Proposal Land

Better RFPs: Are They Mythical Beasts?

Today, Seth tackles fuzzy-wuzzy specifications. Arguing that a clear spec is clearly (hah!) the best way to get what you want, he asks why so many specs are not clear: vague, murky, and even contradictory.

If you write a great spec,
we get to blame you if it doesn’t work out.

Maybe that’s why so many SOWs and even proposal instructions are, to quote the master, “vague, murky, and even contradictory.” Maybe it’s fear of blame and/or accountability.

Maybe it’s also because, to quote George W. Bush, it’s hard.

It’s hard to clearly specify the work we want. We must first know it well enough to define the outcomes we want and then distinguish those from the methodology used. We must be able to fairly evaluate methodologies that are not the same-old way we’ve always done things. It requires a high level of domain knowledge and some ability to think outside the box.

It’s hard to sensibly specify the response we want. We must first know how we’re going to distinguish between proponents: what we need to know about them or their plans to help us make a high-confidence selection. Otherwise, we’ll just keep asking for the same-old plans that drive immense work for bidders and that our in-house evaluators might not even be able to assess or to differentiate.

Professionally risky + hard = ???

It doesn’t look like an equation that would add up to success, does it? Usually it doesn’t. Recognizing that fact is the place to start on doing better.


Term: Supplier

A company that provides a given product or service; often used synonymously with bidder, but can also refer more precisely to a lower-tier company in the contracting chain (that is, to a company that has no direct contractual relationship with the client).

Also often used in conjunction with vendor, as in “vendors and suppliers,” in which usage the distinction between the two is too fine for me, and may vary by industry or company anyway.

Don’t Apologize: Fix It

Today, Seth’s Blog talks about the gig of Chief Apology Officer. (To be clear for Canadians, he wasn’t referring to our current Prime Minister.) Their job, he says, is “to mollify critics and disappointed customers” without having their hands on any of the organizational levers, strategic or operational, that would enable change.

Most companies I’ve seen in Proposal Land have an informal Chief Apology Officer. There’s often an executive who sympathizes with undeniably overworked employees but who does nothing to correct the company’s actions and decisions that led to that overwork:

  • Assigning too few people, or too few capable people
  • Participating in too many simultaneous or back-to-back proposals
  • Failing to prepare (data gathering and resource development) either between proposals or using other staff
  • Failing to commit in a timely way, leading to key decisions being made way late to need, driving both re-work and last-minute work
  • Using processes that see executive input arrive too near the submission deadline

Executives often focus on what they see as the outcome: Did we win? And if they didn’t win: What feedback can we get from the client?

Fair enough: That matters. Insulation from market feedback is a recipe for quick disaster. But to Seth’s point, the insulation of proposal processes from any kind of feedback loop from workers is also a recipe for disaster: a slow-moving one, maybe, but just as sure.

By insulating the industrial [Ed: or proposal] system
from the feedback loop that would improve it,
these organizations doom themselves to a slow fade.

This time, Buddy, it’s OK to say you’re sorry. Next time, you’d better fix it.