time scheduled between Gold Team and submission depends on the size of the proposal, the submission requirements—and, of course, your confidence the Gold Team reviewers won’t suddenly have second thoughts about some major aspect(s) of the proposal.

Careful management pays off

This month’s posts describe in a general way how we support our clients in managing proposals for large contracts. The logic is self-evident—before you unleash dozens (or hundreds) of individuals in a high-stakes, time-constrained proposal effort, it only makes sense to communicate a clear strategy, have a plan to manage them closely, and conduct formal progress reviews.

If you base your process on this month’s posts, you’ll see upcoming submission deadlines as a time to celebrate, not panic.



Need help with proposal processes?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Managing a Red Team review

 July 23, 2019
by Paul Heron

This month’s series explains how to manage large proposal narratives to submission. Recent posts focused on preparing proposal writers for success and pre-Red Team management. This post provides guidance on running a Red Team review session.

Red Team review input

As advised in last week’s post, send all participants the annotated sections in MS Word or PDF format at least two days before the review. Include a clear expectation that reviewers read and be familiar with the content prior to the review.

Review process

Use the following steps as a starting point and modify to suit your situation:

  • Welcome participants and thank them for their efforts to date. Confirm everyone has received the content
  • Remind everyone of the status of the narratives—leaders have reviewed content against RFP and strategy to identify gaps or confusing content that will not score well and visualization opportunities for discussion during review
  • Establish the order of sections. Start with big picture sections as a warm-up, but then move to any particularly complex or problematic sections to take advantage of morning energy, scheduling less challenging sections for after lunch
  • Remind everyone of the purpose: To ensure responses answer the questions and identify opportunities to improve clarity, responsiveness and competitive positioning. Red Team is not a forum for copy tweaking
  • Set ground rules: No slowing down for people who haven’t read sections; session leader will suggest taking discussions offline after 4-5 minutes; content leads should understand and agree with all decisions and commitments made
  • Explain work that will be done after the review. Assure participants that all content will be edited for grammar, consistency and one voice to achieve a finished product
  • Begin review, making sure all commitments are recorded and annotations understood by those responsible
  • Break after 75-90 minutes to assess progress


Project the current section in MS Word and live edit the annotations, so all attendees can follow and see the results of their input and evidence of assignments and commitments made.

Consider using a second screen on which you can keep the RFP, org chart, ATOC open for easy access.

Unified or multi-part reviews?

We’re often asked whether everyone needs to be present for all sections. Is it not more efficient to conduct a review with just the author(s) for each individual section? The answer depends on the situation. Use the following for guidance in deciding:

  • RFQ responses, which are fairly short and aim to present a unified team and strategy, are best reviewed by the entire team to ensure no opportunities for fresh thinking, cross-section references and strategic consistency are missed
  • Conversely, very large consortium RFP responses are almost always reviewed in rolling reviews, due to the volume of material to cover, the number of authors, and the time it takes to annotate and prepare content for review
  • Single-company RFP responses, where everyone is familiar with the solution and have developed several proposals together, are also candidates for multi-part reviews
  • Generally, the more one section’s content directly affects other sections, the stronger is the case for reviewing them together; also unified reviews offer the greatest opportunities for fresh thinking, and avoiding group think—assuming participants are fully engaged

Always do a Red Team review

Do not skip the Red Team review step in developing proposals. With proper preparation and management, this review allows you to make major course corrections and improvements while there is still time before submission.

Next week: Managing the final stretch




Need help with proposal processes?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Pre-Red Team management

 July 16, 2019
by Paul Heron

This month’s series explains how to manage large narratives. Last week we focussed on preparing proposal writers for success. Today’s post includes tools and processes for managing the period from kickoff to Red Team review.

Red Team review planning

NOTE: The points below assume narratives total 200 pages or less, and the response window is 45-60 days. Adjust for larger or smaller responses and submission times. For much larger narratives, consider scheduling multiple Red Teams or plan a multi-day review.

  • Time the review for about halfway through the response window
  • Issue invitations early for an all-day, in-person session
  • Invite the proposal manager, capture manager and section leads
  • Set a content submission deadline 4-6 days ahead of the review
  • Specify that submitted narratives be at least 70 percent complete

Pink Team review

If the schedule permits and especially if requirements are complex, consider scheduling a bullet point or Pink Team review between kickoff and Red Team. To prepare, ask writers to analyse their sections and provide their analyses and proposed responses in point form. For all but very large responses, conduct review sessions virtually and/or one-on-one. Focus on ensuring writers are clear on structure and compliance before they begin drafting.

Triaging submitted content

Analyse pre-Red Team submissions when received and return or escalate sections that are not 70 percent or more complete and/or that are non-compliant. Include notes explaining your decision. Fast turnaround increases the chances of getting acceptable content back in time for Red Team.

Structural editing

Due to time constraints, and because reviewers’ input often results in wholesale changes, do not invest in copyediting content at this stage. Focus annotations on recommended cuts to irrelevant or non-responsive content and missing information and opportunities to improve compliance, logical flow, convert plain text to tables, graphics, mini-case studies etc., and to add strategic messaging.

Circulating documents for Red Team

Assemble annotated narratives into a Word or PDF document and distribute to all reviewers at least two days before the review. In your distribution email, set the expectation that reviewers will have read the narratives before the review session.


These investments in supporting writers and making clear and thoughtful annotations enable more successful Red Team reviews and create early momentum towards a complete, compliant and strategic response.

Next week: Managing the Red Team Review


Need help with proposal processes?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Preparing narrative writers

 July 9, 2019
by Paul Heron

This month’s blog series explores managing large narratives. This post explains how to set up proposal writers to be successful.Most content developers are not professional writers. They typically have other responsibilities as their main focus and fit proposal writing in among those other tasks. When assigned a set of RFP questions, they’re likely to reuse existing content, borrow from supplier marketing material, or find other workarounds to avoid drafting original copy.

The most effective way to counter these inclinations is with tools and processes that establish expectations and make it easier to write compelling responses. Main items include:

Proposal strategy

Share your team’s win strategy with content developers to build coherence and consistency across sections. Aim for a document that goes beyond one-liners (We’re local! We have experience!) but is concise (one-to-three pages), so writers will read it. Include section-level win themes or strategy statements, so each writer understands how the strategy should be expressed in his or her content. For details, see this post on proposal strategy making.

Templates and prompts

A well-built template enables writers to easily understand the structure of their sections and to avoid wasting time replying to unscored questions (as often happens), omitting key points, or misunderstanding how their responses should be structured. Include defined styles for all types of content required (body copy, main heads, multiple subheads, captions, callouts, tables, two-level bullet lists, numbered lists, etc.). We’ll devote a future post to templates.

Prompts are the single most helpful tool you can give writers. Each should address a single question and include elements of a complete response and guidance on structure. For example, for the question, “Provide staffing details for the operations team,” the prompt might read: Structure this as a table, with a row for each role and columns for Responsibilities, Head count, Shifts, Reports to. Asterisk key individuals and refer in text to subsection containing resumes. If space permits, include a snippet of the org chart showing the operations team.

Style guide

We customize our in-house style guide for each opportunity, mainly for use by our editors. We provide writers with items they are most likely to use, including naming conventions and short forms for the proposal consortium and teams (Design-Build Team, etc.), RFP sponsor and reference projects; abbreviations for measurements, dates, etc., and capitalization rules. Editing time is reduced to the extent drafters observe these guidelines.


For tightly page-limited proposals, section storyboards can be very helpful in deciding how to use the pages allotted for responses. We use these especially in RFQ responses.


Take time to prepare and run a kickoff that will help writers understand the importance of the pursuit, expectations for their roles and the schedule and protocols for managing content. See this series of posts on proposal kickoff goals, preparation, people and agenda.

Organization and management tools

Although not the focus of this month’s posts, you’ll need the following two tools to manage any large proposal

  • Project schedule: Include all key dates to submission, including kickoff, submission deadlines ahead of reviews, review dates, print deadlines, etc.
  • ATOC: We use an annotated table of contents (ATOC) in the form of an Excel worksheet as a responsibilities matrix and deliverables tracker. A second worksheet contains contact information for all team members, and a third contains a calendar-format picture of the project schedule key dates.

Why invest this effort in preparing writers?

Properly prepared, most writers will produce compliant and responsive first drafts, which can then be managed in an orderly way to completion. Without preparation (and we see this all the time), drafts are all over the map, resulting in a small group working nights and weekends near the deadline to deliver a proposal with which no one is happy.

Next week: Pre-Red Team management


Need help managing large proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Managing large narratives

 July 2, 2019
by Paul Heron

Good management practice gets the proposal writing team aligned at the outset, and then reviews and provides helpful feedback on drafts at key milestones to submission. This approach is especially critical to achieving logical consistency and one voice in large responses where proposal teams often include individuals working remotely and for multiple entities.

Upcoming posts will cover key steps in narrative management, including:

  • Preparing writers for success
  • Pre-Red Team management
  • Managing Red Team reviews
  • Red Team to submission

Basic ingredients for success

In addition to careful management, successful proposals express strategy and reader focus. For guidance on these two components and links to learn more, see below.

Strategy: We’ve written dozens of posts on strategy. Bottom line: You need to develop a cogent win strategy before kicking off content development. Your strategy needs to:

Even in the tightest of response windows, time spent on developing and expressing strategy is well-spent.

Reader focus: Strategy expresses client focus at the business-level—but a proposal also needs to appeal to individual evaluators and decision makers. Personal knowledge of the prospect organization is the gold standard. For this reason, business developers pursuing large procurements can spend years building relationships with the individuals in the prospect organization. Whether or not you have the benefit of that insight, recognize that:

  • Evaluators are typically recruited to the task from their normal duties and may not be fully engaged. They often use a scoring guide to quickly skim content looking for scorable facts and benefits that might qualify for bonus points. Use this awareness to manage content towards plain English. When applicable, structure content into bullet points and tables and use visualization to make key benefits and differentiators stand out.
  • In addition to personal preferences, evaluators will assume different roles as economic buyers, technical buyers and user buyers. In managing content, subject responses to these different perspectives to avoid gaps in your sales argument.
  • Expect every reader to continually ask, “What’s in it for me?” Apply this WIIFM test to all content and prepare to brutally excise verbiage (no matter how elegantly written) that qualifies as mere filler without answering the question. NOTE: Often one question’s filler can be re-deployed as another’s response.

Remember the goals

A successful proposal uses resources efficiently, meets the deadline and makes the best possible case for your team and solution. Achieving this—especially when the team involves many members—requires close management, as much the quality of the offer itself.

Next week: Setting up writers for success


Need help developing stronger proposals?

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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