Last week we started the conversation about the proposal process. We write proposals for all types of projects to public and private owners. Sometimes, we think government proposals are easier – they have clear guidelines – standard forms, consistent sections in the RFP, and sometimes more transparency because of procurement protocol. Sometimes, we like private proposals – we get to be more creative (because there aren’t standard forms), we get to tell the story the way we want to. But, honestly, both have challenges for the technical teams and marketing teams to get the document to a place everyone is proud of, that the client can read and comprehend, and that gets the firm to the next step – the interview or negotiations.
Now, we want to dive into the very first step of the proposal writing process – Initiation, getting the green light.
Initiating: An RFP comes to your office. Either from a colleague, a subscription service, or directly from a client. Maybe you’ve been waiting for it, have strong market intelligence and a team in place ready to hit the ground running. Maybe it is new, something you weren’t expecting but an honest assessment and discussion with peers you want to put together a response. In either case, or anything in between, start with three very important initial steps. Your inclination will be to get the team together and start working. But, you need a plan, you need buy-in from the team, and you need to know that your initial “YES!” response is valid.
So, start with the Go/No-Go evaluation. We’ve seen firms use elaborate checklists with matrices and rubrics that evaluate the go. We’ve seen firms write narrative responses to insightful questions that challenge the writer to make the business case for the opportunity. We’ve also seen a post-it note stuck to the printed RFP placed on the owner’s desk and a quick meeting in the hallway to make the decision. Whatever method works with your firm culture is the one you should use – but you need to use one. Create a system that works for your team; limit bureaucracy but still have a meaningful decision.
Everyone can get behind writing a proposal that is clearly in line with what the company wants. It is much harder to rally a team to put together a response “for political reasons” or other non-meaningful reason.
Not only should the Go/No-Go discussion, form, or meeting look at the pursuit in terms of qualifications, relationships, and expertise, it also needs to account for the team’s time. Are there marketing resources available for the cycle of this opportunity? Is the lead project manager available to put together the team, the org chart, and the project approach? Who will lead the estimating and final cost volume? Are the principals available for signatures? Part of the decision to go must consider the firm’s overall resources and balance against the other criteria for a go. If another must-win opportunity is already underway or release is imminent and the same resources will be juggling two proposals, that should weigh on the go decision. Must-win opportunities take priority and should get the most out of your resources. Too often because a firm “can do the work” or someone has made a compelling case for the “go” resources are overwhelmed and unable to give the necessary attention to each proposal.
After the GO decision is made, the proposal lead should outline the proposal – either in a checklist, a directive, or a compliance matrix – or some combination that works for the opportunity. In fact, some opportunities need all three, while others can be outlined clearly on a concise, simple checklist. These tools may vary depending on the complexity of the response and the organization to which you are presenting. The outline should very clearly lay out everything required in the response – from forms and signatures to past performance and teaming partners. The outline/checklist/directive/matrix is a document that anyone can refer to throughout the proposal process and understand what content goes in each section. When RFPs present vague sections or request repetitive information, the outline is the team’s opportunity to decide what information will go where so no one is unclear. This is also a great time to set standards for the document – abbreviations and acronyms, for example. At the kick-off meeting we’ll use the outline/checklist/directive/matrix to really dive into the submission and to assign writing roles, clarify teaming partners, determine staff/resumes and past performance to use.
The last step of the initiation process is determining the proposal schedule. As the proposal lead, you need to make sure the team is aware of internal deadlines, how long the proposal production will take, if will you ship or hand deliver. When is the pink draft released? When will the red team reviewers meet? What custom printing items need to be approved early and off to the printer? What long-lead items do we need from finance or legal? Document all vacations and schedule conflicts now so the team can plan around them and still make the deadline. You don’t want to get to the end of the submission, only to find out the principal who is signing – in ink – is out of town! At the kick-off meeting, the schedule will be discussed in detail and the team will all agree to the internal and external deadlines required. After the meeting when deadlines are confirmed and milestone meetings are agreed to, it is a great idea to put them on the calendars of those involved. Deadlines drive all of our work, so the more we can plan ahead and avoid conflicts or delays the better.