All Episodes

Challenging Proposal Teams

February 4, 2021
February 4, 2021
Proposals are stressful at the best of times. Here are a couple of real-world programs EXA has successfully navigated.

Challenging Proposal Teams

Opportunity captures, and especially proposals, are stressful at the best of times. But sometimes, you come across especially challenging proposal environments.  Here are a couple of real-world programs I have dealt with.  I sanitized the descriptions (including gender) to prevent the identification of anyone involved.

The One-Eyed King

Most companies employ a culture of checks and balances to help each manager view and control their environment in an ethical, legal, constructive, and competitive way.  That is not always an easy needle to thread, as tensions often arise between these objectives.  What makes a company profitable may not be ethical, and legal boundaries can discourage collaboration.  Leaders in a well-balanced team rely on each other to help them navigate through this challenging business landscape.

The one-eyed king team represents an organization, not just a person.  In the one-eyed king organization, the company invests a disproportionate level of responsibility and authority in a single person.  The organization’s checks and balances weaken or fall away altogether.  This imbalance can happen in an organization that lacks experience in pursuing large programs.  One person rises above the rest as the resident expert – the king (or queen).  The company’s leadership defers to the appointed capture leader’s judgement.

Usually, the one-eyed king holds their own capture and proposal abilities in high regard.  But the one-eyed king themself is only half the problem.  The dynamic takes hold when the executive team abdicates its checks and balances duties, claiming they do not know enough about complex program capture to provide meaningful support.  The old saying goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king. While the capture leader may know more about complex pursuits than anyone else on the leadership team, the one-eyed king lacks the depth and breadth of experience required to lead the capture of a major pursuit effectively and efficiently.  The one-eyed king’s bravado and self-assuredness further discourage the executive team from challenging their authority.

You can identify a one-eyed king organization when someone escalates an issue to the executive team.  If the executives reply that the capture leader is in charge without even listening to the concern, you are probably working in a one-eyed king organization.

The one-eyed king is dangerous because they know less about capture and proposals than they think they do.  The one-eyed king not only believes they possess the knowledge and skills to lead the pursuit, but also believes they alone know the right way to pursue this opportunity.

The risk to the bidding company is significant.  I am a senior capture leader and proposal leader with 30 years’ experience, but I would never presume to know better than everyone else about a particular pursuit.  When checks and balances fall away, assumptions go unchallenged, and weaknesses creep into the capture and proposal efforts.  Sometimes those weaknesses prove fatal to the bid.

What do you do if you find yourself in a one-eyed king capture or proposal pursuit?  First, frame the problem as an organizational issue, not a personal one.  While the one-eyed king is the face of the problem, the real issue lies at the executive team’s feet, which allows the one-eyed king culture to thrive.  Second, recognize you will not change or fix the problem before the capture or proposal runs its course.  Third, the problem is likely temporary.  When the capture comes to an end, you, the one-eyed king, and everyone else will return to their real jobs.

In terms of specifics, pick your battles.  It is unlikely you will win an argument with a one-eyed king.  In one personal experience in a one-eyed king environment, I started to let defects slide if they were not likely to impact the resulting evaluated score.  But one big issue came up, and the one-eyed king was fixated in writing the bid document in a certain way.  I knew their way would seriously damage the resulting evaluated score.  I gathered all the evidence I could.  Finally, the issue boiled over in a meeting with vice presidents in the room.   I presented my case forcefully and logically.  I was certain in my position – just as certain as the one-eyed king was in their opposing view.  In full view of the vice presidents, the one-eyed king ordered me to do it their way.

Two weeks later, the one-eyed king said their way was not working, and they devised a brilliant new tactic that coincidentally bore an uncanny resemblance to my approach.  Everyone saved face, but the executive team started listening to me.  And we won the bid.  You can only take a stand like that when you are certain beyond doubt, and even then, only if you are positive your approach will change the outcome of the bid.

The Perfectionist

Perfectionism is the enemy of winning.  There is no such thing as a perfect proposal, only a winning proposal.

I led one major program where the client demanded nothing less than perfection, especially in things that did not alter the evaluated score or resulting contract.  They demanded the margins be an exact width, font type be an exact size, and headers and footers be in an exact form.  The problem was, they had not written down any of these rules, and my document formatter spent hours and days reformatting documents each time the client declared a violation of a previously undisclosed rule.

My client went so far as to phone my formatter at home very late one night and demand the formatter fix the font size in a document.  I do not know how my client learned my staff’s home phone number. The client’s actions crossed several boundaries.  I was especially vexed that my client intruded into my staff’s personal life to fix something as trivial as a font – something that could easily have waited.

The next day I told my client under no circumstances were they permitted to phone any of my staff at home, and they should always call me on my cell at any time if they had a concern with one of my personnel.  I further warned my client in an email to them, copied to the vice president, that I would remove my staff from the project if my client repeated that behaviour.  The client continued to insist on perfection but never called any of my team at home again.

Later, during the white review, when we were page-turning seven copies of a 12-binder proposal, my client insisted on fixing every blemish, no matter how trivial.  Things like a single space between the last word of a sentence and the period, or an incorrectly indented line, or the notation 7th without the ‘th’ in superscript font, all caught the client’s attention.  They demanded the team fix and reprint these minor imperfections over my strenuous objections.  Their perfectionism led to thousands of needless reprinted pages.  There were so many reprints, people started making mistakes.  My client started yelling at the team.

I cleared the room and sent everyone out for a long lunch.  My client and I stayed behind.  I told my client they were doing more harm than good – none of the changes would alter the probability of the bid being selected, and they were damaging team morale.  My client argued appearances were just as important, if not more important, than the evaluated score.   When I pointed out the unrealistic perfectionism was causing new errors in the proposal document, my client relented.

In the end, I negotiated a set of rules with my client to govern what should and should not be reprinted.  I told them my team would not participate in the review without a set of rules.  My client agreed, and I wrote the rules down.  I asked my client to sign the rules, which they refused to do.  We finished the review, still correcting more blemishes than I knew were necessary, but at least there was no yelling.

Dealing with perfectionism is difficult because perfectionists do not view the world as we do.  Perfectionists often focus on form over substance.  They believe perfection is achievable, and anything less is undesirable.  Perfectionists take things more personally than other people do.

Setting boundaries is one way, as we did for rules of what blemish would trigger a correction.  After my client phoned my formatter at home, I explained the situation to my team, and how I communicated to the client that I will not tolerate further boundary infractions.  I directed my team to immediately report to me any boundary issues, no matter how small.

Once I realized we were dealing with a perfectionist client, I made sure not to give the client reasons to criticize us.  I told my team to show up early to all meetings (my team started a catchphrase – five minutes early is late), and we took extra time to prepare for each client meeting.  My coordinator always took detailed notes in every meeting.  That turned out to be more important than I thought it would because our client contradicted themselves more than once.  Referring to detailed notes captured in emails my coordinator sent to my client proved an effective defence against wandering standards.

I held a brief team meeting every morning.  We specifically reviewed all the details our client would expect that day.  Using these coping mechanisms, we finished the proposal.  My client won the bid.

In Summary

We cannot always control our work environment.  Most people I work with take pride in finishing the job they started.  Sometimes we need coping mechanisms to deal with toxic proposal teams.  Proposals are stressful at the best of times, and toxic teams compound that stress.  Every proposal leader needs to recognize a challenging proposal environment and marshal the coping mechanisms to lead the team to a successful conclusion.

A proposal consultant has an opportunity and a duty to lead a team through a challenging environment because the consultant has several advantages.  First, the consultant has not been immersed in the environment the way employees have, and so the consultant brings a fresh perspective and energy to the environment. Second, the consultant can take a stand against an executive without risking injury to his career in the organization.  Third, the consultant is singularly focused – win the bid – whereas an employee divides his attention and focus across many important corporate outcomes.

At EXA, we strive to work in a positive and healthy environment, but we also know we sometimes find ourselves in less-than-ideal situations.  That too is the life and burden of a consultant.  I take pride in having led EXA through some difficult environments.  It comes from a blend of experience and conviction that, no matter what, we will find a way through this.

EXA is Canada’s leading firm specializing in Capture and Proposal Leadership.

From small, strategic bids to programs over $100M, EXA leads pursuits of all sizes with 30 years of experience.

want more?

More Dialogues