I once lost an important contract. No, I was not even part of the business development, capture or even proposal teams, although I did submit a few response ideas that were adopted later by the customer and the winning team. While I was not part of the team responsible for winning the work, the loss nonetheless affected me greatly. Poised as I was to move into senior management in an important and challenging role where I KNEW I could make a positive impact, I was instead moving back to the U.S. I knew that a lot of work had gone into the proposal, so why the loss? What could I learn from the experience? As it turns out, quite a lot.
In my last article, I talked about establishing your company reputation and what you want to be known for. The next step is to decide what you are going to offer and where, then how. Once corporate direction has been set, there are four paths to success, and three of them happen before you win any work. Business Development (BD), Capture, Proposals, and Execution. I am going to skip BD for now and go straight to the heart of the matter, the most critical piece of the puzzle: Capture.
Pre-Win Knowledge and Support
Before you can excel at what you do for the customer, you must first win the work. There are many companies out there, especially in the MD/DC/VA area who can help you with business development, capture, and proposal development. One of my absolute favorites is Shipley Associates. These guys literally wrote the book(s) on how to identify, pursue and win federal contracts. They also provide training and resources that identify and teach you and your company the best practices to follow to win work. Large, medium and small defense contractors use what they will describe as a “modified Shipley-process” in their pursuit of new work. What that means is, they take the standard procedures and modify them to work within their own organization.
Before I move on, you may be thinking, “why do I need to know this? I am on contract.” It is my experience that knowing how this particular sausage is made is very important. Throughout your career, always keep an eye on your contract status, period of performance remaining, how the customer views the performance of the prime contractor, and so on. My approach is to understand how things work and if I can, master them. Having done that, I make them better. Or, maybe I will use what I learned to make something else better. This is particularly true of process-based activities, as I love to understand and improve processes. Ten years ago, I improved on the Shipley Proposal Process while leading some color team reviews on a large tech volume. I’ll tell you about that at the end.
According to Shipley (remember, they wrote the book), Capture Management is “The process of managing a pursuit in an organized way to increase win potential. This includes the need to Identify, Articulate, and Implement winning strategies.” We do not live in an ideal world, but if we did, BD would identify in advance (well in advance) the opportunities that best fit defined corporate strategic goals and with a realistic potential for a win. Capture would work with BD and obtain/apply an understanding of the customer, internal capabilities, potential team capabilities, competitor strengths, weaknesses and strategy to develop a standardized capture plan and ultimately, a formal pursuit strategy. The Capture Plan is your guideline for answering questions and developing a strategy. It helps you to track progress and gather all of the factors required to develop a winning strategy. The pursuit strategy should, in my opinion, be a key component of Gate-3 and Gate-4 reviews and a deliverable to the proposal manager. Yes, the capture manager needs to deliver a winning strategy to the proposal manager. If your proposal manager has to come up with a winning strategy and make sure a compliant, compelling proposal is submitted, good luck with that. You will need it.
Too many proposal efforts start out trying to develop a strategy or approach. Do I sound like I know what I am talking about? I’ve been there, and chances are, you have as well. So, why does this happen? I suspect that this is because companies tend to try to reduce cost by stretching directly from BD to the Proposal. However, it is much more effective to clearly identify winnable opportunities and apply the right resources at the right time to give yourself the best chance of delivering a winning proposal. Developing a proposal is a lot of work and can be a significant waste of time and money. You should only be in it if you want to win it. You bring your A Game or don’t bother. It takes money and time and dedicated professionals to seriously go after and win new work.
Permission to Win
If the first time the customer hears about your company is when they read your proposal, don’t hold your breath waiting for a win. To give your company the best success, track opportunities early, socialize your ideas with the customer and get their feedback. Give them ideas about how the new contract should be run and what it will require (this is a BD/Capture technique called Shaping). Doing these things familiarizes the customer with who you are and how you can contribute to their mission. It also gives you a chance to listen to what the customer thinks about your ideas. Once the Request for Proposal (RFP) or sometimes, even once the draft RFP is out, the customer will stop talking to you. This is another reason why you need to identify pursuit opportunities early.
Government, military and contractors…we are all human. Humans still select the winner. As fair as the selection process is, humans still control the process and make it happen. Humans have an idea of what they want and sometimes who they want. Sure, each proposal will be reviewed and fairly judged nine times out of 10. But, I’ll go out on a limb and say that seven or eight…maybe even nine times out of 10, the customer will select who they want to select. Remember, humans…The real trick, the secret sauce to the whole thing is to be the team that the customer wants. They trust you, they know you have a solution, they have met some of you, and they want to work with you to advance their mission…THAT is Capture, and this is why Capture is so important.
Improving the Process
So, as promised, that process I improved. You know how, in a color team proposal review, say, a Red Team…you take all of the inputs from the reviewers and draw up slides to present live to the proposal team? The slides cover each proposal section and give a status. Red, for when the section does not answer the question, yellow because you talked about it, but did not describe your solution effectively. Green if you answered the question sufficiently, and blue if you answered the question and provided something compelling. This is done for every section of the proposal. Then, the proposal team goes away and corrects everything before the next review. While leading a color team review, instead of just giving each section a color status, I took a little more time and gave them each a color and then gave them what they needed to do to get to the next color, and then then the next, all of the way to blue. So, if they were yellow, I said, do these things to get to green, then do these things to get to blue. Simple, but different. Proposals are hectic and so many things have to come together before a proposal is ready to be submitted. Anyway, I had people come up to me after the proposal review and tell me things like, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I have never seen a better color team review.” So – learn the process, the best practices, and then make them better.
Proposals are a ton of work. They also cost time and money. Do yourself and your company a big favor. Have a plan to win and do your Capture.