Proposal Land

Term: Margin

An accounting term for the difference between the cost to the producer and the price at which it is sold; calculated as a percentage of price.

On proposals, often misused by non-accountants to refer to the percentage markup a bidder will add to its cost to cover, for example, general and administrative costs and profit.

Where’s That Dagnabbed Fork?

What’s the point of sorting the silverware when you empty the dishwasher–
why not simply put all of it in the drawer in a random order,
and then pick out the cutlery you need when you need it?
It’s the same amount of sorting, after all.
Seth’s Blog

Oh, look, another typo. And here’s a verb that doesn’t agree with its subject.

Wow. Is that the best way to present that example?

Wait a minute. This doesn’t follow the order of the RFP questions.

What’s this Quality Plan? I think I’ve seen a reference to a Quality Management Plan: Is that the same thing?

Boy, this section is tough to read. Does it need to be reorganized? Broken into smaller paragraphs? Simpler sentences? Bullets?

I think it’s been three pages since I saw a heading/graphic. I’m starting to glaze over.

Oops, this section is about 20% over its page limit. Before I start cutting, what can I shorten?

Oh, and by the way, this section doesn’t actually answer the question.

Welcome to a proposal editor’s day: a scattered mess of what Seth calls mode switching.

We intuitively understand the reason.
If you take a minute to sort the forks, knives and spoons all at once,
you won’t have to spend ten seconds
every single time you want to find a fork.

With never enough time, with always looming deadlines, the understandable editorial impulse is to try to fix everything at once. Grammar. Compliance. Completeness. Marketing. Readability. Length. Consistency. Responsiveness. And repeat, in any order.

The cost of changing gears is higher than we give it credit for.
The web has persuaded us that everything is miscellaneous,
that sorting things carefully and keeping them where they belong
is a waste of time–
because we can simply find them when we need them.

Yes, there is a cost to changing gears — to switching modes. For me, that manifests in two ways:

  • I stop reading for sense and compliance and responsiveness and marketing impact (my highest value-added activities) and only fix the grammar and typos.
  • I finish the day exhausted.

But switching to ‘find mode’ breaks our rhythm
and eliminates the useful serendipity that happens
when the right things are near each other,
right where we expect them to be.

It might be counterintuitive, but it’s true: compared to one comprehensive (aka scattered) pass, multiple focused editing passes are faster. In an environment where Schedule is King, that would be enough, wouldn’t it? But it’s also easier. And it gives better results.

And if it’s true in editing, for what other proposal activities is it also true?


Organization Plans

Describe your organization.

We’ve always worked in an organization of some sort, so you’d think we’d have this one down. But we don’t. Why is it so hard to describe, explain, justify, and otherwise sell our proposed organization to a client?

Sometimes the fault lies with the RFP. Sometimes it asks weird questions. Sometimes it asks sensible questions but in a weird order, like covering every possible organizational topic before asking to see the organization chart. (Hint for RFP writers: Get the picture first. Every time.)

But sometimes the fault lies with us: We don’t really know why we propose to organize the service-delivery team the way we’re, um, proposing to. Well, we know in some weird intuitive way, but we can’t explain it.

So, here’s an exercise to do outside of a proposal response period. Take an organization chart that you proposed to some client sometime, and figure out why you did it that way. Here are some factors to consider in articulating the what and the why.

Work departments/teams

  • Did you put all of one kind of worker together (for specialist training/mentoring, for work-sharing, for resilience in the face of absences, for access to key tools/equipment)?
  • Or did you make multi-functional work groups (for cross-fertilization, for cross-training and eventual cost cutting, for comprehensive multi-disciplinary responses to problems, for higher work satisfaction and sense of ownership)?

Functional groupings – Look at your line of senior managers: Who manages what?

  • Did you put each function under its own manager (for better focus, for specialized leadership, for appropriate span of control)?
  • Or did you group functions that need to work well together (for enhanced collaboration, to avoid dysfunctional silos, to cut cost)?
  • Or did you organize similar work or work with similar success factors into divisions (for example, all administrative work in one gaggle, all operational/field work in another)?


  • Did you make a vertical organization with lots of approval layers and tight supervision (for quality control, for guaranteed adherence to  some work/performance requirement, for clear accountability, to mirror the client’s organization, to give a new service area the management control it needs by limiting the scope for problems to metastasize)?
  • Or did you make a flat organization (for faster response to client requests and/or to emergencies, for higher work satisfaction, to minimize supervisory costs in an environment where people pretty much already know what has to be done and where a problem in one area won’t disrupt the whole organization)?


  • Did you make one workplace (for better coordination and communication, for sharing of expensive infrastructure and corporate resources, for organizational identity and camaraderie)?
  • Or did you set up a distributed organization (to be adjacent to different client operations for familiarity with the work and for faster response times, to save time or money on some input cost)?

Source of staff

  • Did you go with in-house staff (for consistent performance, for lower cost, for an on-site and familiar service presence)?
  • Or did you plan to hire subcontractors (for occasional specialty services requiring unusual certifications, for access to expensive equipment not needed day-to-day, to complete a high-visibility task quickly, to provide seasonal or surge coverage economically)?
  • Or did you use a hybrid staffing model?

Staffing plan

  • Which functions use full-time staff (for consistent performance, for service reliability)?
  • Which functions use part-time staff (for cost control, to meet predictable surges in workload economically)?
  • Which functions use seasonal staff (to cover big workload swings through the year, to access specialized skills not needed year-round)?

RFP requirements – Not least, and never last . . .

  • Did you align your organization with some specific RFP requirement, whether explicit (like watch-keeping or shift coverage) or implicit (a focus on quality or performance levels or safety)?

You’ve already got the picture. Now you just have to use your words.


Term: In-house

Describes personnel within the point-of-reference organization, or services provided by these personnel.

The Second Costs More

The first favor is when you ask a friend or colleague
to do something for you.

The second favor is when you ask them
to do it precisely the way you would do it.

They’re not related. And the second one costs more.
Seth’s Blog

A contract does not define favours: It defines obligations. But Seth’s point holds even in extrapolation: Requiring a (sub)contractor to do work in precisely the way you would do it costs more. A lot more.

If you’re doing it because you need the contractor to fit into your organization and work alongside hordes of people all doing the work precisely your way, without any bumps, well, OK. Maybe. But this sounds more like an employee than a contractor. Just sayin’. An extraordinary employee at that. And an extraordinary organization.

If you’re doing it because you can’t define what deliverables you want, what outcomes you need, then think again. Yes you can.

And it will cost less.