Tag Archives: Managing proposal teams

How to Handle Page Limits: Tip #1

Page limits: They make life easier for evaluators, and help to separate the sheep from the goats, procurement-wise.  After all, those who are best at delivering a service or designing a product or building or software system are also best at explaining themselves succinctly, right?  Well, maybe.  Maybe not.  But whether you love ’em or hate ’em, page limits are more and more the way of government procurement, so it behooves bidders to get better at handling them.  Herewith, the first tip.

Let’s say the RFP asks any of the following:

  • Submit a preliminary project management plan – 10 pages
  • Describe your project experience – 2 pages/project
  • Explain your approach to risk management – 5 pages

And let’s suppose your experts are outraged!

After all, the company’s standard project management plan is 100 pages.  How can they possibly cut it to 10?

After all, the projects in question are worth tens of millions of dollars and involve, you know, rocket science.  How can anyone do justice to them in just 2 pages?

After all, the folks doing risk management (or quality control, or performance management, or logistics, or . . . ) each have five industry credentials.  Do you really think they can explain what they do in 5 pages?

Stop.  Breathe.  And focus.

Focus?  On what?

Forget what you want to tell the customer.  Forget what you think they need to understand about you.  Forget about all the push communication from the experts.

Flip it.

That is, pretend for a minute that you’re the customer, trying to select a contractor.

What would you want to know?

What factors would help you differentiate between bidders?

What facts or data or credentials or stories or concepts or principles would convince you to spend your money?

Now go and write those answers. Write what the customer is trying to pull.

And you know what?  It’s never a 100-page project management plan.  If it were, they would have, you know, given you 100 pages to write that very thing.


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Ask Before Helping

The rule

On a proposal team (OK, maybe on any team), don’t jump in to help without first checking on a few things:

  • Whether help is, you know, wanted
  • What kind of help would be, you know, welcome
  • How to provide said help so that you aren’t, you know, causing trouble

The rule applies to everyone, but it applies more the more senior you are, or the more removed you’ve been from the main work stream of the proposal.

The story

The sales guy responsible for the client receiving this proposal was understandably eager to help.  As I started to assemble the package for the in-house printing and copying centre, I kept finding him standing behind me, smiling.

That, I could live with, although it was a bit unnerving.  Where it started to go south was when he started trying to help.  First he reorganized my piles of documents, lining everything up in nice rows with no gaps.

“No,” I said, “those gaps are how I know that I still need something from Production.”

He stopped moving stuff around, but he wasn’t happy.

Then, when we had everything, I started to pile documents together to take them down to the folks who would copy them for us.  He jumped in again, happily stacking documents in a way that they hated downstairs, because it cost them another step to realign the piles for input to their humongous copier.

“No,” I said, “they need them stacked like this.”  And showed him.

This time, he pouted.  “If you don’t want any help,” he huffed, and moved off.

I stopped for a minute and looked at him, wondering whether it was worth my bother.

“I do want help,” I said, “but we’re always asking the copying department for help with a last-minute job – that’s the nature of our business – so we work hard to make it as easy for them as we can.  To keep them as happy as we can.”

He came back to the table and watched me closely as I assembled packages of files in a way that would cause the least irritation for those folks who were so necessary to our on-time delivery of “his” proposal.

And then he started doing it the same way.


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Tip for Managers of Proposal Managers

“If you reward effort you get results.
If you reward results, you don’t get effort.”
DeBono, 2005

We all celebrate the wins.

One company I worked for kept a big hand bell and someone walked (or ran) through the halls, ringing it, when we heard that we had won the contract.  It was a great moment.

Then we all went back to the trudge-trudge of our work on the current proposal.

I’ve only ever seen one company that really got what DeBono was saying – not that they were perfect managers, but they understood this truth:

If you reward effort, you get results.

The time to express appreciation for the often extraordinary effort that proposal teams put in is at the time, or just after the proposal goes in – not when the contract is announced.  After all, a 1 in 3 hit rate is excellent, so rewarding only the winners ignores the work that 2 out of 3 teams has done.


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How to Allocate (Enough!) Time for Editing

How much time does a proposal editor need?  It’s a question that is of more than theoretical interest to me at the moment, as I work my way through a flurry of documents against a looming deadline.  It’s a question that should matter to everyone charged with setting out a response schedule.

It’s a shame the answer is unknowable or, at least, difficult to calculate.  That’s because the answer depends on four things.

The state of the document

Sections come in for “editing” in states ranging from completely unreconciled cut-and-paste nightmares to mature drafts that have been through at least one review cycle: already known to be in the right order, with basically complete and responsive answers.

The length of the document

Time-to-edit has some sort of law-of-squares relationship to length.  Fifty pages takes way more time to edit if it’s in one document than if it’s in five.  There’s only so much trouble you can get into in ten pages, whereas fifty offers seemingly endless scope for structural and consistency issues – with structural problems being the slowest to repair.

The rules of engagement

Exactly what are you asking the editor to do?  To review for completeness, responsiveness, consistency (within the section, across sections, with external documents like organization charts and lists of plans), clarity, marketing effectiveness, readability, pretty-to-look-at layout, English usage, or typos?  Or (ahem) all of the above (pretty please)?  And are they  just supposed to identify problems, or to take a stab at fixing them?

The editor

Who do you have working for you?  How fast do they work?  How experienced are they at proposals?  How well do they know the company?  The work?  The client?

What does it all add up to?

Here are my rules of thumb:

  • Final proofing – 20 pages/hour
  • Copy-editing – 10 pages/hour
  • Substantive editing and enhancing layout – 5 pages/hour
  • Structural editing of a long section with a fair bit of rewriting – 3 pages/hour, maybe less

How much time does a proposal editor need?  Hey.  You do the math.


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How to Foster Teamwork: Rule #11

No dickheads allowed.
Rhys Newman and Luke Johnson

Well, OK, that’s clear and to the point.

My slightly less vivid advice to proposal managers selecting team members has always been to choose team players above experts.  Of course, in an ideal world, those two would coincide – and it’s amazing how often they do.  It’s amazing how many people know what they’re doing and work well with others.

But those who don’t or won’t work nicely with others suck time and energy from an activity that has none to spare:

  • Stubbornly implementing their pet preferences in the solution, regardless of client priorities
  • Sticking their nose into areas that aren’t their concern
  • Violating rules for version control of documents.  Repeatedly.  Even after stern warnings.  Not that I’ve ever seen this . . .
  • Refusing to accept style standards that the rest of the team is using
  • Missing deadlines, missing deadlines, missing deadlines

So the final word of advice in this series?  Eliminate dickheads from your proposal team.  You’ll never be sorry you did.



 Proposals are schedule-driven projects that require a strict project management discipline. Right? Partly right. In proposal terminology, I’d call that answer incomplete.  Proposals are projects, for sure, but they’re also the output of teamwork. I’ve recently been learning how much the design business has in common with proposals.

This post is one of a series on proposal teamwork, inspired by a fabulous article on Medium on design teams:
“No Dickheads! A Guide to Building Happy, Healthy, and Creative Teams.”


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