The steps a government contract proposal manager must follow are numerous and complicated. Avoid these 15 land mines to clear a winning path.
This guest post is by Jim McCarthy, Principal Owner and Technical Director, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI), a federal contracting proposal and business development consulting firm. Since 1983, KSI has helped clients win over $130 billion in federal contracts.
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The life of a government contracting proposal manager is a tough one. It involves long hours, lots of people and a million details. And that’s on a good day.
On a bad day, all kinds of things can (and will) go wrong. Here are 15 of the most common government contracting proposal land mines that managers needlessly step on. Avoid these mistakes and watch your win ratios start to improve.
- Eye on the Wrong Target. Proposal managers frequently focus a disproportionate amount of time on process instead of winning. For some, doing it their way trumps content. Others spend more time preparing PowerPoints than increasing win probabilities. When process interferes with winning, correct the process.
- A False Economy. Proposal managers, to cut costs, eventually are compelled to trim more than just fat. Under-resourced and under-funded, they look for any shortcut – not warning their superiors that cutting certain corners actually lowers their win probability. A cheaper but losing proposal wastes more money than a more expensive one that wins. This is called the false economy of a proposal.
- Missing from the Beginning. Proposal managers often fail to lock-in, and then enforce, a unified value proposition, a set of themes and a catalog of major selling points. The result: writers invent their own dog’s breakfast. The proposal is burdened with so many unsanctioned messages that the house of cards collapses. Better is a good theme that has traction, than a perfect theme on which nobody agrees.
- Decisions in a State Of Flux. Proposal managers often fall into the traps of governance by committee or by consensus. Here, key decisions (however rational they may be), are made by a group–not by a determined leader. Then another group musters a counter-argument and the team spins. False starts and whipsawing are commonplace. Easily overturned decisions spark uncertainty and cast doubt on the leader. Often, it is wise to have many counselors, but one decision maker. The buck stops somewhere. Let it be a bold leader – one with stones.
- Whose Side Are They On? Proposal managers often prefer a root canal to a proposal review. If not handled correctly, too many gate reviews, in-process reviews, or color teams create the appearance of results. But in reality, unless used sparingly, these widespread practices reduce proposals to the lowest common denominator. They wring the life out of many proposals. If reviews are used, limit their quantity and manage them smartly.
- Mission Impossible. Proposal managers often accept responsibility to manage the proposal without a corresponding grant of authority. This only invites micromanagement and second-guessing, especially from above. Without authority, managers are impotent to lead. Their only tools are nagging, cajoling, coalition-building, and team politics. These techniques seldom give birth to a winning proposal. If you are anointed by the boss to lead the proposal, insist on commensurate clout to get the job done.
- Too Little Too Late. Proposal managers countenance corporate executives tweaking the document at the 11th hour, well beyond any reasonable deadline. As well-intentioned as the execs may be, then is when a proposal is sent spiraling out of compliance. Contradictions creep in. Production is delayed. Respectfully remind your boss that you are well past the time when his or her comments are welcome.
- Fallacy of Recency. Proposal managers are often victimized by a mistaken belief – one that holds that the last revision of a document is automatically superior to earlier ones. New is often not better, just different. Know when revisions confront the law of diminishing returns. Then let it alone.
- Bar Too Low. Proposal managers are repeatedly asked to tolerate color team reviewers who fail. So-called “experts” often don’t know the program or the customer and don’t make the review a top priority. Causing actual damage, they discount the value of previous efforts by writers. Often, they bloviate conflicting, superficial, destructive and unactionable comments. Sadly, many of them have not bothered to read the RFP. These experts are seldom held accountable for their “contribution” to the proposal effort. Such is the bane of many proposal managers. Politely fend off “help” from those incapable or unwilling to deliver.
- Post Deadline Creep. Proposal managers set, but rarely enforce, most proposal deadlines. Thinking they are acting reasonably, such managers unknowingly erode team discipline and accountability by bluffing deadlines. Worse, such a naive manager actually punishes those who produce timely deliverables. Penalties from creeping deadlines are seldom meted out. Set and adhere to reasonable deadlines.
- A Common Afterthought. Proposal managers frequently truncate the window for edit time. Then faced with a nearly impossible task, editors are rendered impotent and their work products are superficial. Good editors are golden, but not miracle workers. Nor are they useless appendages imposed on a team just before the delivery box is sealed. Give them time.
- Fumbled Handoffs. Proposal managers, when transitioning to their phase of the development cycle, too often accept substandard work products from the capture team. Pablum and platitudes abound. Customers’ needs and wants are superficially treated. Unsubstantiated claims riddle the capture strategy. A vision to win is non-existent. Don’t allow the capture manager to ride off into the sunset. Hold him or her accountable for delivering a strategy that can actually be executed.
- Commodities Masquerading as Capabilities. Proposal managers often fall prey to a burgeoning heresy with many executive level adherents. Proposals, their bosses incorrectly believe, are mere commodities. Any Tom, Dick or Sally can write or manage one. They often value a low consulting hourly rate more than high competency. These execs apparently believe that the team can cut and paste its way to a winning proposal. They forget that proposals are both an art and a science. They devalue our profession and detract from our contributions by believing that proposals are no big deal. To the competent and trained proposal professional, the proposal is a big deal. Keep it that way.
- RFP Outlines. Proposal managers, to their own detriment, frequently permit numerous changes to the approved proposal outline. They forget no two people will produce identical outlines. Instead, they bend to whichever wind is blowing that day in the direction of the outline. No, give the outline your best shot (do not delegate). Then stay the course. Not every suggested change improves the outline.
- Stand-up Meetings. Proposal managers often permit their stand-up meetings to devolve into a time-wasting and non-productive cacophony. Agendas and time limits are blown through. Team status reports are drivel. Pontificators find their paradise. A Martian observing the free-for all would conclude that everything is fine. We know better. Run your meetings to benefit your team, not punish it.
Jim McCarthy from AOC Key Solutions can be reached via email or by calling 703-868-8263. For the latest government contracting news, watch his show, Government Contracting Weekly on Sunday mornings at 7:00 on WUSA-TV9 or online 24/7 at www.GovernmentContractingWeekly.com