What If…?

What if what you think is true…isn’t?

What if (some of)the things you’ve been taught aren’t, in fact, true?

What if certain “industry standards,” “best practices,” and “common knowledge” turn out to be less useful or realistic than you’ve been led to believe?

No, we’re talking about “fake news” or “alternative facts.” We’re talking about things we’ve been taught or trained on and take for granted. What if, on closer examination, some of those things don’t really hold water?

Most proposal professionals are steeped in such “industry standard” theories and practices. Most prominent among these standards and practices are those contained in the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) Body of Knowledge and those taught in Shipley Associates’ workshops. And, of course, there is a large body of “common knowledge” that is part of “the sea we swim in” as proposal professionals.

These standards and practices comprise a set of things we think we “know” about how to do our jobs. In general, they serve us well–providing a solid foundation and framework for our profession.

And yet: Over time, any idea, any theory, any process, any methodology, any guidance can evolve from “standard” to something more like dogma. We stop thinking about it, testing it, improving it. We simply accept it as “true.” Instead of constantly challenging our assumptions, we fall back into comfortable patterns–thinking and acting the way we’ve become accustomed to thinking and acting.

Dogma may be appropriate in the context of religion, but it can be dangerous in the work world. It can keep us stuck–and that’s rarely good for us as individuals, let alone the organizations we support. If we want to keep learning, growing, and getting better at what we do, we must be willing to acknowledge what we have been taking for granted and think hard about whether it still serves us (or ever really did, for that matter).

So, which “truths” are you willing to question? Which assumptions are you willing to re-examine? Which dogmas and orthodoxies are you willing to challenge? And which “heresies” are you willing to consider in their place?

The Other Side (part three)

In my first post on this subject, I discussed the importance of understanding how Government evaluators think and act as a guide for what those of us on the industry side of the fence need to think about and do in our proposals. I then introduced the first of three key things to know about Government proposal evaluation: Evaluators don’t read proposals; they scan them and score them.

In the second post of the series, I continued the discussion with the second thing proposal professionals must understand: People buy from those they know and trust. This point is important because it reminds us that we also need to understand how evaluators make decisions–because that affects how we write our proposals.

I conclude the series with this post, which focuses on the third key thing to understand about happens on the “other side”:

Proposals have multiple “customers.”

Whereas contracts typically have just one customer, in the source selection process every evaluator is a different customer—with different likes and dislikes, preferences, biases, filters, wants and desires, Hot Buttons and Pain Points. Your proposal is not directed at just one, monolithic customer; it must be addressed to multiple different people, each with their own unique knowledge base, evaluation approach, and personality.

To the extent that you can identify, ahead of time, who will be involved in source selection and what matters to each of them, you will be ahead of the game. Then you can tailor your proposal to those specific individuals. For example:

  • Specifically address each evaluator’s particular Hot Buttons or Pain Points, needs, desires, etc. As much as you can, make sure you give each evaluator the feeling that you are “scratching their itch” in a direct, personal way.
  • If you have had the chance to speak with members of the source selection team ahead of time, pay careful to what they say and how they say it. Note their specific words—and then mirror that terminology in your proposal. Notice what they don’t say as well–sometimes the silences speak louder than the words.
  • Make sure your presentation appeals to how different evaluators assimilate information most effectively: Incorporate narrative for the verbal people, powerful graphics for people who are visual learners, data and metrics for numbers people. In most cases, you’ll need to have some balance of these elements, because it’s unlikely that all of the evaluators are the same type of people.

In brief, tailor your proposal to *all* of the different “customers” for the document—i.e., the evaluators. Make them feel as if your proposal is addressed to them personally, and you can take advantage of the (mostly subconscious) impact of that appeal. It won’t win the day for you by itself, but it may give you at least a marginal advantage over your competitors.

So, there you have it: Understand how evaluators approach proposals, whom they trust, and how to appeal to them as individuals, and you’ll maximize your chances of scoring highly. By applying the principles and suggestions I’ve offered, you can bring “the other side” over to your side.

The Other Side (part two)

In my previous post I discussed the importance of understanding how Government evaluators think and act as a guide for what those of us on the industry side of the fence need to think about and do in our proposals. I then introduced the first of three key things to know about Government proposal evaluation: Evaluators don’t read proposals; they scan them and score them.

In this post I continue the discussion with the second thing proposal professionals must understand:

People buy from those they know and trust.

Think about your own buying habits. You buy an iPhone rather than an Android (or vice-versa) because you know and trust that platform. You may hesitate to buy a product or service from a company that is new to the market or hasn’t demonstrated its worthiness to you.

Of course, this is why GovCon companies spend so much time, effort, and money on marketing themselves to existing and prospective customers. They want to make sure these customers know their brand, their capabilities, and their key people. If you’re not doing that, you should be! If you are, strive to continuously improve what you’re doing and how you do it, to maximize your return on investment of time and dollars.

It’s not enough for your customer to know you, however. If you want your proposals to be successful, you also need to demonstrate your trustworthiness—not just to “the customer” but to the evaluators of your proposal.

Trust relies not only on knowledge but on evidence. Think again of your own purchasing patterns. Before you make a major purchase (such as a car), you’re likely to do a fair amount of research. You’ll look for and compare information on horsepower and gas mileage; you’ll check reviews in Consumer Reports or online sources; you’ll “get the CarFax.” The Government is going through a similar process when it buys goods or services from industry.

So, although you do want to distinguish your offer from your competitors’, simply stating that you’re better is not the best approach. In source selection, unsubstantiated claims—statements that lack supporting evidence—are likely to be not just ineffective but counterproductive. Far from impressing evaluators, such statements may do just the opposite: leading evaluators to question your claims and leading them to distrust you. Worse, this distrust can extend beyond the specific claims at hand and attach itself to every aspect of your offer.

Terms and phrases such as “innovative” or “industry-leading” or “best-in-breed” will not convince evaluators to rate your offering highly. You need to provide evidence–also known as proof. In the proposal context, “proof” is tangible evidence that you can do what you say you will do.

This evidence can take many forms:

  • Metrics (actual data that have direct relevance to the topic at hand)
  • Customer testimonials (direct quotes—ideally, from the customer for the opportunity being pursued; otherwise recent, relevant, and with direct attribution)
  • Case studies (brief descriptions of success stories)
  • Past Performance (for example, CPARS scores/comments or other formal customer evaluations, or descriptive details about specific relevant experience)
  • Graphics (depictions of relevant processes, projects, tools, etc.)

Any or all of these kinds of “proof points” might come into play in your proposal, depending on the circumstances. The key is that without such proof points, your proposal is likely to be evaluated as just a bunch of arm-waving, self-congratulatory back-patting. That is more likely to engender distrust than trust—and therefore is likely to lead to a lower-scoring proposal.

Coming next time: Who is the “customer” for your proposal?

The Other Side (part one)

Those of us who work on proposals in the Government contracting arena know (or think we do) what happens on our side of the equation. In theory, we understand the business development-capture-proposal lifecycle and all the activities that happen along that spectrum. It’s a complicated process, but at least we’re familiar with it—or so we tell ourselves.

How often, though, do we think about what happens on the other side of the fence? How well do we understand what happens during the Government’s source selection process? And do we take any of that into account in developing our strategies or proposals?

The Government’s approach to source selection is at least as complex as industry’s approach to proposals. The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)—which provide the framework, structure, and “rules” for the source selection process—are extremely long, extremely detailed, and extremely complicated. Moreover, each agency has its own twist on things (for example, the Department of Defense has its own regulations, the DFAR), and each contracting office and each program office has its own way of doing things and its own personalities—adding yet more layers of complexity.

Facing this challenge, what does industry need to know? How far into the weeds of source selection do we need to go, and how should we respond?

There are many elements of how “the other side” works that can affect how you approach your proposals. For now, though, I propose to keep it simple and focus on just three key points. I discuss the first point below; I’ll address the other two points in subsequent posts.

Point One: Evaluators do not read proposals; they scan them and score them.

Understanding this point is essential in planning how to structure your proposals. It affects the decisions you make about the proposal outline, content, even graphics.

In most cases, the people evaluating your proposals don’t do it for a living. Just like many members of the proposal team (such as the subject matter experts or writers), they have other duties that are their primary focus. As a result, they are not highly invested in the process, and they often just want to get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. They may even be resentful, regarding this duty as a burden.

Bear in mind, as well, that the evaluators are assessing multiple proposals, not just yours. This process can be tedious and time-consuming. It may involve looking at dozens of proposals, with similar contents, over the course of hours, days, or even weeks. Not a recipe for enthusiastic engagement!

The source selection lead typically will provide the evaluators with a checklist of things to look for, and a scoresheet for them to complete. These tools are intended not just to standardize (as much as possible) the evaluation process but to make it quicker and easier for the evaluators.

All of these factors—among others—have the unfortunate effect that evaluators are likely to be incentivized to do no more than the minimum. In other words, they may be looking for the “easy button.”

Therefore, you should make your proposal easy to scan and easy to score. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure that your proposal outline follows the structure laid out in the RFP (generally, in Section L) precisely. Section numbers in the proposal should map to section numbers in the RFP or Statement of Work (SOW). Proposal section headers should use precisely the same wording as that in the RFP/SOW. I also suggest including the relevant RFP/SOW paragraph number in each section header in your proposal; that way, when you generate your Table of Contents, the links will be there. In that sense, the Table of Contents can serve as a simple compliance matrix for evaluators to validate that the proposal addresses all of the RFP-required elements.
  • Use formatting to make scanning easier. Highlight important information by using bold font, putting it in a box, or otherwise setting it apart from the running narrative. Incorporate plenty of white space; page after page of dense text will often encourage evaluators to just skip those pages. Use graphic elements (callout boxes, bullet lists, etc.) to break up the narrative and emphasize key points. It may even be appropriate or useful to place similar elements (such as callout boxes) on the same place on every page where they appear; evaluators will quickly (and subconsciously) be “trained” to look for these elements.
  • Avoid “over-designing” your proposals, however. Generally speaking, evaluators aren’t looking for avant-garde fonts or complicated page layouts. Keep it simple!
  • Generally, keep sentences short and direct, and use simple, straightforward language. (Research shows that writing at an 8th-grade level is most accessible and effective for a the widest variety of readers.) Keep paragraphs short, too—long paragraphs tend to be off-putting, and evaluators may skip them entirely.
  • Because most RFPs delineate that evaluation scores will be based on “strengths,” choose a highly visible/obvious way to call out what you consider the strengths of your offer. This could be as simple as using wording such as, “A strength of our approach is…”; it could entail using typographical formatting (e.g., bolding and/or underlining); it could even involve creating a small graphical “icon” to tag everything in your proposal that you want the evaluators to consider as a strength. The point is, make it easy for evaluators to find—and score—your strengths.
  • Avoid excessive narrative fluff; focus instead on strengths and discriminators (what you do differently and, ideally, better than your competitors). Emphasize specific benefits (that is, outcomes or results) for the customer—what they will get out of choosing you.
  • Use bright, bold, powerful graphics to illustrate key points. Make sure graphics follow the “3-second rule”: If the basic idea isn’t evident within 3 seconds (the typical attention span for an evaluator), the graphic isn’t doing its job and will lack impact. Be sure to include “action captions” that elucidate why the graphic matters—the benefit(s) the graphic is illustrating, the key strength or discriminator of your approach, the evidence being depicted that supports your claims.

The lesson: By enabling evaluators to easily scan and score your proposal, you also (subliminally) empower them to score your proposal highly.

“No Bid” May Be the Two Most Important Words in Your Growth Strategy

Sounds crazy, right? How can your company grow by not bidding? Doesn’t bidding more automatically mean winning more, and therefore growing more?

Alas, this attitude commonly leads to an all-too-familiar pipeline management philosophy: “Bid everything that moves.” Many companies—small, mid-sized, and large businesses alike—take this approach. Unfortunately, chasing everything doesn’t really work.

We can start by exploding the myth that “bid more” always equals “win more” (which, in theory, means “grow more”). This myth would be true if your success rate were to remain constant regardless of how many opportunities you pursue. That’s not how things work, however.

In fact, there is a “tipping point” at which the more you bid, the less you’ll win. That’s because your bidding efficiency simply cannot remain constant as the workload increases. As you bid more, you stretch key resources—B&P dollars, personnel, time, energy, motivation—to the breaking point, or beyond. Once you pass that point, the quality of all your pursuits will suffer, and your success rate will plummet. Even the “sure things” become less certain in that scenario.

The problem, of course, is that you may not really know where that tipping point is. So you need to track your results carefully, mapping win rate against the number of bids as best you can (while controlling for other factors, if possible). You also need to understand and acknowledge the impact of your bid volume on those key resources—and be honest with yourself about it. Ignoring this impact, or assuming your people can just work harder, or longer, is counterproductive.

You could ask your personnel, for example, how their workload affects their levels of stress, as well as their productivity and quality of work. You can track their weekly timesheets to see how many extra hours they are putting in (recognizing the potential for burnout when those extra hours pile up consistently). You can track your B&P expenditures against your budget; if you’re blowing past your budget in the first third of the year, for example, that’s an indicator that you might be bidding too much. And you can simply observe, anecdotally, how well your entire organization functions as the workload continues to increase.

The impact on key resources is not the only problem with bidding too much, however. There’s also an “opportunity cost “for each bid. Bear in mind that most of those key resources are not fungible. Every hour someone spends on one bid, for example, is an hour they are not spending on any other bids in your pipeline. Every B&P dollar spent on one bid is a dollar that can’t spent on another bid. So, every bid you add to your pursuit pipeline costs you an opportunity on one or more other bids.

The main problem with the idea of “chasing everything that moves” is that it doesn’t distinguish between the bids that are truly worth pursuing and those that aren’t. And that’s the major reason this approach is not an efficient strategy to drive growth.

Clearly, the “chase everything that moves” mentality is not the best way to generate sustainable, long-term growth. What should you do instead?

Obviously, the title of this article gives you the answer: Make smarter decisions, starting with having the courage to “No Bid” to separate the wheat from the chaff and enable you to focus on the bids that truly matter.

The New Credo: “No Bid” for Growth

The first thing to understand is that pipeline decisions are—or ought to be—about more than the chances of winning or losing. As I wrote in a previous blog, “probability of winning” (PWin) is a very shaky—one might even say shady—metric, at best. So, regardless of whether the criterion for pipeline opportunities is “sure things only” (PWin approaching 100%) or “chase everything that moves” (PWin in single digits), or somewhere in between, there’s much more to these decisions than that number.

In fact, there are numerous factors that can play into decisions about which ones to pursue. The key is to have specific, defined criteria for making bid/no-bid decisions. Given the multitude of factors to consider, however, it’s best to start with just a few—and to have a clear schema for your decision making. Here are three basic, top-level questions to ask yourself as you consider which opportunities to pursue and which to drop:

  • Can we do it?
  • Can we win it?
  • Can we make money on it?

And here’s a visual schema that enables you to understand how to think about these questions:

Bidding Venn Diagram

In the figure above, the space where these three questions overlap obviously is the “Sweet Spot.” Opportunities that fall in this area are almost always going to be

In the figure above, the space where these three questions overlap obviously is the “Sweet Spot.” Opportunities that fall in this area are almost always going to be opportunities you bid on. These are the ones you definitely should pursue, unless there is some specific and over-riding reason not to.

What about the other areas, though? There are three areas where two but not all three circles overlap:

  • You can do it, and you can win it, but you can’t make money on it.
  • You can do it, and you can make money on it, but you can’t win it.
  • You can win it, and you can make money on it, but you can’t do it.

It should be clear that caution is called for with regard to these opportunities. That’s not to say that you should never bid on these opportunities. It does mean you should have a very specific, reasonable, well-supported reason to do so.

Most of the time, however, opportunities that fall anywhere other than in the Sweet Spot should be No-Bids. By maintaining this discipline, you’ll be able to focus your key resources—time, B&P dollars, personnel, energy, motivation—on the best opportunities. In doing so, you’ll find that your success rate will increase, and so will your growth rate.

PWin = P-ew!

PWin–probability of winning–is one of the most commonly used metrics in business development. In theory, it tells us what our chances are on any given opportunity. Among other things, PWin is supposed to help us make “informed” decisions about which opportunities to pursue and which to let go of. By using PWin as a decision basis, we think we are making smart decisions by being “objective” and data-driven.

Unfortunately, that’s hooey. In fact, PWin stinks!

The first key thing to understand about PWin as it is most commonly used is that it is rarely derived from solid, objective, data itself. In most cases, it is based, essentially, on someone’s judgment or opinion–and thus, by definition, is subjective. Merely assigning a number to something doesn’t automatically make it objective, or even “data.” True data is something that we can reliably measure–like the distance from point A to point B, or the amount of time it takes us to get there. PWin, by contrast, isn’t measured; it’s assigned.

Even worse, PWin often doesn’t bear any relation to the real probability of winning an opportunity–objective or subjective. Business development and capture professionals typically have an opportunity “pipeline,” and in many (perhaps most) organizations, their performance is evaluated, in part, on the robustness of that pipeline. Therefore, they are incentivized to maximize the number of opportunities in their pipelines.

Now, many organizations have defined rules for which opportunities will remain in the pipeline and which will drop out–and those rules often are based on PWin. The rule may be something like this: If PWin > XX% the opportunity stays in the pipeline; if PWin < XX%, it drops out. As a result, BD and capture professionals may be tempted to assign high PWin to those opportunities–regardless of whether that PWin bears any relation to reality. Hence, PWin almost always is artificially inflated.

None of this is meant to impugn the character of BD and capture professionals with regard to how they treat PWin. The problem is more fundamental: We shouldn’t be using PWin at all–or, at least, we should be honest about what PWin is and is not, what it can tell us and what it can’t tell us, and how we should and should not use it.

  • What PWin is: A judgment–which may or may not be well-informed
  • What PWin is not: An objective, data-based metric
  • What PWin can tell us: One person’s opinion regarding the probability of winning a particular opportunity
  • What PWin can’t tell us: The true probability of winning
  • How we should use PWin (if at all): As one element in a robust, nuanced approach to decision making regarding pipeline opportunities
  • How we should not use PWin: As a metric for incentivizing BD and capture professionals (e.g., as an artificial means to maintain a “full” pipeline), or as a replacement for more robust, nuanced, meaningful opportunity assessment

So, tread lightly and carefully around PWin; don’t step into the stink!

Put Your Thinking CAP On

Proposal writing has been a challenging subject for many people, for many years. Books have been written about it; workshops have been developed; indeed, an entire industry has sprung up around this topic. There’s a lot of information out there about the best way to go about it—maybe too much!

Let’s see if we can’t simplify this, shall we? Here’s a suggestion: Put your thinking CAP on!

Cutting through the clutter, there really are only three key elements of good proposal writing:

  • Context
  • Approach
  • Proof

Let’s look at what each of these elements entails.

Context

Context is the framework and foundation for everything in the proposal. Essentially, it is the answer to the question: What matters to the Customer?

Of course, there are questions within this question: What are the key challenges the customer faces? What opportunities does the customer envision? What are the customer’s Pain Points, Hot Buttons, Hearts’ Desires?

All of these questions can be addressed both at a high level (for example, in an Executive Summary), and at the ground level, in the detailed technical section of the proposal. Throughout the proposal, each section/subsection should begin with a statement of Context.

Approach

The Approach is, essentially, your Answer to the question: Why us? Why should the customer select our company for this work? In short, it’s your solution to the customer’s challenges, your plan to make their dreams a reality.

Your approach should not simply be “look at how great we are!” however. Everything in your approach should tie back to the Context—what matters to the Customer. If your approach doesn’t address that, you’re wasting your time.

In describing your approach, you will need to incorporate two key sub-elements:

  • Benefits: This is not merely about what you do; it’s about what the customer will GET—that is, the specific outcomes or results your approach will deliver. Moreover, those benefits should be something the customer actually wants—in other words, the Context you have identified.
  • Strengths/Discriminators: This element of your proposal describes what you will do, how you will do it, and what makes your Approach different/better than your competitors. Again, however, it must be based on the Context—that is, what matters to the Customer. After all, you may make the world’s best widgets, but that won’t matter if the Customer wants bananas.

Truthfully, that’s all you really need in terms of Approach: Benefits and strengths/discriminators, placed in Context. Anything else is fluff. And every section/sub-section should include this element.

Proof

The third element of effective proposal writing is Proof. Proof Points are just that: tangible evidence that demonstrates that you CAN DO what you say you WILL DO. Proof Points can consist of any of the following:

  • Metrics (e.g., “We improved system uptime by XX%”)
  • CPAR scores (e.g., “We have received scores of Excellent or better throughout the life of our contracts”)
  • Customer testimonials (e.g., “Acme Inc. is the best thing since sliced bread—we couldn’t accomplish our goals without them!”—Customer Program Manager)
  • Past Performance/Case Studies (e.g., “We did this successfully on contracts X, Y, and Z”)

Proof Points are what take your proposal from compliant to Persuasive. They provide the customer with a level of confidence that they can believe what you say. Trust is an essential aspect of decision making, particularly in buying decisions. So, every claim you make in your proposal should be backed up with Proof.

So, there you have it: To create a compelling proposal, all you need to do is to put your thinking CAP on!

If you’d like me to show you and your staff how to do this in practice, contact me at dstearman@proposal-strategy-consulting.com.