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What You Need to Write a Winning Proposal

October 7, 2020
October 7, 2020
Sometimes writing a proposal is like competing in a triathlon. Consider the International Team Triathlon. Each athlete on the team – comprising two...

Sometimes writing a proposal is like competing in a triathlon. Consider the International Team Triathlon. Each athlete on the team – comprising two men and two women – swims 300 meters, bikes 6.6 kilometres, and runs 1.7 kilometres over a gruelling course before tagging the next person on the team. The four-person relay team with the best overall time wins. The 2020 World Team Triathlon Championship took place last month in Hamburg, Germany. Like the Olympics, each team represents its country at the competition. The winning country (France) finished just 8 seconds faster than the second-place over the 80-minute course. In 2019, the winner finished 4 seconds better than second place. You must go back to 2018 before finding a winning team that finished a colossal 43-seconds faster than second place, a margin equating to 0.9% of the total race time.

Razor-thin margins are standard in sports. The tiniest relaxation of performance, the slightest slip of form, or the briefest distraction can cost you victory. Individuals who compete at this level require superior agility, fitness, strength, clarity, and stamina. Winning teams demand focus, sacrifice, teamwork, and training.

Now imagine a triathlon team gathers at the starting line. One member is new to the team. She is eager and committed, and she excels in physical fitness. Although she is a strong recreational swimmer and cyclist, she has no training and experience in competitive cycling, swimming, and running, and she does not know the team dynamics. The relay team does its best, but finishes behind the pack, owing mostly to her slower course time. It was not her fault – she did the best she could – but she was not able to deliver the performance the team needed to win.

It is an unlikely scenario – even ridiculous. And yet, we see this situation time and time again in proposals. Proposals are not unlike high-performance team sports. They involve fierce competition among the best in the country, sometimes in the world. Proposal teams require commitment, teamwork, and focus. Like the triathlete, an individual proposal specialist must excel in several different disciplines, and a bidder wins on the team’s strength.

A complex proposal has even more at stake than an international sporting competition. Bidders commit hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars to a single major capture pursuit, and hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars of contract revenue rest in the balance. Sometimes many jobs, and the company’s livelihood, depend upon a successful bid submission. EXA has led several pursuits where the corporate leadership made it clear that a bid loss would spell significant restructuring and layoffs.

Photo by Simon Connellan on Unsplash

How Businesses Fail Themselves

In the business world, proposals are often called a “marathon sprint,” a fitting moniker to the energy and endurance proposal specialists must possess. A proposal team must work continuously at a high tempo for weeks or months while delivering untold volumes of documents against uncompromising standards. Personal and family time take a back seat to 100-hour workweeks that grow common during peak periods.

Just as in the sporting world, razor-thin margins occur in proposal competitions. Not only do you need a dedicated, high-performing team, but your team members must also be the best in their class. A simple oversight, a single omission, or a moment of distraction can mean the difference between winning or losing a billion-dollar contract.

Sadly, too many businesses staff a proposal team with smart, dedicated, and energetic employees who lack proposal training and experience. Like the triathlon relay race, the rest can only do so much to offset weaker proposal writers.

Even though billions of contract dollars are at stake, managers too often focus on who is available at what cost, rather than their proposal skills and experience. The single largest reason for this oversight is a lack of knowledge and understanding. Managers do not appreciate the scope and complexity of skills, experience, and capabilities required on a proposal team. In their mind, they are making sound and judicious trade-off business decisions. Without realizing it, these managers are setting up their proposal team to lose.

Read the following list. If any of the statements below resonate with your thinking, you should recalibrate your understanding of what proposal development is.

  1. A proposal is just a project. Anyone who understands project management can run a proposal.
  2. Proposal milestones and deadlines are just like project milestones and deadlines.
  3. Proposal writing is just writing. Anyone who can write a technical report or a marketing brochure can write a proposal.
  4. The best engineers and marketers make the best proposal writers.
  5. We can deploy employees as proposal writers without any unique or significant training and support.
  6. Technical RFP requirements analysis is just like engineering and design. Any competent engineer can do it.
  7. A proposal team is just like any other team. Anyone who works in a team environment can work on a proposal team.
  8. Our employees are smart. They can figure out proposal writing on their own.

If you view the above statements as intuitively obvious, then you might want to rethink your approach to proposals and how you staff them.

Every manager and executive who directly or indirectly makes decisions that affect a proposal team’s staffing and performance must understand how proposal development and proposal teams work. Without that deep understanding, you risk being the person who loses the race by unwittingly putting the wrong person on the team.

Good intentions are not enough when razor-thin margins dictate winners and losers.

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.

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