Mitigating Your Proposal Disasters

On August 8, 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) tendered a proposal for a multi-engine bomber to replace the Martin B-10. The competition for this contract was to be decided by a "fly-off" between the Douglas DB-1, the Martin Model 146 and a groundbreaking design by Boeing at Wilbur Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.

Boeing expended a huge amount of resources to develop a prototype aircraft and it paid off with a technically outstanding offering-- it had a 252 MPH cruising speed, superior range and armament and it could continue flying even after the failure of one of its four engines.

After five years of development, the prototype, was undergoing testing on October 30, 1935 when it crashed minutes after takeoff. Both pilots were killed, though several others on board survived with injuries. An investigation determined that the cause of the crash was a very simple thing — a lock on one of the aircraft control mechanisms had been left in place. One of the best airplanes of its time, flown by some of the best pilots of the age literally went down in flames for a simple oversight by its crew.

Technical Brilliance Does Not Always Carry the Day

Now I hear you asking, “Jim what does this have to do with me, I don’t sell airplanes to the Department of Defense?” However, I bet everyone one of you has a story to tell from your proposal management history about a simple mistake or lapse that brought down an otherwise awesome development effort. Perhaps…

·      You got cocky as the incumbent because the contract was going well and failed to do an honest “Black Hat Analysis” and lost the re-compete

·      You did not allow enough time for quality control and compliance check of final proposal volume and it went out the door with some embarrassing errors

·      You did not give clear guidance to reviewers so they wasted their time on reviewing the grammar instead of the quality of the proposed solution

·      You took too long to put together your capture strategy so by the time you reached out to partners the best ones were already on someone else’s team

·      You did not do your homework on the price to win strategy and lost on price.

The Lowly Checklist Saves the Day

Ultimately Boeing (and the entire aviation industry) decided the way to reduce the chance that such mistakes do not bring down an aircraft was through the use of checklists. In 1935, 30 years into the era of powered human flight, these machines had become so complex that no single person could consistently remember all the things to check before take-off.

This applies to those of use managing capture efforts that require months of work, by multiple persons across your organization and partner organizations. By using a tried and true capture/business development process you will increase your win rate and reduce the burden that development puts on your staff. A strong process will …

·      Improve the predictability and efficiency of your business development because you are not making it up and trying to remember everything that needs to get done every time.

·      Helps you to on-board new staff to supporting development and gives them meaningful and productive roles in your capture process

·      Outlives the people implementing it so when the inevitable turnover of staff happens, you do not have to start all over in pulling together the process

·      Help you define a comprehensive, fact-driven strategy that is defensible to ownership/senior management

·      Provides some clear off-ramps along the way so you can abandon a capture effort when it becomes clear that your development resources could be better spent elsewhere

·      Sets a consistent and sustained pace for your efforts so that you are accomplishing just what you need to accomplish all along the way, instead of scrambling to get everything together after the RFP drops.

·      Because it defines clear decision gates along the way it makes it easier for executive staff to do their job and keeps them out of the parts they ought to leave alone.

Checklists were so effective at reducing plane crashes that soon the entire industry adopted them. Yet at first trained pilots resisted the idea of running through a list of check-boxes to make sure that they had tested the critical systems or the aircraft. They thought such attention to mundane details was beneath their professional dignity. Today it is hard to believe that someone would attempt to fly any aircraft without running down a checklist to make sure everything is set up for success.

In the coming months, I will look at each step of a rigorous capture management process on this blog:

1.   Long-term planning

2.   Opportunity assessment

3.   Pre-proposal

4.   Proposal planning

5.   Proposal preparation

6.   Post-proposal

I hope you will find the series eye opening and that it will motivate you to consider adopting a systematic and repeatable process for conducting your business development.