Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.

Org chart basics

 August 4, 2020
by Paul Heron

Most large contract RFOs and RFPs require one or more organizational charts. Beyond compliance, the initial drafts of charts we see vary widely in their ability to showcase the proponent’s approach to team structure and to score well.

In this and following posts, we’ll review the basics of org chart design and ideas for making yours stand out against the competition.

Org chart fundamentals

The org chart captures on one page your understanding of the elements of the project, the roles and numbers of individuals needed to fulfill contract requirements, and how you propose to structure your team, including formal reporting relationships and communications channels.

Follow accepted practices when developing org charts. For example:

  • Create a hierarchical structure with the client at the top and the proponent organization below, starting with the project leader
  • Use functional groupings aligned with the contract deliverables, e.g. design, build (or transition), operate and maintain
  • Align horizontally individuals with similar levels of responsibility
  • Use solid lines for reporting relationships, dotted lines for advisory and collaborative relationships
  • Ensure names, titles and headcounts align with the RFX, narrative and resumes
  • Use your corporate colours for your team members’ boxes and your client’s colours for its team
  • If subcontractors are included on the chart, choose a common neutral colour and use for all
  • Use distinctive boxes to identify key individuals
  • Organize the chart to avoid crossing lines
  • Keep the chart clean and simple, using solid colours and tints in org chart boxes (avoid blends)

Beyond the basics

In coming weeks, we’ll provide examples of the above, and show:

  • How your organization will evolve through project phases
  • Governance structures, both internal and including the client/project sponsor
  • Availability of support from your larger organization
  • How to use white space to describe key differentiators


Teams that invest in thinking about and then rendering their organizational charts in client-focused ways get more of the points for the chart itself—but also make it easier for evaluators to understand narratives describing how the organization will function.


Need help with an upcoming proposal?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Tips for better case studies

 July 28, 2020
by Paul Heron

Case studies are an effective way to back up claims of experience and capabilities. Well-presented case studies have the added advantage of being more readable than most proposal content.

Use case studies:

  • In RFQ responses as examples of how your team and key individuals have successfully managed risks and unplanned events to keep similar past projects on time and on budget
  • In single stage proposals to demonstrate successful execution of various contract deliverables, e.g. solution design, construction or implementation/transition, operation and maintenance.

Present case studies as stories

Telling a story is an age-old device for capturing audiences, and proposal evaluators are no exception. Structure your case studies to include the following elements in the order below:

  • Situation: What pressing issue or need does the client or project face? For example: “Soil studies conducted by the client failed to identify . . .” or “Due to contracting delays, our team needed to develop and deploy the solution in six months, about half the typical timeframe.”
  • Stakes involved: What were the consequences—in functionality, quality, safety, cost and/or end user impact, etc.—of failing to address the issue or need? Stress the importance of successful resolution. Quantify potential negative impacts if possible.
  • Actions taken: How did your team address the problem? In addition to what you did, outline your team’s thinking and, if applicable, alternative solutions considered and rejected.
  • Results: How did your strategy and actions benefit the client and project? Quantify the results whenever possible. Identify any citations or any awards the team received.

Add a headline and image

Headlines and images attract attention. Focus headlines on results, e.g. “Overcoming a weather disaster to deliver on schedule.” The image can be small—we’ve used a 1 x 2-inch photo where space was tight. Choose an image that will get noticed, rather than to try and tell the story.

Short case studies can be effective

A powerful case study can be as short as one paragraph, as long as it covers the four elements above. Short case studies are especially useful in tightly page constrained RFQ responses, since the reference project involved is typically fully described elsewhere. Use a tint block or outline to help them stand out.

Use a template and develop case studies in advance

To achieve consistency across multiple authors, create a simple word table with space for a Headline, Image, Situation, Stakes involved, Actions and Results and distribute at kickoff.

Better still, rather than assembling case studies under deadline pressure, draft one whenever a team performs in a case-worthy situation.


Evaluating proposals is hard work—as any evaluator will tell you. Compelling case studies can be bright spots in an otherwise tiring chore. Evaluators will read and remember your stories and reward you with higher scores.


Need help getting the most from content developers?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit:

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




Key individual resumes

 July 21, 2020
by Paul Heron

Last week’s post explained the importance of using team selection to show understanding of the RFP requirements and the prospect’s strategic and hot button issues. Identifying the key individuals (KIs) you will use provides evidence of your commitment.

Every RFQ and RFP we’ve seen requires resumes for KIs. Evaluators use them to confirm the proposed individuals are qualified and capable of fulfilling the contract. In the case of consortium projects, resumes also show whether and on which reference projects KI candidates have worked together.

Issuers of large RFQs and RFPs specify the contents of KI resumes. Mirror the specified contents in the order listed in all cases. For RFPs without a specified resume format, this post explains how to tailor resumes to improve your win rate.

Poor practices—what not to do

We’ve seen proposals containing resumes that:

  • Vary widely in length, format and fonts (even some with scans pasted onto the page)
  • Are formatted and written like job search resumes
  • Bury items important to the evaluator halfway down the page

These and other resume sins invite evaluators to move on to a more competent proposal.

Creating resumes that boost your chances

If an opportunity is worth bidding on, it’s worth the effort to standardize and edit your key people resumes. Begin by gathering the following information:

  1. The requirements for each role (e.g. What activities the site supervisor perform on this project?)
  2. For each requirement, the proposed individual's credentials and experience.
  3. The candidate’s experience in similar roles on similar projects (ideally reference projects)
  4. Additional relevant information, including years of service, recognition for performance and education.

Format resumes to highlight important information

Large issuers across North America are becoming increasingly prescriptive in the content required for resumes and project sheets. Be sure to comply with any RFP or RFQ request for specific information and organize it in the order provided.

We recommend formatting resumes a two-column table as follows:

Current title, employer and years in current role
Qualifications and profile
Proposed role Begin with a lead-in, such as: "As ROLE, NAME will be responsible for:" followed by 4-6 bullet points citing key responsibilities
Qualifications 4-6 bullet points directly relating to the requirements for this project
Profile 2-3 sentences about the individual focusing on relevant strengths
Relevant experience
Project Name: Description of candidate's role, impact, relevance to current project, customer reference
Project Name: Description of candidate's role, impact, relevance to current project, customer reference
Project Name: Description of candidate's role, impact, relevance to current project, customer reference
Education and achievements
Education Degrees and certifications in bullet point form
Achievements and other Awards, etc.

This approach—modified to suit your requirements—gives evaluators efficient access to the information they need. They’ll love you for it.

Include key person summaries in the narrative

Don’t rely on evaluators reading resumes in an appendix. Summarize key person qualifications and experience in the narrative. Many bidders use the first few rows of the table described above as their summary.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know this is standard advice for any information in proposal appendices.

Photos or no?

Photographs are OK in principle, but in practice often end up featuring people in different dress against different backgrounds in varying lighting. One or more photos are often out of focus. Photos are especially challenging when the proposal is a joint venture or where team members have been recruited from outside for the project. 

The result is jarring. It detracts from, rather than reinforces, the idea of a team. So our recommendation is: no photographs.

Exception: You may want to include photos for strategic reasons, for example to show gender balance, diversity or maturity (or youthfulness!). If this is the case, go ahead—but consider investing in retouching (or take new photos) to create a uniform look and quality.

Prepare ahead

Knowing what you need to develop strong resumes, start now. Use the guidelines above to format the information for individuals likely to be put forward as project key people.

When the next opportunity arises, your resumes will require only minor edits to be proposal-ready.


Want to write more successful bid responses?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Choosing key individuals

 July 14, 2020
by Paul Heron

In competitions for complex contracts, proposal evaluators pay close attention to each bidder’s key individuals. Whatever your experience with similar projects, success always comes down to the specific people managing the work. Your roster of key individuals is central to your score.

In evaluating your team, evaluators will expect you to fulfill four criteria:

1. You understand the requirements

Ensure the project organizational structure and key people demonstrate you understand the RFQ or RFP. Pay attention to:

  • Organization: Does the team structure match the contractor's project responsibilities?
  • Key positions: Do the key individuals have the required qualifications, industry knowledge, experience and ability to manage specific risks?
  • Hot button issues: Does your team demonstrate strength in areas of special importance to this prospect? Hot button issues are often project-specific, such as—in the case of construction—structure type, challenging terrain, environmental issues, stakeholder management, public profile, etc.

2. You have identified and committed key individuals

Show you’re serious by identifying your key team members by name and committing to making them available. Clients understand you may need to request a change—particularly if the original start date is delayed, as often happens. Would you rather win and have to request a substitution—or lose because you failed to meet the standard requirement to identify team members by name?

Do not “bait and switch.” Proposing the same set of stars for every project and then changing them all after winning upsets clients and soon earns a negative reputation. In fact, if your main competitor uses this tactic, consider ghosting the practice to differentiate your offer. 

3. Your key people have what it takes to succeed

If you’re fortunate to have a strong team, organize your key individuals’ resumes to make their qualifications clear. Instead of forcing evaluators to piece together qualifications from general-purpose resumes, organize and edit resumes for this specific project.

We’ll provide guidelines for doing this in next week’s post.

4. Your team meets all the requirements

The ideas in item 3 above will convince evaluators that individual members are qualified. But your prospect may need help—especially with large projects—ensuring that your team as a whole covers off all requirements.

Address this need with a matrix that plots team members against requirements. A “meatball chart” (presumably because the dots filling the grid look like meatballs), will make the evaluator’s job easier and earn you points.

Remember: Evaluators don’t always read closely

Many evaluators skim proposals for reasons to keep reading or to eliminate contenders. Use the ideas above to keep them reading yours—and to win more contracts.

Need help with an important bid proposal?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Writer guidance for plans

 July 7, 2020
by Paul Heron

Every RFP we’ve seen requires plans for how the proponent will perform various aspects of the project. Depending on the contract on offer, these could include design, construction, transition (or implementation), operation, maintenance, etc.

A compliant response will include details of actions the proponent will take, including a schedule with milestones. But a simple list of actions won’t win top marks. To impress evaluators, you need to show the thinking behind your plan, demonstrate past success and show how it aligns with the current project’s unique requirements.

This post suggests a model for structuring plans designed to attract maximum points.

Compliance first

Most RFPs use questions within each section to specify the content of a complete response. Ensure the ATOC and the proposal template include all needed subheads within each plan section to fully align with all RFP questions.

Beyond compliance

The CARL model described below (named for the first letter of four parts), aims to bring out the strategic thinking behind each plan, to show past success, and to tie the plan of action back to the specific requirements and challenges of this project.

It can be used at the section level, for subsections, or even within a paragraph.

Components and prompts for using CARL

Use the following prompts in the order shown in writing your response:

CONCEPT— At a high level, what do we aim to accomplish (i.e. objective/philosophy, goal/mission, value-add/Intention)?

  • Clearly define your objective for the section or subsection.
  • Cite 3–5 guiding principles and the benefit related to each (budget or schedule certainty, cost reduction, risk mitigation, safety, environmental impact, etc.).
  • Use simple, engaging language; do not assume the reader understands your discipline.

ACTIONS—How will we fulfill the requirements for this section?

  • Describe the actions we will take to achieve the objective. 

  • Cite one or more situations where our team has used this solution before. 

  • Explain why this approach is superior to others.

RESULTS—Where have we been successful with this solution in the past?

  • Where, when and how the team has successfully executed solutions of similar scope?
  • Cite tangible results (money saved, early completion, awards) and benefit to client/project 

  • Support claims using success stories, case studies, statistics and testimonials 

LINKS—What makes this approach relevant and helpful with this specific project?

  • How does this approach apply to the issuer’s key issue(s) and known technical challenges for the project? 

  • What aspects of past approaches will be modified/improved for this project?
  • How does this approach satisfy quality/schedule/price/total cost of ownership requirements? 

CARL works

Complex2Clear has used CARL successfully for plan and approach sections with many proposal teams—including on very large projects. It is especially helpful in creating a single, consistent voice where individuals from several departments (or companies) are responsible for various plans.

Our structural editors also use it to create a stronger logic flow when working with first drafts.



Need help writing winning proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear

Photo credit


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




Managing reference projects

 June 30, 2020
by Paul Heron

This post is intended for individuals managing RFQ responses for infrastructure projects. It gives insight into Complex2Clear’s approach to optimizing the selection of reference projects, based on the scoring criteria of a specific RFQ.

The reference project challenge

RFQs require details of a defined number of reference projects, similar to the one on offer, to demonstrate the capability of each consortium team member. “Similar” is typically defined strictly—e.g. same type of structure (toll highway, bridge, hospital), similar construction constraints (e.g. urban setting, environmental issues), similar size, contracting model, etc. Eligible projects must have been completed recently (say, within five years) and the team member has to have been responsible for a minimum participation (usually 30% ).

Ideal reference projects closely align with the project on offer, showcase the experience and capabilities of the consortium team members and their key individuals (KIs) and—ideally—show member companies and their KIs successfully working together.

How not to select reference projects

Despite these interlocking and inflexible requirements, too often the selection process consists of team member executives sitting around a table tossing out projects based on emotion (“It’s our signature project.”) and/or size, awards won, etc.—instead of making a disciplined effort to match their candidates to the actual evaluation criteria.

This approach is inefficient, since poorly selected projects (if caught during the bid review process) will need to be swapped out last minute. More important, these “passion projects" won’t score well and risk the team not shortlisting for the RFP.

Setting up a project selection workbook

C2C has created a project selection worksheet designed to dispassionately identify projects that will attain the highest scores for both team members and key individuals. Our tool captures the scoring criteria for reference projects and KI’s and provides matrices that rate candidates against scorable criteria and identifies instances of team member and KI past collaboration.

The tool for a DBFOM RFQ, consists of an excel workbook that (on different tabs) tracks KIs, and potential reference projects (initially three more than required), for each of the specified disciplines (Development/Design/Construction/O&M). Evaluation criteria (both pass/fail and extra merit—if provided) are listed on alternate axes, along with the proposed KIs/projects to allow easy assessment of each.

Note: It is also useful to cross-populate the KI information to all project pages to track past collaboration among individuals in different disciplines on past projects referenced in other focus areas. For example: if KIs from the Design Team worked on a project the Constructor is using, that overlap should be tracked in the cases where the Design Team is not using that project itself. These subtle links serve to show evaluators that proponent team members have worked with each other often enough that they are not all relying on the same small pool of relevant projects repeated in each section of the RFQ response.

Completing the project selection worksheets

Set up the selection workbook as early as possible in the proposal effort and distribute to the project lead for each team member. Ask the leads to complete only the worksheets for their role(s) in the consortium. Ideally, this is done before the working project kickoff so that candidate reference projects can be discussed based on rated criteria at the kickoff, bringing additional tangible value to what can otherwise be a superficial “rah-rah” activity.

The entity representing the Developer then has the responsibility to combine this input and ensure the consortium is putting forward people and projects that will score well and that show the past project experience and collaboration the evaluators are looking for.

Payoff: A higher scoring RFQ response

Complex2Clear uses this format and process with all clients as part of RFQ pre-kickoff preparation. Clients appreciate the structure this tool brings to a process that can feel like playing darts in the dark. High-level benefits include: setting expectations and engaging with all consortium team members early; identifying any issues or additional teaming requirements to present a winning RFQ and; allowing all team members to contribute immediately which has shown to help with long term cohesion.

Need support for an upcoming RFQ?

Contact Complex2Clear

Photo credit

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




Managing compliance

 June 23, 2020
by Paul Heron

This month's posts have explored the need to master the RFP requirements, organizing your proposal using an annotated table of contents (ATOC), and using a competitive solutions matrix (CSM) to manage proposal strategy. Most bidders understand the need to comply with RFP requirements or risk disqualification. A compliant proposal does two things:

  • Answers all the questions. This may seem obvious, but content developers can write long responses without actually answering the question. And they—and sometimes reviewers—can fail to notice they haven’t responded to all parts of multi-part questions.
  • Addresses every instance where the RFP states, “the bidder shall” or “must” or “will” do something. This includes items such as page count, font size, forms, packaging, and the submittal deadline and location.

Compliance tools and tips

To improve compliance management:

  • Use an ATOC to structure your proposal and to track content items. If appropriate, use the ATOC to create a compliance checklist to include in your proposal, to point evaluators to where each item is addressed and to show your bid complies. 
  • Paste the RFP questions into the response template. Use a distinct style (we prefer an italic font smaller than regular body copy and shaded or set in a pale colour). For multi-part questions (e.g. 3.1.a, 3.1.b, 3.1.c), give each subpart its own subhead and space for the response. To save space, you can delete this text as part of finalizing the proposal for submission.
  • Get routine RFP compliance items out of the way early by assigning one individual to actively manage these items. We’ve seen too many teams in panic mode close to submission deadlines because the person who handles, for example, insurance certificates, is on vacation when the team finally gets around to requesting one.

Consider stand-alone compliance matrix

Some large RFPs include detailed evaluation criteria, a statement of work (SOW), standard operations procedures (SOPs) and of a draft contract and specify that responses must satisfy some or all of these, when responding to the questions. In these cases, consider building a separate compliance matrix containing relevant text for all compliance items. This will allow reviewers to quickly check responses for completeness.

Where page constraints are not an issue, some bidders include either a detailed compliance matrix, or a more high-level compliance checklist that describes how the proposal satisfies high level requirements with the response section(s) demonstrating compliance with each. Both are pre-emptive measures intended to signal (with proof) that the proposal is fully compliant.

Beyond compliance

When bidding on standardized goods and services, compliance plus the lowest price can be enough to win. But for complex deliverables, such as a design-build project, or a multi-year contract to provide and support equipment or services, or to manage infrastructure, compliance alone is not enough.

This means tackling two situation-specific requirements:

  • Responsiveness: Showing evaluators that you’re aware of the prospect’s strategic needs and hot button issues, that. you deeply understand the project itself, and that you have the required capability and experience to fulfill the requirements
  • Positioning: Distinguishing your company, team, solution and value for money as superior to those of your competitors.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t make the mistake of treating an RFP response as a marketing brochure, full of broad claims about features and benefits. Instead, develop each as a logical sales argument tailored to the specific prospect and project.




Are you struggling to win your share of bids?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Competitive solutions matrix

 June 16, 2020
by Paul Heron

Use a competitive solutions matrix (CSM) as part of proposal strategy making.

The CSM lets you match your solution against each identified prospect need and issue, and then compare your response to competitors’ offerings for each item. The exercise helps pinpoint strengths and weaknesses and inform decisions on how to address them in the proposal.

How to set up a competitive solutions matrix

Open an Excel worksheet and create the column headers below:

  • Issue: Identifies a specific strategic driver or need, concern, desire or preference expressed by the prospect. Each issue will become a row in the matrix.
  • Requirement: Describes specifically what the client requires. What’s the ideal response from the client’s point of view?
  • Available solution: How does your planned solution address the issue?
  • Gap: What is the gap (positive or negative) between the requirement and your solution? Quantify the gap whenever possible.
  • Competitor No. 1 Solution: How does your closest competitor address the issue? If you have two or more close competitors, add a column for each. Include any competitors who typically bid low. Highlight competitors with an advantage in addressing this specific issue. In each case identify the gap in the same way as for the previous column.
  • Differentiators: Identify your advantage/disadvantage relative to highlighted competitors. Include any offsetting factors.
  • Strategy: How will you address disadvantages and leverage advantages? Options range from stressing advantages to redesigning your solution.
  • Action: Who needs to do what and when to act on the strategy?

Facilitating matrix completion

  • Group issues by each main RFP section or, if you develop the matrix during sales discovery, by sections that align with a typical statement of work. Don’t make the mistake of focusing only on the technical solution—RFP issuers usually have important issues around transition (implementation), after sales service, etc.
  • Because issue identification is a brainstorming exercise demanding a different kind of thinking than issue analysis, populate the first column with as many issues as possible, and then work across the row to analyse each issue.  
  • Make a special effort to use quantifiable criteria for requirements, solutions and gaps, so you can measure the success of any actions you decide to take.

Start building your matrix as early as possible

The ideal time to develop this matrix is pre-RFP. During the needs analysis phase, your prospect can freely express all issues and opinions, including about vendor preferences. This is one of the key benefits of focused pre-RFP pursuit and discovery.

The payoff

Armed with this matrix, you can build a strong proposal strategy, including win themes and value propositions. At the proposal kickoff meeting, you’ll be able to help content developers focus on the messages most likely to convince section evaluators.

With this clear direction, they’ll work more efficiently and turn out stronger content.


Need help building strong proposal strategies?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Managing structure (ATOC)

 June 9, 2020
by Paul Heron

Once you completely understand the RFP, decide how you will structure your proposal. Depending on the RFP, the structure may be self-evident, or you may have to infer it.

If the RFP:

  • Specifies a structure, follow it exactly, using the same numbering system as in the RFP
  • Implies a structure—for example by posing a set of questions—follow that structure, using the question numbers to number your sections
  • Includes a scoring breakdown, use that breakdown to structure your proposal

We’ve seen all of the above, plus examples of no guidance and RFPs containing separate overlapping versions of the required information. If unclear, consider using the process specified in the RFP to ask the issuer for guidance. Many bidders are reluctant to ask questions, but issuers tell us it shows engagement and interest in winning their business.

Where the RFP is vague or contains conflicting content information, make it easy for evaluators by including a compliance table that cross-references RFP paragraph numbers to of the corresponding response locations in the proposal. We’ll discuss compliance matrices later this month.

Building an ATOC

Document your proposal structure using an Excel worksheet formatted into an annotated table of contents (ATOC). Assign columns as follows:


Begin with a series of columns to capture the proposal breakdown as follows:

  • Book no. (if a multi-volume submission)
  • Section no.
  • Subsection no.
  • Title
  • RFP page and paragraph nos.
  • Points allocated by section or subsection (if in the RFP)
  • Pages allocated and format (8.5 x 11 or 11 x 17)

Use as many rows as needed to enable assignment and tracking of all content items. For example, if the RFP requires resumes for key individuals, provide a row for each key individual resume, since each will need to be managed as a separate item.


Next, use as many columns as needed to capture content responsibilities and key deliverables milestones based on the schedule, as in the example below:

  • Section lead (person responsible for writers and SMEs)
  • Writer assigned
  • Subject matter expert (SME)
  • Deliverables milestones, e.g.
  • Content outline provided
  • Initial Draft Received
  • Initial Draft Commented
  • Initial Draft Returned
  • Substantial Draft Received
  • Etc.


  • Set headers for narrow columns vertically to save screen space
  • For large ATOCs, use Excel’s group and outline tools to collapse rows and columns, to avoid distracting users with unnecessary detail

Populating the ATOC

Use your analysis of the RFP to populate rows corresponding to the content columns. Assign additional rows to covers, tabs, forms and appendices to enable tracking of all requirements and responsibilities.

Complete the content management rows with the names of the individuals responsible for sections and subsections. Use a separate worksheet to capture team members’ contact information (be sure to include mobile numbers).

If the deliverables milestones are consistent across all sections (typical for small proposals), enter the scheduled dates in the first row below the corresponding column heads.

Manage as a living document

Complex2Clear teams use this tool for all proposals, including those with thousands of pages and hundreds of team members. We update it in real time and screen share all or part of it as part of our daily internal meetings and weekly client management calls.

The ATOC is as powerful as your commitment to managing it. Build your management process around it to enjoy no-surprises proposal efforts.


Need help getting your proposal process organized?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Mastering the RFP

 June 2, 2020
by Paul Heron

To develop a competitive proposal, you first need to master the RFP (or RFQ). This seems self-evident—but we repeatedly run into situations where clients still haven’t fully grasped one or more requirements, just weeks before the due date.

One of our team talks about “owning the RFP.” He means getting your head around—and then managing—three kinds of requirements: compliance, structure and strategy.

Most teams responding to very large opportunities have structured their processes to do this. But others—including some pursuing contracts in the tens of millions of dollars— jeopardize their chances by letting important pieces fall through the cracks.

We’ll briefly describe the main elements of mastery in this post, and then look at ways to accomplish it in the coming weeks.

Establishing the proposal structure

RFPs vary widely in how closely they specify the contents of your response. Ideally the bid issuer will provide a specific set of questions and sub-questions, essentially building the table of contents for your response.

Others are less straightforward. In one recent example, the issuer repeated the statement of work twice in slightly different formats, making it frustratingly difficult to decide which to follow. Another RFP contained a set of pass/fail "mandatory criteria" and a separate set of scored "technical criteria." 

Follow this rule: When in doubt, organize your response to align with how the evaluation criteria are structured. 

Ensuring compliance

Every RFP contains compliance items. These are things bidders must address, or risk a poor score, or even getting thrown out of the competition. They consist of two broad categories:

  • Content compliance: This involves answering all the RFP questions. Sounds simple—but in fact teams often get off track, because the RFP is confusing, or because their technical training or company culture leads them to make assumptions not supported by the RFP language. 
  • Administrative compliance: Examples include the submission deadline and the form and packaging of deliverables. Most RFPs also include font size, page formatting requirements, page limits, and various forms and certifications for completion and/or submission.

Ownership includes identifying all compliance items and following up to ensure they are met. 

Managing content development

Once you've mastered the RFP structure and requirements and assigned content to writers, don't make the mistake of managing too loosely. Loose management runs the risk of writers heading off in the wrong direction or—as more often happens—waiting until just before the deadline to begin writing. Either outcome results in incomplete and/or non-compliant content and those all too familiar pre-deadline writing marathons.  

Managing strategy (win themes)

Every successful proposal—even those on short deadlines—needs to start with a win strategy. ("Answer all the questions" is not a strategy.) This rule has two parts:  

  • Developing and documenting a winning strategy for each main section of the response and then;
  • Ensuring every proposal section supports that strategy. Many bidders spend time upfront on strategy—but fail to see it carry through into the proposal.

How strong is your ownership?

Based on our research, most bidders (about three quarters) do a good job of identifying and managing compliance requirements—but less than half consistently master structure and strategy. Where does your team rank?

Next week: Structuring a response using an ATOC



Need hands-on support for an upcoming opportunity?

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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