This is a tale of two proposals done by different departments in the same firm. Competent professionals who had completed (and won) several proposals in the past staffed each department. Department A, looking at their limited resources, did their proposal by the seats of their pants, tackling and deciding upon issues as they came along. Meanwhile, Department B, reviewing the same limited resources, used a well-mapped-out process to complete their proposal.

Guess who turned in the better proposal.  Yes, Department B.

Aside from having a quality product that your client needs, sound proposal project management (PPM) is essential to submitting a winning proposal. PPM is the process of defining and planning every aspect of the proposal, from writing and editing to the final delivery.

PPM Markers

While this article gives some of the basic markers of PPM, as you complete more proposals, you will develop your own set of PPM markers that are tailored to your firm’s proposal writing process.

Kickoff meeting (The rah-rah factor). The kickoff meeting should be held as soon as the RFP is obtained. The kickoff meeting’s main purpose is to develop team synergy and enthusiasm for the proposal. The meeting is also a good time to define what tasks will lead up to a winning proposal, who is responsible for each of those tasks, deadlines, responsibilities, project timelines, outsourcing/consulting needs, and graphics/writing/editing issues. All people involved in the proposal process should attend the kickoff meeting.

Set a proposal budget (good, cheap, and fast — any two, but never all three!). Most firms have budgets for projects, except proposal efforts. You should be tracking your proposal costs, including employee time and materials, to determine your rate of return on your proposal efforts. Are you spending a lot of money on proposals for relatively low-value contracts? Generally, your proposal costs should be between 3 and 5 percent of the contract value. Here are some issues that can really drive up proposal costs:

  • No kickoff meeting: Not having a plan wastes time and money.
  • No page limits: People will write more as opposed to less and take more time to do it, so set and enforce a page limit.
  • No clear project approach: Be prepared to explain why your approach is uniquely beneficial before the solicitation arrives.
  • No pre-assembled proposal team: Make sure the necessary people are available and committed to your project before you start.
  • No pre-defined graphic concept: Having a pre-defined graphic concept will prevent having to pay for countless hours of the “creative process.”

File management (You put it where?) Proposals are often complex multi-part documents compiled, written, and edited by numerous people. The proposal’s “working folder” should be clean, spare, and easy to navigate. Having a pre-defined system to track and name files is essential. The file management system should detail how files will be named, maintained, and edited through the process. At the kickoff meeting, the proposal manager should ensure that everyone has proper access to required files, as well as a copy of the protocol for naming files. It never hurts to put a “readme” file in the working folder detailing file management protocol.

Sections should be titled according to the proposal response outline. For example, Technical Response Section 1.0 could be in a folder titled TR1.0, other sections should be named sequentially following the outline numbering, i.e., TR1.1, TR1.2.2, etc.

Version control is essential. There should never be more than one version of a section in the current “working folder.” We all want to keep a “paper trail” of our wonderful proposal efforts, but it is a waste of time (and money) when people have to wade through old, outdated files. Provide an archival folder for authors’ paper trails. Just as editors can be frustrated by not knowing which sections need editing, authors can be equally perturbed by retrieving their section only to find it unrecognizably edited. Encourage your editors and authors to communicate and collaborate about how and when editorial changes are made.

Outsourcing (Bringing in the big guns). Although your proposal puts forth the best efforts of your firm, it does not mean you have to do all the work inhouse. Proposals can be large undertakings, dragging your staff away from their primary duties. You wouldn’t ask the receptionist to fix a clogged sink, would you? Bringing in outside resources on an as-needed basis is one way smaller firms can compete with larger firms who keep extensive in-house resources. Be sure to clearly communicate your expectations and budget constraints with outside resources in the beginning of the process. If you are using outside resources, make sure that your office computers, pass codes, keys, etc., are in place before they start.

Red team reviews (Honesty is still the best policy). At what point are you done? When can you put the pen down, shouting, “free at last, free at last!?” You might think that once you have addressed all required issues and had an awesome editor do their thing that your proposal is finished. WRONG. It is now time for a red team review. While there have been reviews all along, this red team review is from the client’s point of view. An ideal red team consists of people not involved in the proposal process who are:

  • Outside professionals
  • Customer specialists
  • Employees who know the client’s wants, needs, expectations
  • Subject matter experts

The most important criteria for red team review members are that they are honest and able to give constructive criticism.

Printing and binding (Putting it all together). We often think of printing as a momentary thing. Click and it is done. Proposals are often hundreds of pages long with color graphics and inserts. Figure out how many pages per hour your printer prints and budget time accordingly. Be sure to have plenty of back-up toner cartridges and paper on hand. If printing in-house is too big of a task or if you want a savvier looking package, commercial printing and binding are excellent options. Call ahead to find out what the printer’s preferred format for your documents. Beware of rush charges!

Proposal writing does not have to be an unwieldy process characterized by confusion, stress and chaos. Implementing at least some degree of PPM can make this process a little easier and increase your chances of winning.  Wouldn’t you rather be part of Department B?

The article was originally published in Venture Woman Magazine.