There is a LOT that can be said about the proposal, from planning to execution and delivery.  Entire Intelligence Community (IC) careers are spent right here, moving from one proposal to the next.

Your business development professional found a program to go after.  Your capture manager did the research to determine exactly what the customer needs. Your team has developed an understanding of the customer’s mission and developed a strategy for a compelling response that addresses not only what the customer is asking for, but also the unspoken factors that impact their ability to prosecute the mission. You have examined the draft Request for Proposal (RFP) closely.  The RFP drops.  It’s on…

First Things First, or Rather, Before…

The proposal period is often a month or more of frenzied activity, near panic, oh craps, long hours, and crisis management until a hopefully pristine, compelling, compliant, cohesive, and cost-conscious proposal is finally delivered. Let’s face it – even the most prepared proposal teams will run into problems and will have to rethink, redo, rewrite, recover, and so on. The unforeseen will happen. The best way to handle and to minimize any impacts is to begin before the RFP drops with some key activities. These are the things that can be accomplished before the response clock starts ticking. Should your proposal time be taken up with things like determining who should be on the team, who your teammate points of contact are and how to contact them, developing a schedule, defining labor categories, and so on? Do what you can before the RFP comes out. For things like proposal outlines and schedules, yes, do those ahead of time, as well. You can even pass them out as “preliminary.” Once you have had a chance to review the RFP, you can refine your schedule, proposal outline and writing assignments before sending out the final copies.

The Proposal Structure and Framework

Never start with a blank page. I am like a lot of people — I want some structure that I can write to as opposed to having to develop the structure AND the content. Make sure that you take the time to develop a proposal template that everyone will use. This template establishes the font type, font size, call out boxes, table and graphic formats, color scheme, and any other layout features.  This ensures that your proposal at least looks cohesive and saves time. If you are a company that has written multiple proposals, you probably have a “best of” library that you can reuse. I am not saying that you should just simply re-use material from previous proposals. What I am saying is that by having this material, you can use the structure of a previous response to create a new response. Spend more time on content tailored to the new proposal rather than on format and framework. Some areas of a proposal response will remain stable over several years, needing only slight refinement each time. Examples include your team’s ability to obtain and retain staff, or how your company ensures that invoices are always provided in a timely manner.

The Proposal Manager is Key

With so much that goes on during a proposal and the fact that missing just one thing can make your proposal non-compliant, having someone who is able to focus on just being a proposal manager is very important. The proposal manager is a herder of cats and someone who can identify and resolve issues before they impact the entire proposal. An expert at crisis identification and avoidance, the proposal manager will help to ensure a smooth process and will minimize the inevitable problems that arise.  The proposal process is under a deadline, so your team’s ability to avoid and recover from problems is absolutely critical. The proposal manager job is a stressful one. I could probably do it, but would likely be unable to sleep for the entire proposal period, worrying about things that are or could go wrong.

I once asked a proposal manager why they did it.  Her response explained everything.  She said, “I do this because I thrive on chaos.”  Not me. I like to nail things down, put processes into place that ensure smooth function and guarantee positive results. The proposal manager is organized, has a commanding presence, and loves to put out fires.

Color Teams

If you have been in the IC for more than a year or two, chances are that you have heard the terms Pink Team or Red Team. The color teams are proposal evaluation opportunities that are very useful for ensuring that the proposal is progressing at an appropriate pace, that problem areas are identified quickly, and that the required story and win themes are coming through. The Pink Team is about a week or 10 days into a 30-day response. It is mainly used to make sure that each area is covered and has a planned response, if not actual text and graphics. The Red Team ensures that each area of the proposal is responding effectively, that the win themes are present, and that the response is nearing completion. The Red Team takes place 7-10 days after the Pink Team.  This is about two-thirds into your proposal response time. It needs to be conducted with enough time left to recover if there are any issues identified.

After the Red Team, a Gold Team is held. Held in the last week of the proposal effort and often attended only by the prime, the proposal is reviewed by senior management with a view towards overall completeness, cost, approach and risk evaluation.  The team will also ensure that the theme and compelling aspects from the Capture Plan are evident in the proposal. Some companies also do a White Team or “White Glove” review just before submittal. Here, every page of the proposal is gone over to make sure that everything is in order and that there are no mistakes or missing pages, or other possibly overlooked items.

Useful Training and Materials

The more you work proposals as a prime and a sub, the more you will be able to refine how your company undertakes a proposal response and your own ability to support and contribute to this important process will improve. I do NOT like to waste my time. If I do something, I want to be successful. This is why I find proposals so onerous.  As someone who wants/needs to achieve results, I have to force myself to give my all for a 30% pWin. You have to approach each proposal with a winning attitude, even though your work and that of your team could result in nothing. You may be assigned just a section of the proposal to write, a volume lead position, or multiple areas of responsibility.

How you improve your odds of being successful with your proposal work is by learning more about the proposal process and industry best practices.  My favorite resource is Shipley Associates. Shipley offers outstanding classroom and on-site training on proposal management and proposal development, in addition to BD and capture. Shipley also provides outstanding resources such as proposal and capture guides. If you are like me, you want to do your best to ensure, as much as you can, a positive outcome, regardless of the pWin. Industry best practices are available to help you to do your best. For large, must win efforts, use Shipley or other proposal development firms to come in and run your entire proposal. Other resources include the Association of Proposal Management Professionals, or APMP.ORG, “The Association of Record for Bid, Proposal, Business Development, Capture and Graphics Professionals.”  APMP offers webinars, certifications, events, chapters, and a body of knowledge. Check them out.

Proposals = A Learning Opportunity

In addition to being a very critical part of winning new business, proposals offer the opportunity to train more people from your company to perform at high levels to win new business. Bring in a few new guys to your proposal response team and let them learn.  The proposal response is an opportunity for your team to contribute at ever increasing levels. From one proposal to the next, individuals can grow from contributor to section author, to section lead, and to volume lead. Don’t overlook the importance of proposals in training your own staff. If you do bring in a firm like Shipley to manage your proposal effort, make sure that you use this as a learning opportunity for your own team. Observe and learn so that you can do it yourself the next time.

Plan to Win

The proposal is a culmination of a lot of work, from business development to capture to a month or more of stress and hard work.  Make it your goal to improve with each proposal you submit and from each time you contribute on a proposal effort.  You really can step up and be the factor for a major win. Aim to improve and contribute at ever higher levels. Observe, learn, ask questions, and step up. This is how you make a difference.

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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.