«Working in proposal development both as a full-time employee and business consultant with small, mid-tier, and tier-one corporations in the Federal ...»
A Baker’s Dozen of Proposal Aphorisms
Dr. Robert S. Frey
Working in proposal development both as a full-time employee and
business consultant with small, mid-tier, and tier-one corporations in the Federal marketspace
during the past 26 years, I have gained a broad spectrum of insights, and also lost most of my
hair! This article distills many of those insights gained through hands-on experience into 13 (a
Baker’s Dozen) brief statements of key principles.
1. Blue Team is far more important than Red Team.
This key aphorism is linked closely with its sister adage, “Do the thinking before you do the writing.” Seems like everyone wants to be a Red Team reviewer—the company president, the senior vice presidents, the division directors. Some companies choose to bring in outside proposal consultants and technical or programmatic subject matter experts (SMEs) for the expressed purpose of Red Team review. Direct experience with proposals during the past twoand-a-half decades has demonstrated that Red Team is far too deep in the response lifecycle to effect meaningful changes in the direction, solutions, and fundamental content of the proposal.
Sustained executive engagement early in the proposal process is critical in order to gain “buy-in” for and approval of key elements of the solution set, such as number of key personnel and the associated staff skill mix, project organizational structure, and company investments in such areas as staff training/technical refreshment or corporate certifications, which will then be described within the proposal. Over the years and to this very day, there has been far too much time, energy, and emotion expended during Red Team reviews explaining to senior management why the organizational chart is configured in a specific way, why the team includes Company © Dr. Robert S. Frey, Successful Proposal Strategies, LLC, 2012 ABC and not Company XYZ, and why 30 days of phase-in support activities are being offered to the Government at no direct cost, along with countless other important decision gates. It is far more effective and efficient to have socialized and gained concurrence for all of the elements that comprise the technical, management, subcontractor management, staffing and key personnel, phase-in/phase-out, past performance, and cost/price solution set at Blue Team. A proven way to vet the entire solution set is through well-constructed proposal work products that encompass elevator speeches; process flow diagrams (Exhibit 1); quadrant diagrams that depict Understanding/Approach/Benefits/Validation; and listings of major Strengths Exhibit 1. Use process flow diagrams to illustrate your company’s approach and the direct benefits that it brings to the Government.
that your proposal offers to the Government in terms of quality, schedule, cost, and risk mitigation, which must exceed the basic requirements of the Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Solution (RFS). No full narrative should be generated for or reviewed at Blue Team.
Instead, robust, meaningful graphics and tables coupled with high-impact blocks of text (e.g., © Dr. Robert S. Frey, Successful Proposal Strategies, LLC, 2012 elevator speeches) allow reviewers to validate that the proposal is on the right path for moving forward. Full-scale narrative is far too challenging to decompose at the Blue Team stage. Indeed, in an increasing majority of cases, total proposal page count is very limited (20 – 30 pages) and Performance Work Statements (PWSs) and Statements of Work (SOWs) are lengthy (100 – 250 pages) and complex. One Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Request for Quotation in early 2012 had a 65-page PWS, but a limit of 40 pages for the entire Technical, Quality, Transition, and Staffing response. What this means in a practical sense is that you cannot write your way to proposal success, another corollary truism. Proposals must be built on meaningful and carefully constructed exhibits (graphics, figures, tables, and illustrations), with the key exhibits connected by text, rather than the other way around.
2. The solicitation drives outlining, not Microsoft Word.
Follow the Government’s solicitation for proposal outlining, not the default settings within word processing applications or your internal company documentation standards. On a recent Department of Defense (DoD) opportunity, the RFP used upper- and lower-case type for evaluation factors for award. In addition, lower-case letters as well as numerals were used for the structure of the evaluation factors (e.g., a. Technical/Management Approach; 4. Subfactor 4, Staffing; b. Part Performance). A mid-tier company responding to this particular solicitation experienced significant internal challenges with the Government’s framework. That firm’s
inclination was to do the following for the three specific examples listed above:
© Dr. Robert S. Frey, Successful Proposal Strategies, LLC, 2012 Anytime that a contractor requires Government evaluators to “connect the dots,” that company increases its risk of losing. If the Government uses a lower-case “a” as an outlining element within its solicitation document, the contractor should use a lower-case “a” as well. If the Government is looking for past performance under a section denoted “b.” and industry uses a Roman numeral II, the level of alignment goes down between the proposal response and the RFP. Default settings in MS-Word result in the use of ALL CAPS and SMALL CAPS in headings and subheadings. In many cases, these do not apply, and should be manually overridden. And simply because a company has as a tenant within its corporate documentation standards that all outlines will begin with 1.0, 1.1., 1.2, etc., this does not translate into optimal compliance traceability for every RFP.
3. Collaboration tools do not equal communication.
Collaboration tools and Document Management Systems (DMSs) such as Microsoft SharePoint 2010, SpringCM Privia, Intravation Virtual Proposal Center (VPC), and Active Innovations InfoRouter have become increasingly important enablers for secure document sharing, proposal configuration control, and Knowledge Management (KM). But they are tools only, and they do not equate to genuine collaboration and meaningful communication. Some companies display a significant and detrimental over-dependence upon these types of tools. It’s in SharePoint, so we must be collaborating. or The auto-generated email went out to everybody on the permissions list, so we must be communicating. When there is a large number of reference and background documents on a proposal portal for a specific opportunity, there is also a pronounced tendency among the proposal contributors not to revisit and leverage the good materials that have been collected over time. In addition, there is clear evidence within some © Dr. Robert S. Frey, Successful Proposal Strategies, LLC, 2012 organizations that “feeding” and maintaining the collaborative tool replaces to an extent the thinking, brainstorming, and idea-sharing so necessary for increased probability of winning (Pwin). During the past 5 years, I have had the unique opportunity of seeing deeply into the nuances of more than 50 organizations’ business cultures. Those that build a strong competency in organizational knowledge-sharing and effective multi-level communication have a stronger and more sustainable proposal development process, and a higher proposal success rate.
4. Focus on proposal results, not proposal process.
Many contractors, both large and small, demonstrate a sense of process urgency versus results urgency. Kickoff meetings focus on logistics and compliance issues. Color reviews and their associated dates drive the proposal process rather than solutions that add tangible or intangible value to the Government in ways that are meaningful to the specific Federal agency, and which contribute to winning. Often, there is far more time and attention given to daily status calls than to how the particular information technology (IT) requirements in the RFP or RFS map to the Government’s business objectives and mission goals, or how past performance must validate the management approach. Face-to-face and virtual meetings languish for hours with no clear agenda, no update on previous action items, and no clear and documented pathway forward, only to be repeated multiple times on different days of the proposal response lifecycle.
Astonishingly, many teleconferences begin with no introductions of the names or roles of the people on the call or physically in the conference room from which the call is initiated.
Participants inquire constantly if a given person is on the call. The amount of Bid and Proposal (B&P) money consumed during meandering, ill-planned meetings is overwhelming. And © Dr. Robert S. Frey, Successful Proposal Strategies, LLC, 2012 sometimes business owners are the most flagrant offenders, joining meetings late in the session, which requires backtracking and repetition of material already addressed.
5. Compliance is necessary, but not sufficient to win.
The primary focus of so many proposal professionals as well as executive management is on compliance with the solicitation document and all of its stipulations. To be sure, you must comply with all font, margin, page count, and other documentation requirements. In addition, you must also address what is being asked for, and what specifically will be evaluated (Section
M) as part of the source selection process.
Yet for a single-award competitive contract, there is precisely one winner. And in 2012, there may be 100+ offerors for this one contract. The vast majority of those 100+ proposals will be compliant. So what makes the difference between winning, and coming in second or seventysecond? Certainly not compliance.
There is an oft-repeated adage that winning results from merely “answering the mail” and “having a low price.” In general, “answering the mail” will earn you a “C”—the Government is looking for and expecting to see much more than that. In addition to compliant, the proposal must also be credible, that is, validated by facts, and compelling, with your solution set aligned exactly with what the Government sees as meaningful and important. Compelling also extends to high-impact, on-target graphics and narrative.
6. Many proposals are lost before being submitted.
Winning a contract is the result of 50% externally focused effort (i.e., Business Development, Operations, and Recruiting), and 50% internally focused effort (i.e., Capture © Dr. Robert S. Frey, Successful Proposal Strategies, LLC, 2012 Management, Proposal Development, Contracts/Pricing, Finance and Accounting, Human Resources, and Quality Assurance). Mr. Ron Trowbridge, former owner of RS Information Systems, Inc. (RSIS), made this assertion 14 years ago, and it remains valid today. A stellar proposal without effective customer relationship building and management, along with outstanding past performance, will not have a high Pwin. Transactions are personal—people buy from people, and people buy from people they know and trust. If key source selection evaluators and decision makers within a Government agency do not know your company, or have a negative impression of your executive management, key personnel, and/or business practices, do not expect to win a given proposal. The latter is particularly true in situations wherein you are the incumbent. As my colleague and fellow instructor, Dr. Terry C. Tarbell, has observed correctly, re-competition for the follow-on contract begins at the win party celebrating the initial contract award. It is critical for Business Development staff to work shoulder-to-shoulder with projectlevel leaders on the Operations side of the house to keep the Government customer set fully satisfied in terms of Quality, Schedule, Cost, and Risk Mitigation through the entire period of performance, not just at re-competition time.
7. Themes are not important to the Government, STRENGTHS are.
This will be a very challenging aphorism to accept for many proposal professionals. Wait a minute! you might think or say, themes and discriminators are what we’ve been taught to be important. Thematic messages that connect the elements of your proposal response are indeed important from a proposal development and writing perspective. But Government evaluators do not think in terms of common themes, unique themes, discriminators, or even value propositions.
Their focus is on Strengths, Weaknesses, Deficiencies, and Uncertainties, as well as a Risk Rating for your proposal in its entirety as well as its component parts.
© Dr. Robert S. Frey, Successful Proposal Strategies, LLC, 2012 In reviewing a number of official Source Selection documents from several different civilian and defense agencies, the following cross-section of “real-deal” examples of Strengths that Government evaluators documented in their findings for various companies’ proposals emerged. Obviously, Strengths are unique to specific companies and specific proposals, but these will give you an excellent idea of what the Government actually identified as being important to them.
Comprehensive workforce skills management approach for assessing and retaining
Integrated, timely monitoring and reporting of costs for both prime and subcontractor.
Award Fee employee bonus program.
Integrated approach to all aspects of IT systems management.
Integrated management approach with common policies, procedures, salary, and benefit
Implementation of an innovative user interface for work control and asset management.
Approach to provide certification programs for Project Management.
Demonstration of a strong commitment to small business utilization through enforceable agreements, exceeding the Government’s goal of 30% small business.
Offeror provided a tangible plan for real cost savings through innovations and efficiencies without substantial impact to service level.
Comprehensive and cost-effective risk analysis and mitigation for all required areas.
Fully functional task order management system tailored to the Government’s ID/IQ environment, with sound security features.