Why does this proposal stink💩?

We have all been there. It is mid-August and you are working on your 5th proposal in 4 weeks. As proposal manager you are 2 weeks out from the submission date. You get everyone’s sections and put them together into a draft.

And it’s a big,….hot …..mess.

Why do such talented people struggle so to produce a good first draft ? What are we doing wrong?  What can I do to fix it?

There are  5 main reasons why a first draft falls short:

1.     Poor advance capture work, especially research

2.     Bidding on work that is  “out of your wheelhouse” – work that you don’t really understand

3.     Getting a late start, and not giving your team enough time to work the process

4.     Poor organization and/or unclear direction from the proposal manager

5.     The SMEs and best writers in your organization are not available

Poor Capture Management. Capture Management refers to all the work you do before the RFP is released. This is when you research the agency, the work itself and the competitor mix. This is the information critical to making sure you not only have a reasonable chance of winning, but establishing why you stand out from the other companies that will submit. Unless you get this groundwork done in advance, you stand little chance of putting a winning proposal together. Why? Because one or more of your competitors has done this capture work right and will use it to write a proposal that is more compelling than yours. Even new requirements have a history, and originate from a client office with an agenda and preferences that will figure into their proposal evaluations..

The big hurdle is not to produce a proposal that checks off all the RFP’s “shalls, wills and musts.” You can do that using standard company boilerplate, or even Wikipedia. But evaluators are experienced and smart, and see straight through that approach. To produce a proposal that is CONVINCING enough to gain the agency’s trust, you must prove that you understand the client’s pain points and problems, and that you know what is needed to do a better job than the other offerors. Lacking this information – which must be acquired before pen touches paper – you’ll have to fall back on boilerplate sections that merely say “Here’s what we’ve done before,” rather than “Here’s how we’re going to do it FOR YOU.”

From Compliance to Winning

From Compliance to Winning


Are there times when an RFP drops out of the blue, you mount a response and win? Of course there are. Is jumping on RFPs you see first on FBO a sound long term strategy to grow a work portfolio and a backlog of work? Most certainly not!

While we like to think our offering is far superior to our competitors’, the reality is that our differentiators are marginal. To move from compliance to winning you have to take the time to learn the client pain points and connect them those things that differentiate you from the pack

2. The work is not in your wheelhouse, so you are either depending on subs to write your proposal, or you are writing up sections that would make good term papers, but offer no insight whether your company really understands the subject or not.

You are a smart guy (or gal) and you can think of dozens of times in your past where you took on something new, figured it out and did an excellent job at it. Think of ALL the things you had to figure out in order to form your company, build it up and make it successful. You can succeed at anything you put your mind to! Regrettably, when it comes to proposal writing, it is hard to bluff yourself into work that you do not know well. For the reasons previously stated, it is challenging enough to come up with a winning solution and articulating it to the evaluation team on something you actually know pretty well, let alone some topic you know little or nothing about. And that becomes real clear when you read that first draft and it is obviously NOT written by an expert in the field.

3. Not enough time to think through the solution AND write it up in a compelling way. Many companies underestimate the value of TIME in calculating the chance of writing a winning proposal. Making a bid/no-bid decision takes more than checking the boxes for similar experience, staffing and technical experience/expertise. The amount of time you have to pull it all together should weigh heavily in your bid decision, because this has an impact across every aspect of your proposal process.

There are 2 attributes that are needed to produce a winning proposal section:

1. A solution that is compliant and innovative and

2. A clear and compelling articulation of that solution that connects with the client’s most urgent needs.

The 2 Attributes of A Winning Proposal Section

The 2 Attributes of A Winning Proposal Section

Your writers need time to figure out both. Don’t think you can make up for lost time by working nights and weekends; sometimes that’s necessary, but it should never become your Standard Operating Procedure. Can you really be just as creative on 4 hours of sleep as 7 or 8? The rest of your company, and the other work people need to do, do not stop for proposal season.

When proposal quality has to be sacrificed because there’s not enough time, there are no good areas where you can absorb the hit.  A badly-edited proposal makes you look amateurish. A rushed compliance review leaves you ... well, non-compliant. If you’ve missed the open period for asking questions, you’re flying blind.  All good reasons to allow your team time to get it right. 

4. Poor proposal team organization. We have another blog post about the importance of a thoughtful and comprehensive proposal kick-off to make sure everyone understands their assignment(s). You may feel rushed to put everyone to work writing, but it saves you time in the long run to put together a full proposal kick-off team meeting in which you:

  1. Create a shared vision among the proposal team members on how to win the work;

  2. Provide clear direction from the proposal manager on who does what, and by when;

  3. Set the win themes/discriminators to provide a coherent story line that runs consistently through in proposal;

  4. Provide an accurate compliance matrix and/or outline to make it easier for the writers to do their job. The compliance matrix cross-references all proposal sections to the RFP paragraph(s) containing the relevant requirements, so that nothing is overlooked.

5. The SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) and the people with the knowledge and strategies are unavailable for consultations and are too busy to write. Sometimes you can eke out a section from a busy exec, but more often they’ll overestimate their ability to focus on the task and do quality work. You can try to team them up with a good writer (staff or consultant) that can write up their good ideas, but sometimes they can’t even do that. Beware the VP who offers loudly to draft sections to demonstrate their “involvement,” then disappears faster than your vacation time.

So what are we likely to do when the engineers and scientists are not available and there is a technical section to be written? At the kick-off meeting you might hear this:

“Why don’t we give this to Hector?  He just came out of Virginia Tech Engineering school and I know he can do a great job!”

So you give young Hector the section to write. He closes his door and puts an auto-responder on his email saying he is unavailable. Time passes. Then deadlines pass. Finally, Hector emails you his draft at 3AM, with a desultory note saying, “Hope this is OK.  It’s the best I can do.” And you sigh.

Hector wasn’t ready for this. Instead of a winning technical approach, Hector has written a scholarly piece of research on the subject that would’ve earned him an A in back in Blacksburg, but will leave the government evaluators either befuddled or, worse, in stitches. As an added price for being unprepared, it’s now your job to give Humiliated Hector the news that he didn’t make the grade. Have fun doing that (especially since YOU gave him the assignment)!

Spreading proposal work around among the staff who are qualified, willing and available is a big challenge. Consider the risk you are creating to your current work and future past performance ratings by demanding your delivery staff put in 14 hour days for 2 to 4 weeks to crank out a proposal that has a 25% chance of winning – all because you rushed into the game without good intel to drive the strategy, you rushed the kick-off because there was no time to give clear direction, and you had to assign work to staffers that were not ready to meet the challenge.

So here’s your takeaway:

Proposals are expensive.  They demand lots of time and resources.  Reviews and revisions are tedious and frustrating.  The basic job principle is to do the best you can with the time and resources you’ve got.  But please … give yourself a fighting chance before rushing that first draft to the review team, by:

- doing your pre-proposal research,

- thinking over the bid decision,

- giving your team enough time to do a good job,

- setting clear goals and scheduling, and

- putting the right people on the job.

Now you’re cookin’! 

Happy Hunting.