Proposals are a great opportunity to expend a lot of time and money, and this will either be for nothing or for great benefit. Hopefully, a lot of thought and detailed capture has gone into your decision to submit a prime contract bid. The true cost of a proposal is often more than the charges in time and overall cost of going after one opportunity. You lose the chance to go after other program wins. There is also a cost to your employees who make your company and proposal effort the top priority for a few weeks or even months, putting in the extra time at the expense of personal lives and even other work responsibilities. Recognizing the effort required to submit a proposal worthy of your company name and brand, there are some small steps that you can take to make the proposal effort run more smoothly, increase your chance to win, and even provide benefit to the company whether you win or lose.

Proposal managers are crucial. A good proposal manager can keep track of a thousand (seemingly) different “must haves” where if you miss one, your proposal is non-compliant. Stressful? For you and me, YES. For a professional proposal manager? No. The good proposal manager loves the challenge and even thrives on it. A proposal is a big company investment. Invest a little more and have one of these professionals manage your proposal effort.

Pro Tip: If you do not have your own proposal manager on staff, develop a relationship with a professional proposal manager and use them over and over. They will learn your company processes over time and gain additional effectiveness.

The Importance of Time and Schedule

Set the expectations and ground rules upfront. Have a solid schedule. At the proposal kick-off, make sure that assignments are given out and those who are responsible for the different sections know what they are responsible for. Identify the members of the team and inform all authors and section leaders of what you expect to be color team ready. You can use the following and adjust as needed.

Pink Team Ready: The pink team will provide you with a solid status check on where you are in the process. At pink team, have your team provide a complete framework of how they plan to respond. “In this section I plan to talk about X and Y and I am going to have a graphic showing our process for Z.” Text is not required everywhere, but I would like to see 50-60% of the text in place, even if it is rough. The main thing is to ensure that progress is being made and that the team has a plan for how to address everything.  Pink Team Reviewers will need to verify that the plans will meet the requirements. Offer response suggestions. Highlight any section that does not clearly have a plan to meet requirements.

Pro Tip: Some proposal efforts fail. You will be able to reduce the odds of this happening to your proposal right here. If you do not see a good response plan in place, you will have a short window of time to recover. Good proposals don’t just happen. They are planned and organized, focused on the win. If your proposal is struggling to understand the requirements, fix it now.

Red Team Ready: By now the authors and leads should have 80-90% of the text in place, most if not all graphics in place (even if not 100%), and every section meets requirements. Reviewers should verify that the proposal answers the questions, meets requirements, and that win themes stand-out. “Why us” should be evident.  If it is not evident to you, it will not be evident to the customer. Do not just point out where each volume fails to deliver. Provide suggestions on how to improve the text.

Simple Tips for a Better Proposal:

Put some thought into the schedule. You know when you must deliver, so work back from there. Build in extra time to meet anticipated as well as unanticipated problems. Determine where you might need the extra time. Are the requirements challenging to understand? If so, give a little extra time before Pink Team. If you have a solid structure in mind already for your response, shorten the time to Pink Team and give a little more time to be ready for Red Team.

Collaboration tools are of huge benefit. It used to be that you really needed third-party software to ensure a successful, distributed proposal effort. However, in my last proposal, we simply used SharePoint and a feature that allows multiple authors to work on the same document. I’d say it was 90% effective and, with a little tweaking, you should be able to use it as an effective, low-cost proposal collaboration tool.

One voice is important. Proposals are written by many authors, but you do not want your proposal to have different writing styles.  Changing styles detract from the message and make a proposal lack cohesion. Have one or two people go through each volume and rewrite as necessary to give the text that one voice feel.

Early problem identification is crucial. Make sure that each author knows who to call if they run into a problem. Problems will happen. Don’t let situations linger or they will become big problems that take too many resources to resolve.

More is better. Do not worry so much about page count. If you go into Red Team over page count, I would not be concerned unless you are at least 20-25% over limits. I can say the same thing in one, two, or three lines. It is easier to adjust sentence structure to remove text. It is much more difficult to add text that is not there.

Make it easy for your writers to succeed. One of the things you develop early, even before kick-off is a compliance matrix where you track everything that is needed to ensure compliance.  From this, you will also develop a proposal outline and you or the volume/section leads will use to assign sections to the authors.  When you create the compliance matrix, list the page numbers where the requirements come from.  This will help the authors and it will help the color team reviewers ensure compliance.

Pro Tip: Provide for each section the expected page count and the RFP page number that states the requirement.  Identify any win themes that you expect to be evident in the section.  Help your authors to be successful.

What Your Company Can Learn Through the Proposal Process

Things typically don’t fail during normal operation. However, when stressed, cracks can appear. What did the stress of a proposal effort expose about your company processes? Maybe you found out that your capture efforts were not strong enough, that your proposal team needs more training, or you need to do a better job building teams before the RFP. Proposals will stress test your organization. Identify those stress points and use the opportunity to improve and turn a weakness into a strength.

Proposals are a mainstay of intelligence community contracting. If you support the IC or Department of Defense, you will have vacation plans disrupted, work schedules interrupted, and a potentially stressful 30 days or so of proposal writing many times in your career. Proposals require lots of little things to come together at one time and in harmony. The failure of one small part can result in the failure of the whole process. Everything must be tracked. I think proposals must be where the term, “herding cats” comes from. To be more effective as an employee, learn how to effectively contribute to proposal efforts. To be more effective as a company, learn how to effectively manage the proposal process, continually improve, and provide the proposal planning and organization required to give your team the best chance for a win.

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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.