Proposal Land

Every Bloody Rake

As someone who spent a career in the bowels (and yes, the image that brings to mind is exactly right) of the procurement machine on the corporate side, I think this is an interesting albeit discouraging take on Canada’s system of military procurement.

Fighter jet procurement in this country is so fraught it once caused the birth of a new political party. Trying to buy helicopters helped bring down a government. We only successfully bought those helicopters after they became a greater danger to the personnel manning them than they were to any potential adversary. We have been running a procurement for the next generation of fighter jets for an entire generation. Even Yes, Minister writers would have given up on something that absurd.

Our submarine fleet seems to be almost permanently in dry dock. Our most recent ship procurement resulted in the absolutely monstrous prosecution of one of the country’s most accomplished military leaders.

And we just issued a revised bid to finally replace our Second World War-era pistols … last week.

Just cataloguing that level of incompetence is exhausting. No leader or party looks good. The civil service, as the one constant through all these cartoonish blunders, surely has to wear some of this, too. The fact that we seem to repeat the same mistakes can, at least in part, be attributed to a significant institutional memory failure on the part of the people trusted with having the institutional memory.

Now, it is worth noting in fairness that no nation has an easy time with large scale military procurement. Ask the Americans about the development of the V-22 sometime. But, still, no nation has mastered the ability to step on every bloody rake quite as well as Canada.

For similar rants, check out Matt Gurney in the National Post or on Substack. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any knowledgeable commentator with much good to say about the system.

The challenge, for government, companies selling to government, and citizens dagnab it, is to figure out how to do better.


Staffing Red Teams

I may — cough cough — have spoken (once? twice?) about the beast that is Red Team:

  • The ones that get into feeding frenzies, attacking everything in sight.
  • The ones that correct typos and flag irrelevant and idiosyncratic usage/style preferences but never address whether the response is complete, never mind compliant or well organized.
  • The ones that quite rightly tell you  to adjust the order of a presentation for greater marketing impact . . . but quite wrongly give you that instruction multiple times in every single dagnabbed affected section. Not that I’m bitter.

Red Teams are usually dominated by executives, and executives are like cats: You can’t herd ’em. I know, I’ve tried:

  • I’ve tried the careful assignment of sections to focus folks on their area of expertise.
  • I’ve tried the written briefing notes to lay out expectations (What we want, how we want it, what we don’t want).
  • I’ve tried the in-person verbal orientations delivered in a don’t-make-me-come-over-there tone.
  • I’ve tried every facilitator’s trick in the book during the melee.

All these can help, but Red Teams remain stubbornly unherded.

Why is that? As always, Seth has an interesting answer.

It turns out that most people are unpracticed
and unprofessional at giving useful feedback.

I can vouch for that, at least for the “unprofessional” part. The next question might be, “How do we change it?” Maybe that starts with specifying what we want from a Red Team, as with any feedback.

We don’t need unwarranted criticism or simple reassurance.
In fact, we need someone who understands genre
and has the insight to share what they know
in a way we can use.

So. A few things occur.

Sharing our insights in a way that others can use it is not necessarily an in-born trait. Maybe Red Teamers need the task to be defined, as noted above, but maybe they also need some useful feedback — neither unwarranted criticism nor simple reassurance — on their performance.

Do you know anyone who does that with Red Teams? I didn’t think so. With 30+ years in the business, I’ve never seen it done.

And yet. Maybe our organizations do have people — even, ahem, executives — who could learn to be better Red Teamers. Folks who could learn to give better feedback if we, too, could learn that very skill.


The Last Win

This past week I heard that the last last proposal I worked on was successful. Well, hurray.

Losing sucks, unreservedly, but winning also offers a chance to think about what it costs.

Excerpt from Buddy & Me: Winning

Fast and Good. Who Knew?

You can have it good,
or you can have it fast.

In the cost/schedule/performance management triangle, schedule is often seen as a constraint on performance. At least, that’s how craft workers tend to see it – folks who live to do the work and do it well. “If only I had more time, I could do a better job,” they mutter/grumble.

But Seth, as usual, offers a different perspective on deadlines.

It won’t ship when it’s perfect.

It will ship because we said it would.

Once this is clear, the quality of what we ship goes way up.


Instead of spending time and energy looking for reasons, excuses or deniability, we simply do the work.


In Proposal Land the client sets the submission deadline, and it is truly a wonder what gets done. But the proposal team can set sub-deadlines to focus its energy on sub-tasks rather than “looking for reasons, excuses, or deniability.” Document reviews are the most obvious such sub-deadline (aka green/pink/red team) but there are others we can set:

  • Executive review/approval of the proposed solution and risks
  • Design (and approvals if necessary) for the cover, format/layout, colour palette, and graphics elements
  • Preliminary price-point check (How much is this all going to cost, anyway?)
  • Style guide creation
  • Photo selection

I’m used to thinking of deadlines as a way to get the work done: necessary to meet schedule, of course, but fundamentally not conducive to the quality I aim for.  Seth has helped me see deadlines, whether client- or self-imposed, as a way to cut through all the hoo-ha. A way to actually get the work done better.


Impenetrable Text: Bug or Feature?

It’s a trick question, right? After all, any editor will tell you that impenetrable text is an all-too-common bug. Here’s an honest comment on scientific literature from a life-sciences PhD at the University of New Brunswick.

I will cheerfully admit to the “bug” half. Yes, much of our literature is poorly written. We write in complex sentences stuffed with the biggest words we can possibly find. We adore acronyms, seizing every opportunity to coin a new one, or seven if we can possibly manage it. We scrub any hint of personality from our writing, fetishizing the passive voice, avoiding informality like contractions, and ending up with colourless text that sounds just like everyone else’s. – Scientist Sees Squirrel

So, how could it possibly be a feature? Read on.

. . . like all writers everywhere, we write for a specific discourse community. A discourse community is a set of people who share background knowledge and context, vocabulary, and interests. Before you write anything – a scientific paper, a recipe, a piece of Star Trek erotic fanfiction – your first move should always be to think about the discourse community you’re aiming to be part of. Or, in simpler terms: ask yourself, who are your readers? If your intended readers are experienced legislators, you can probably use the word cloture (or closure or, colourfully, guillotine) but not the word rhyolite; if instead they’re petrologists, it’s probably the other way around. (Yes, that example is trivial, but you get the idea.) Our universe is complex, and our understanding of it is too, and expressing that in a way that’s useful for other scientists does require some advanced vocabulary and some textual complexity. In this sense, the impenetrability of our literature to outsiders is a feature; it arises because we are successfully pitching what we write to the discourse community that will read it.

How does this apply to Proposal Land? Thusly. Many editors are not expert in the content they’re editing: They’re not airport operators or building managers or software developers or call-centre supervisors or management/PR/HR consultants or  tradespeople of any sort. But, boy, do they write good.

If we know that both non-experts and experts will be evaluating our proposal then our task is to take all the value that editors bring in clarifying and improving technical text without losing any part of the text’s communication value for any experts who are also aboard.

If we really don’t know who’s involved, then we’d better assume the presence of both.

One good approach is to start every section with a plain-language statement of the problem/target and the proposed solution/approach along with its benefits. That’s to convince the non-experts. Then get into as much detail as needed to convince the experts. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

Should it be easy to read? Simple sentences and bullets? Plainer words where possible? Few (or, at least, defined) acronyms? Active voice? Helpful graphics? Absolutely.

Should it have precise technical detail, appropriately expressed as per domain/discipline/industry norms? You bet.