Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.

Plans and approach sections

 February 19, 2019
by Paul Heron

Earlier this month we covered the benefits of standardized proposal content and how to apply standardization to proposal resumes and project sheets. The idea is not simply to cut-and-paste sections from previous proposals—but to take advantage of inherent similarities in requirements from one response to the next.

This week we’ll look at plans and approach sections.

Standardizing plans

Every RFP calls for one or more plans. Examples include implementation plans, solution plans, staffing plans, stakeholder communication plans, environmental plans, quality plans, safety plans—the list is long. Potential ways to standardize include:

Templates: Quality, safety, environmental, communications, transition and similar plans lend themselves to templates you can reuse and tailor to each prospect and project. As an example, for implementation, one IT company uses a templated plan with a custom section showing understanding of the project-specific challenges, followed by a Gantt chart and sections on governance, training, stakeholder management, etc. Each of these sections requires some customization—but contains mainly company approved content.

Structure: Solution plans in most cases need to be highly customized to the project and prospect. In this case use a standard client-friendly structure to guide your efforts. For example:

Paint a picture of your plan in action, addressing known hot button issues

Present the plan in a structured format, such as a three-column table

  • Column 1: WHAT—Name of the step (stage or phase)
  • Column 2: HOW—What will be done, and by whom
  • Column 3: OUTCOME—Resulting milestone or client benefit

Provide proof your company and team have successfully executed a similar plan

Information architecture: For large, complex responses, proposal teams typically write all content from scratch. This is especially true where multiple companies are responding as a joint venture team. In these cases, you can still benefit from taking a standard approach to organizing sections.

This content-agnostic approach uses prompts to structure responses as follows:

  • Concepts or principles behind the plan
  • Actions the team will take (what you will do)
  • Related experience—proof you have been successful with this approach
  • Links to the issuer’s requirements and hot button issues

Provide this or a similar structure at kickoff to help content drafters organize their content. Following a consistent structure ensures drafts include required information and creates logical consistency across the proposal, signalling the presence of unified thinking.

Balance efficiency with quality

Whatever techniques you use to make proposal drafting more efficient, never put proposal development on autopilot.

Instead, take every opportunity to demonstrate understanding, respond to the issuer’s key issues and to position your company and solution against competitors.

Next week: Standardizing graphics


Need help improving proposal team efficiency?

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Photo credit

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




Resumes and project sheets

 February 12, 2019
by Paul Heron

Standardizing content allows proposal teams more time to build out their strategies, improving both efficiency and quality. This post looks at two ideal standardization candidates—resumes and project descriptions.

Like all proposal content, resumes and project sheets descriptions need to:

  • Comply with requirements
  • Show understanding of the project and the prospect
  • Position the proponent as best qualified to deliver excellent results
  • Enable proposal evaluators to award maximum points based on a quick read

Approach to standardization

Decide on the items you intend to include, and identify those you’ll want to customize for each project. Set up a two-column table, with the names of items in the (narrow) left-hand column rows and the corresponding content on the right. 

The sections below show typical categories of information for resumes and project sheets. We've underlined the items you'll likely need to customize.


Use resumes to show evaluators you understand the key roles required for the project, the knowledge and experience needed for those roles, and and that you’ve staffed each role with a fully-qualified individual. See below for typical content categories:

  • Photo (only if you have similar, high quality photos for all individuals)
  • Name and professional designation(s)
  • Current employer, position/title and years of experience
  • Proposed role in the project—three to four sentences describing responsibilities
  • Qualifications—four-to-six points supporting your choice of this individual for this project
  • Profile: A two- or three-sentence summary of the individual's strengths and experience 
  • Reverse order chronology of recent roles (or projects), including responsibilities and positive impact made. Use a separate row for each role or project and structure the information for each consistently.
  • Education, certifications, awards and recognition

Some RFPs ask for additional information, such as the percentage of time each key individual will be committed to the project. Include this as part of the proposed role description or as a separate row in the template.

Project descriptions

Like resumes, project sheets need to show understanding of the RFP project. The template below is generic; you may need to add categories relevant to your business. Construction project sheets, for example, typically require original and final contract value and completion dates with explanations of any variances.

  • Photograph
  • Project name
  • Name of client 
  • Measures of size (for example contract value) and completion date
  • Relevance to RFP project—four-to-six points 
  • Description—what problem was the project resolving?
  • Innovations, challenges overcome
  • Individuals involved who overlap with the current project
  • Evidence of success and excellence 
  • Reference—name, title, organization, email address, telephone number

Always align content with RFX requirements

Some RFPs (RFQs, RFIs) detail  the contents of resumes and project sheets. In this case, use the same language and order as specified in the RFP document. If you've put careful thought into developing standard resumes and project sheets, you’ll be able to adapt them with minimum effort.

RFPs in many industries specify maximum lengths for resumes and/or project sheets.—usually two pages for resumes and three for project sheets. If typical RFPs you see contain these limitations, make your standard versions the same lengths. 

Next week: Standardizing plans and approach sections


Need help deciding what and how to standardize?

Contact Complex2Clear




Photo credit


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




Standardizing content

 February 5, 2019
by Paul Heron

Every proposal team looks for ways to reuse proposal content.

We never recommend copying and pasting entire sections, and then searching and replacing the prospect’s name. But between that extreme and writing all content from scratch, there’s plenty of room to use recycled content and still build strong proposals.

In fact, if you use the time saved by standardizing to focus on a prospect’s strategic drivers and hot button issues, you’ll get a stronger proposal than by starting from scratch.

In this post and the next three, we’ll show you how.

RFPs tend to have a lot in common

Consider categories of information required in RFPs (and RFQs etc.) for your business. For example, if you manage infrastructure RFPs, you will typically need plans for mobilization, staffing, operations and maintenance, business continuity, communications reporting, etc.

If your teams bid to design, build, finance, operate and maintain (DBFOM) infrastructure, you’ll need the above plus (at a minimum) design, construction, financing, and governance plans.

Finally, nearly every RFP calls for a corporate profile, details of previous experience and performance and resumes for proposed key individuals.

Some content is better suited to standardization

Successful standardization begins with identifying categories that offer the best possibilities.

Of the sections above, some obviously need to be more RFP-specific than others. At one extreme, your proposed design (or solution) section will need to be highly opportunity-specific. At the other, the corporate profile, project sheets and key individuals’ resumes offer greater room for standardization.

Use structure to standardize project-specific content

Most teams use variations on standard formats for organization charts, resumes and project descriptions.

For plans and proposed approach sections, where content needs to be highly customized, use frameworks and prompts to guide content development. See this post on storyboarding sections for more.

In addition to improving efficiency, pre-built frameworks support consistency and quality. We’ll include more on this in an upcoming post.

Balancing reuse and relevance

Using standard content involves an ongoing balancing act between greater efficiency on the one hand and responsiveness on the other.

In coming posts we’ll help you strike that balance for specific content types.



Need help making your proposal process more efficient?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Demonstrating performance

 January 29, 2019
by Paul Heron

Last week's post focused on describing relevant experience in proposals. This week, we'll look at how to document your past performance.

Just to be clear: Experience refers to your past involvement on projects similar to the one on which you’re bidding. Performance refers to evidence of success.

Support versus proof

Some bidders have world-class records. They can demonstrate 100 percent on-time, on-budget delivery, six-sigma quality and high reliability. They have multi-year no-lost time accident metrics across all sites and zero regulatory compliance issues over many years.

Stats like this are proof of performance. If your company is in this happy position, simply cite your proofs of performance and move on to the next section.

But if you’re just building your track record or have past performance issues, you’ll need to substitute support for proof. Just one successful project can be used to support your performance claims.

Track your performance

You'll find it much easier to cite past performance in a proposal if you’ve been tracking it in real time.

Start by deciding which measures fit the kind of work you do. Common examples include on-time, on-budget completion, safety record, regulatory compliance, challenges overcome, cost or time-saving innovations, performance bonuses won, industry awards, client letter or quotes, etc. 

Next, set up a spreadsheet in Excel or another format. Use a row for each project and columns for basic items, such as location and client, contract value and final cost, and start and finish date, and then for the performance measures you've selected. 

Last—and perhaps most important—make updating the spreadsheet part of someone's job description.

Dealing with performance issues

Companies that have suffered performance lapses are sometimes tempted to ignore these and hope the prospect doesn't notice. Nearly always, this is a bad strategy. All industries have active grapevines. Even if the lapse isn't covered in the general press, word will still get around.

Avoid the temptation to sweep such issues under the carpet. Instead, acknowledge them, along with the steps taken (root cause analysis, organizational and/or process changes, etc.) and investments your company has made to prevent recurrence. If appropriate, explain how you addressed any harm the lapse caused your client. Cite any evidence your actions have produced positive results.

It’s worth the effort

It takes work to assemble this evidence. But having decided to bid, your goal is to get the most possible points for each section. Do not short change performance. It’s too important to your final score.



Need help writing convincing RFP responses?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Defining relevant experience

 January 22, 2019
by Paul Heron

Last week’s post described the fundamentals of including relevant experience and past performance in proposals. This week, we’ll look at how to describe your relevant experience.

Three levels of experience

Relevant experience can include overall experience, experience with similar projects and the experience of individuals on your proposed team.

As part of your bid strategy, brainstorm how each level of experience can build your case and find specific examples to support every claim you make. Work through each level separately to avoid overlooking any examples.

Dealing with weak experience

Ideally, you’re the perfect candidate for this just-issued RFP. You have a track record of nearly identical projects supported by client testimonials.

But that’s not always the case. At some point most bidders face the challenge of convincing prospects they can handle projects with larger or different scopes than they’ve managed before. Here are ways to handle these situations.

NOTE: Some RFPs ask for details of some number of completed projects that match the project on offer in key respects. This may be a compliance requirement—which means you are unlikely to get shortlisted or win if other proponents can provide this evidence. Consider this as part of your bid/no-bid decision described below.

Start by deciding whether to bid

Since proposal writing consumes scarce resources, use a bid/no-bid decision process to decide if you have a realistic chance of winning, given your lack of direct experience. Even if your chances are slim, a good process may identify other strategic reasons to bid.

Address experience gaps

Winning RFPs outside your usual area may involve stretching your experience. Here are three approaches to improving your score.

  • Build your team around related experience. Consider choosing a project and/or transition team that includes individuals who have worked in the prospect’s industry, or on similar projects with previous employers. The opportunity to highlight their experience may justify bypassing your standard selection process.
  • Identify sub-processes in which you have experience. Even if you haven’t completed similar projects, you must have experience in the processes involved, or you wouldn’t be bidding. Describe your experience for as much of the scope as possible and explain how you will fill the gaps. Consider using a graphic to show the areas of work by value or difficulty in which you have experience.
  • Partner with another company. Teaming to cover off parts of a solution is common in most industries. Many of our clients have standing relationships that let them quickly integrate partners or subcontractors into bids. When teaming, be sure to create a unified voice and messaging, and common formats for resumes and project sheets, so the prospect sees a seamless solution. An upcoming post will explain how to do this.

Can you make a reasonable case?

Whatever tactics you use, test them for plausibility. Schedule a blue team review to assess your strategy. If internal reviewers argue your experience claims are wobbly, revisit your strategy and/or your decision to bid.

Next week: Expressing past performance


Need help writing convincing proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Experience and performance

 January 15, 2019
by Paul Heron

Not surprisingly, bid issuers look to relevant experience and past performance as indictors of a proponent’s ability to perform successfully. These factors are heavily weighted in every RFP scoring system we see.

Experience and performance are not the same. Experience refers to past involvement on projects similar to the one on offer. Performance refers to evidence of success doing similar work.

We’ll look at expressing experience and performance in this and the next two posts.

Respond as if they don’t know you

Describe your company’s experience and performance as if you have no history with the prospect. Do this even if you believe you have a strong relationship, even if you’re a current vendor.

Why? Because most evaluators—especially those reviewing proposals for large contracts—follow scoring guides in awarding points. Bid teams that provide fact-based evidence of experience and performance will naturally do better in these situations.

There are two additional factors at play. First, proposal evaluators are apt to scan your proposal quickly, and facts are easier to score than fact-free claims, Secondly, large project sponsors, especially government agencies, are likely to use fairness commissioners whose job is to ensure proposal evaluations are “by the book.” 

Include reference projects

Requests for qualifications (RFQs) for large projects ask for details of reference projects to demonstrate experience and performance. We recommend including an appendix of reference projects in your response, even if this is not a formal requirement.

Prepare by developing a standard format that captures all relevant information for your industry. Include a section of four-to-six bullet points explaining why the reference is relevant that can be customized for each response. Don’t leave it to evaluators to make the connection.

When you make experience and performance claims, cite only reference projects as examples. If the reference projects are in a non-required appendix always provide enough information in the narrative to prove any claim, as not all evaluators will go to the appendix to find the supporting facts.

Decide on reference projects during strategy making

Reduce downstream confusion and rewrites by selecting reference projects before content development begins.This is especially helpful for consortiums and joint ventures. To support the selection process, create a matrix of candidate projects’ desirable characteristics. We’ll include more on project selection matrices in an upcoming post.  

Distributing a list of reference projects at kick-off will help to ensure narrative drafts cite only reference projects. The alternative is often a last-minute scrub and hasty rewrite to substitute reference for non-reference projects.

Armed with your list of reference projects, you’re ready to express your relevant experience and past performance.

Next week: Expressing relevant experience


Need help writing compelling proposals?

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 2018

 January 8, 2019
by Paul Heron

Welcome to 2019—let’s make it a year of better proposals.

Our January 2019 newsletter noted the economic uncertainty we face and the likelihood that the pace of infrastructure and other capital spending may slow, beginning this year. In a climate of fewer projects, it only makes sense to work smarter on winning the attractive opportunities we see. This post is a good place to start.

Bid strategy faves

It’s always a good idea to focus your strategy on value. This post explains how to use value propositions in bids, and how to tailor them for different evaluator types, including the economic buyer, technical buyers and user buyers.

Since 2019 may be a year to pull out all stops, let’s jettison some old taboos, including on talking about service issues, pricing, risk and competitors.

If there are rebids in your 2019 plans, take time to read these posts on starting rebid efforts early, focusing on the future and playing up transition advantages.

Strategy making benefits from insight into how your competition thinks and bids. Consider making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out. 

Proposal management faves

Managing critical points in the proposal process, including pre-RFP discovery, making sound bid/no-bid decisions, developing win strategies, planning and running a successful kick-off and managing productive reviews, will help set the table for success.

Close management of narratives is another must for avoiding the all-too-common last minute rewrites. Start by providing content prompts to guide proposal writers, and then reviewing early drafts within a week of assigning them.

Narrative writing fave

Beyond a solid strategy, simple content prompts and clear expectations, the single most important gift you can give content developers and editors is an understanding of proposal evaluators. Learn why reality may not fit your ideal image—and how to adjust.

Want more?

See our blog index to explore the rest of our 2018 (and earlier) posts. And subscribe to our monthly blog summary (see the form at right) for a steady stream of winning ideas.


Need more help making 2019 a year of winning proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Presentation stage tips

 December 18, 2018
by Paul Heron

Large bid processes usually include a presentation phase. Since public speaking ranks alongside death as a major fear, it’s no wonder many team members dread this part of competitions.

No one likes speech making—so start by resolving not to give a speech. Instead, plan to have a conversation, one in which you’ll do most of the talking. Most people enjoy a good conversation.

With that in mind, here are five tips for a great presentation/conversation.

1. Don’t be boring

Who hasn’t sat through a boring presentation? Remember your last one and ask yourself: Why was it boring? I don’t know about you, but here’s my short list:

  • Way too many (ugly) slides
  • Way too much stuff on each slide
  • Lots of numbers I’ll never remember
  • No unifying theme or message—why should I care?
  • A presenter who obviously wants to be anywhere else

So do the opposite. Take in a well-designed deck of no more than one slide per two minutes of presentation time and no more than 20 words per slide. Lose those mind-numbing tables of data. Most important—focus the presentation on the prospect instead of yourself. Build it around one to three clear benefits you want the audience to remember.

Look (and be) glad to present. The remaining tips will help.

2. Tell stories

Everyone loves and remembers a good story. Telling stories is what old friends do when they get together. A story has three parts: what it was like, what happened, and how it turned out.

Stories are a natural way to showcase your strong team and ability to perform. Chose stories that focus on features and benefits your prospect cares about and that your competitors can’t match. Start each story by linking it to a hot button issue for your prospect.

3. Show emotion

Showing is always more powerful than telling. You’ve told the evaluators in your proposal how passionate you are about what you do and about winning their business. This is your chance to show them.

Smile. Get excited. Walk around. Gesture. Show the audience your team members really like each other and love working together. Don’t be that presenter who obviously wants to be anywhere else.

Telling stories (see item 2) instead of reciting facts makes it a lot easier to get excited.

4. Rehearse so it doesn’t sound canned

This is counterintuitive to new presenters, who often say, “I’ll just wing it, so it won’t sound rehearsed.”

That’s a recipe for disaster. Especially when—as we recommend—you’re using a small deck with too few words to simply read off the slides.

Rehearsing—out loud and together—is essential to a winning presentation. When you’re absolutely sure of what you want to say, you’ll come across as more natural. When you’ve practiced expressing ideas with your colleagues and integrated their feedback, you’ll be more convincing. When you’ve rehearsed handing off to your team members, you’ll look like a team.

Make sure everyone who will present (yes, including the boss) attends the rehearsals.

5. Don’t try to be perfect

Some great presenters purposely fumble a bit. It gives them a chance to laugh and makes them more human. The audience laughs along and thinks, “She’s all right. Not too full of herself. I can see working with this team.”

So don’t try to be perfect. If you follow the first 4 tips, you’ll come close enough that your audience will forgive any slip you make. Just be sure to keep smiling.

Good luck—and above all, don’t be boring!


Need help developing and delivering great presentations?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Capture planning

 December 11, 2018
by Paul Heron

Recent posts focused on business development, including understanding the prospect and developing value propositions. This post recommends you go a step further and develop a capture plan—especially for highly attractive opportunities.

The aim of pursuit is to position your company favourably with the prospect and to ensure your proposed solution addresses the prospect’s needs and hot button issues. The question is: How do you organize and manage the pursuit process?

Develop a capture plan

Capture plans are opportunity-specific strategy/action documents.  They use information from the account plan to create a roadmap for pursuing an opportunity. They also provide half or more of the content for the proposal plan (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: A capture plan guides and documents the pursuit process and provides input to the proposal plan.


Typical capture plans include information about the:

  • Opportunity: What it is, strategic importance, requirements and implementation schedule
  • Prospect: Economic buyer, technical buyers, user buyers, other influencers, evaluation team members, broader power structure, hot button issues, satisfaction with current provider, attitude towards our company
  • Competitive position: Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, likely competitors’ offerings, our relative strength on key requirements/issues, prospect relationships with key competitors
  • Solution and pricing: Probable offer, pricing strategy, performance relative to requirements, value engineering opportunities, risk pricing
  • Pursuit strategy: Win strategy summary, pursuit team alignment with the prospect team, call plan, intelligence requirements, solution development, communications

These categories are flexible. Decide on components that suit your industry and business category.

As you execute the capture plan, develop a matrix of how you and your competitors score on the key requirements and issues. Be realistic about your chances, so you can make needed adjustments and make a clear-eyed bid/no-bid decision.

The payoff

A detailed, regularly updated capture plan will improve your ability to target and benefit from pre-RFP pursuit efforts. In our client work, we see a wide range of preparedness when RFPs are issued. Clients with disciplined pursuit practices, supported by robust capture plans, routinely beat those without.


Do you need help managing a capture planning effort?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Writing strategy statements

 December 4, 2018
by Paul Heron

In the past several weeks, we've been discussing how to use the capture team’s knowledge of the prospect (including likely evaluators) and your competitors to analyse the issues for each section. See this post on how to use a competitive solutions matrix.

For each issue, strive to express solutions and gaps using quantitative values (issue resolution in hours, housekeeping using ISO standards), rather than less certain qualitative measures.

Once you’ve done this, identify actions you will take to highlight your strengths, downplay your weaknesses, exploit competitors’ weaknesses and offset competitors’ strengths.

Strategy statement examples

Create strategy statements that express your intent and include specific actions you will take. The table below contains examples:

We will show our ability to control costs by . . .  

. . . Presenting a table of our 5 most recent public projects showing budgeted and actual costs

We will create confidence that we can complete the project on time by . . .

. . . Citing tour perfect record of on-time completion over the past five years

We will defend against our higher initial cost by . . .

. . . Presenting a table showing MTBF for each critical component compared to cheaper competitor products
. . . Citing the cost of downtime associated with cheaper solutions
. . . Citing 2017 independent review comparing lifetime costs of our system versus competitors’

We will call attention to our high housekeeping standards by. . . 

. . . Citing our ISO compliance
. . . Including photo of Calgary maintenance shed

We will show our ability to offer innovation solutions by—

. . . Listing innovation awards and citations over the past three years
. . . Show images/logos of awards sponsors
. . . Including a client testimonial (CEO of XYZCo.) attesting to a cost-saving innovation

Notice that the actions do not include “claim to be the best.” These empty boasts have no scorable value for evaluators. Instead cite and show factual evidence of your differentiators.

Take time to do it right

Don’t skimp on strategy making. Unless you have very weak competitors and the lowest price you need to make every effort to help evaluators understand why they should select your company for this project.

For any complex proposal, schedule at least a full day to build and test your strategy.



Need help implementing bid strategies?

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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