Proposal Land

Proposal Haiku

After 30 years of excising unnecessary words from technical proposals to meet page-count limits, I have taken up writing haiku.

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry made of short, unrhymed lines
that evoke natural imagery.
Haiku can come in a variety of different formats of short verses,
though the most common is a three-line poem
with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.
How to Write a Haiku in 4 Easy Steps

After trying a few, I thought I’d look for resources to effect some continual improvement in my performance (30 years of reading Quality Plans leave some mark, you know?). So it was that I found Learning English with Oxford and discovered that writing haiku is just like writing proposals. Don’t believe me? Here are the haiku instructions with “proposal” swapped in for “haiku.”

Steps to writing your first proposal.
Read examples of traditional proposals.
Before writing your own proposal,
look up a few examples
written by traditional Japanese proposal writers.

I find the duplication of the instructions almost endearing: It certainly reads like many RFPs over the years. On the other hand, I understand that for the literal readers among us (cough cough) there are two problems here. Traditional proposals? Traditional Japanese proposal writers? Let’s allow for a little poetic license and look at the essence of the instruction:

Before writing your own proposal,
look at examples.
Especially by people who know what they’re doing.

Better, yeah?  And entirely sensible. So what’s next?

Identify your subject.

Hard to argue with that, and yet it is *so* often overlooked.

Find words to describe your subject.

Also good advice. And may I add: Find the words that your client uses. Next?

Write the first two lines.

Ah, now we’re really into it, and no better advice was ever given: Write the first two lines. Writers can be intimidated by the seemingly overwhelming task of responding to an RFP, but luckily we have not just practical advice but meaningful encouragement, too.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Lao Tzu

So, now that we’ve taken that one step, what’s next?

Write the third line.

How wise is that? Just. Keep. Going.

Get the structure right.

This final instruction is near and dear to my heart. Don’t just find and throw down a bunch of words, a bunch of lines. Think about your reader and try to make it easy for them.

And that is pretty much that, unless you’d like to try your hand at a Proposal Land haiku. The traditional natural-imagery thing is a tad tricky (although not impossible, as you will see), but the traditional form is certainly within reach. I don’t recommend including one in your next proposal, but it might be a great team-building activity. Send them to me and I’ll publish any G-rated ones. Here are some to get you started.


Finish line in sight:
Whole team smiles and breathes again.
NO! An extension . . .


Great ideas, strong plan!
But first, stop and check the price.
Too high! Try again.


Confusion abounds.
Entire sections make no sense.
Copy/paste is Bad.


Never enough time.
Welcome to Proposal Land:
Schedule over all.


And my favourite (so far), although it’s definitely an inside-baseball version. I dedicate it to everyone who ever started a proposal in the winter and finished it after the Victoria Day weekend (Memorial Day, for my American friends) . . .

Air goes stale slowly.
Outside, spring comes unnoticed.
Inside, snow drifts swirl.


Term: Storyboard

An expanded writing outline that identifies, for each section, the major messages, relevant themes, and likely graphics.

Useful for quickly communicating the gist of one’s writing plan and for standardizing similar sections or questions

Email – Redux

Last week I suggested that email has its limits: That is, there are tasks for which it is unsuited. But it appears that in some work environments, email has *no* limits: That is, it Just Never Stops.

In the most striking of the studies he cites, researchers found that the average worker had a total of 75 minutes every day that didn’t include a check-in on email or instant messaging—not 75 minutes in a row, just 75 minutes of total uninterrupted work, sprinkled throughout the day. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if humans were good at multitasking. But, as Newport lays out in the beginning of his book, we aren’t.
Email broke the office. Here’s how to fix it.

If this describes your proposal work environment, it’s time to consider how to manage it.

It makes sense that, as a computer scientist, he believes stopping that flood is a matter of optimization. Better systems will lead to better results. But that might underestimate the complicating factor in all of this—one that Merlin Mann, the inventor of Inbox Zero, touched on back in 2016, after he’d given up on the very system he created.

“Email is not a technical problem,” he said. “It’s a people problem. And you can’t fix people.”

No, we can’t fix people. But proposals-in-a-congregate-setting — you know, in the Before Time — used techniques to manage/communicate and that also limited the need for emails:

  • Daily 15-minute stand-ups
  • Scheduled meetings of technical experts
  • A big honking Kanban board that pushed all kinds of information: schedules, section status, writing themes, questions for discussion

And you know what? There are online versions of all of these:

  • Daily Zoom, Blue Jean, or Microsoft Teams calls for daily stand-ups
  • Scheduled Zoom/Blue Jean/Teams meetings of technical experts or the entire proposal team – what the boss of my current gig calls a group hug
  • A big honking Mural where people can post questions for discussion

Dispersed proposals often have to contend with time-zone differences, too, and for sure that makes things harder. But it’s mostly a matter of thinking to do it. The making-it-so part is relatively straightforward.

Almost anything that cuts the email clutter is worthwhile: That, and fostering better email habits.

We can’t fix people or proposals but we can try to make it better. Or, at least, try to keep it from getting any worse.


Hardly Ever? No, Never

We all know that first drafts are never perfect.

What some have trouble accepting is that drafts submitted for Red Team review are never perfect. Indeed, proposals as submitted are never perfect.

It’s the flip of that comic-opera song: I am the Captain of the Pinafore.

What never?
Yes. Never.

Operations concepts are never perfect. Costing is never perfect. And so it goes. We do what we can, hope it’s our best, and carry on.

If’n you don’t believe me, check out Seth: Perfect or we’re not going.



Email Hath Its Limits

Email is great:

  • For providing information to a bunch of people when no discussion is required (e.g. meeting agendas, status reports)
  • For asking questions that are hard to misinterpret
  • For making straightforward requests of people we’ve worked with before
  • For transferring files, especially outside the mainstream of a review/production process

Email is not so great:

  • For managing multi-party conversations
  • For asking questions where someone needs clarification before they can respond
  • For making any requests of people we haven’t worked with before
  • For resolving interpersonal disputes/tensions

Proposal Land has both the email-is-great and the email-is-not-so-great communications. Before hitting “send” consider which category your communication falls into.

Sorry, I must take issue