Proposal Land

Better RFP Responses & Management
Proposal Land

Better but not Perfect

I’ve often wondered what it feels like to hook a ball out-of-bounds in front of a packed gallery, not to mention a few million TV viewers. Me, I never had that level of exposure, nor even a comparable level appropriate to my work environment. And yet, I still hated making mistakes. I hated even being mistake-adjacent.

In my first year in Proposal Land, we had been assigned a technical section based on the probable division of work assuming contract award. One response, however, was outside our area. As I gathered the responses from our own technical folks, I flagged this one question for completion by the prime contractor in another province:

XX’s input here.

When we faxed our pages to the prime (Yes, really. This was long before we even had files attached to emails. Shared online repositories were unimaginable.), I called the volume lead to tell him that we needed their input for that response. I didn’t think it was necessary, you understand, given the note in the document itself: I was just being thorough.

Typists in their organization retyped our pages into their word-processing software (I know, I know), and the whole proposal then went through a rigorous and meticulous review process with many stages. A few weeks after the submission date, we got a question from the reviewers.

What, exactly, does this mean:
“XX’s input here”?

Good lord. How many sets of eyes–typist, technical reviewers, executives–had missed that text? I was mortified but also furious.

A few years on, I understood Proposal Land a little better. By then, I had experienced more of the pressure inherent in a speed-&-feed environment. I had learned that the people scan a page more than they read it, and that an embedded note needs something (colour, font size, bolding, caps – SOMETHING!) to catch that scanning eye. I had developed better processes:

  • Submitting a complete document to a prime contractor, even if some of it had to come from the very people we were submitting it to
  • Reviewing documents against checklists

And so on. And yet, we still submitted imperfect documents. We still made mistakes. Not, perhaps, as silly or embarrassing as this one, but mistakes.

So? So read Seth’s Blog today.

Being careful is smart.
Being perfect is unattainable,
and seeking perfection is a trap.



Dancing in Proposal Land

More good words from Seth’s Blog:

The art of project management includes the dance
between velocity and possibility.

If you’re even an occasional occupant of Proposal Land, first read Seth’s post. Then, in the spaces between proposals, explore possibilities for doing them better, even if no one asked you to. Some of those possibilities are on this website; some are in my manual; some will be your own bright ideas. Document proven ideas in your standard methodology, achieving the velocity of which Seth speaks.

If you’re an executive or senior manager with Proposal Land oversight responsibilities, first read Seth’s post. Make spaces between proposals for proposal workers to explore possibilities for doing better proposals in the spaces between them, and to document proven ideas in your company’s standard methodology.  Recognize both the effort and the result.


We’re All in This Together

Remember I’m pullin’ for ya –
we’re all in this together.
Red Green

long while back I stumbled on an article on fostering teamwork in design projects. I was tickled to find that many of the lessons cited there also applied in Proposal Land.

A little while back I stumbled on a blog by a (now retired but still blogging) evolutionary ecologist and entomologist at the University of New Brunswick. He writes on many things, including the art/discipline of writing, and although his field is not proposals, many of his observations apply to Proposal Land. Here’s this week’s example.

There’s never just one way to write a paper. Instead, there are choices – lots of them –
and while it’s the writer’s job to make those choices in a way that serves readers well,
there isn’t one choice that will be best for every possible reader.
Writing well is more complicated, and much more interesting, than that.

My specific point? Writing proposals is an ongoing effort to manage long-term risk (If you win the work based on this proposal, will it be the best outcome or the worst outcome? Will living with the result be a lovely or an ugly thing?) while achieving the short-term goal of first winning the work by writing a proposal that meets the needs of disparate evaluators, many/most of whom you don’t even know.

There isn’t one choice that will be best for every possible reader.

Indeed. Our task is to accept that truth, and find a way to be, if not best, then at least OK for all readers.

My broader point? Proposal Land is not sui generis: Although it’s distinctive, and perhaps distinctively difficult, it’s not “one of a kind.” Things learned elsewhere can help us:

  • Encourage your team members to ponder which lessons from their own field of expertise can be applied to help tame the proposal beast.
  • Go forth and read broadly, with this question at the back of your mind: Can this help me or my team on the next proposal?

You might be surprised at how often the answer is, “Yes!” I know I am.


Deep Breath

Taste is individual preference, not absolute truth.
Seth’s Blog

Hah! Try telling that to an executive reviewer insisting on a different font or colour palette. Try telling that to the proposal manager making a late-night request for title case within every cell in every table because it looks better to them: a preference not disclosed when it might have been accommodated. Try telling that to the team member, recently part of the client’s organization, who conflates their own taste and the client’s.

Deep breath.

First, most people are trying to help. And they believe their input *is* helping. They strongly believe this.

Second, most intense behaviour comes from a place of fear: In this case, fear that we don’t know what “perfect” looks like to the evaluators and yet, somehow, everything must be perfect. Did I mention that we don’t actually know what “perfect” looks like to the evaluators? Did you understand that everything must still be perfect, somehow?

Deep breath.

In the mess that is Proposal Land, what can we do about these fights over taste?

Preventive Actions

“What’s possible” depends on staff/team continuity and how many proposals a company does and how formalized/documented its proposal process is and how, um, idiosyncratic the internal reviewers are. Try these steps:

  • People responsible for the look of all or most proposals for a company can:
    • Learn which executive/manager preferences are just easier to accommodate from the get-go.
    • Document and communicate these default standards.
  • A proposal manager can:
    • Spend 10 minutes to define who takes the lead in the non-default decisions on this specific proposal.
    • Communicate that locus of authority to the team as often as necessary. Once will not likely be enough.
    • Work with production/editorial staff to game the “blow-up” scenario ahead of time:
      • Know what you can change more-or-less easily.
      • Know what you’d really prefer not to change (given known client preferences or the opportunity cost of the time to make the change).
      • Know what you just cannot change (given client instructions or real time constraints).
  • People responsible for the look of a specific proposal can:
    • Ask corporate resources about any default standards or known preferences if this information is not already forthcoming.
    • Solicit input from the team so everyone feels heard, even if they don’t get their preference.
    • Remember that it’s not really about your own preferences, either. Even though they are, of course, perfectly right.
Reactive, um, ReActions

If it blows up in your face, it will be at the last minute.

Deep breath.

Remember, you’re dealing with fear: Don’t add your own to the mix. Drawing on the gaming work you did, respond calmly even if people are being insanely insistent. Give them the facts about timelines and performance consequences in other areas.

And then? Comply if you must. Not everything is a hill to die for.



To Hell with Happiness

Well, not really.  But this article in Harvard Business Review argues (convincingly, I think) that happiness–a fleeting emotion, but I repeat myself–is not a reasonable target for our work lives.

So what would be better? Meaning and purpose, that’s what.

Living with meaning and purpose may not make you happy — at least in the short term. It requires self-reflection, effort, and wrestling with issues that initially can be frustrating. But when you approach work situations mindfully, with an eye toward contributing to others while honoring your personal identity, you’ll find opportunities to practice the skills that help you find the intrinsic value in your work.

The whole article is worth reading and certainly doesn’t need me to summarize it here. I’ll just add three Proposal Land points.

First, supervision is mostly MIA in Proposal Land. With ad hoc teams, staffed with people who don’t report to you on an ongoing basis, the apparent benefits of supervision don’t come close to matching the costs thereof (the effort required to supervise at all, never mind the effort required to supervise well). However, this article gives anyone in a transient supervisory role (e.g. proposal managers, volume/technical leads, chief editors, production leads) some ideas for providing useful feedback to team members. It allows leaders to go beyond the “We won, so thank you” approach, to address the specific effort someone made.  The difference they made. Who knows? It might even come as a surprise to them.

Second, supervision is mostly MIA in Proposal Land. (“Hey!” you say, “That’s the same point.” And so it is. Would you like to work as a proposal editor?) Given that transient supervisors have no compelling business reason to invest their time and their selves in you, consider supervising yourself. That is, use the ideas outlined here to think about what part of proposal work adds to your sense of meaning and purpose. To think about how you could change how you work to add more meaning/purpose.

Third, supervision is mostly MIA in Proposal Land. (“Hey!” I know.) But here’s the thing: Teams can be self-supervising, especially with respect to “sharing best-self narratives.” That’s called “work culture” and we all hold it in our hands to a greater degree than we think.