Striking a Balance Between Proposal Process & Content Leadership

Proposal Managers and boxing coaches have something in common: if you want to be in the champ’s corner, you have to be able to assess who you’re working with, create a plan to remedy their weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths, and then do whatever’s necessary to see that plan to completion and achieve a win. For both coaches and Proposal Managers, driving a win typically necessitates training and some degree of pushing/pulling to move the process along. Sometimes it means doing the hardest work yourself, but no matter what, it always requires leadership and flexibility. As a Proposal Manager, true leadership is knowing what your team needs to succeed and showing them the way—or pushing them across the finish line kicking and screaming. Hey, every proposal’s different! The bottom line is, you have to stay on your toes and fill whatever role the team needs at the moment to be an effective Proposal Manager.

I’ve managed and won a number of proposals by teaching my team the process and providing feedback/comments as the proposal progressed. Oftentimes, what I was really doing was providing just-in-time (JIT) training on subjects like win theme development and the proposal, writing, and review processes. After that, it was just a matter of managing the workflow and content to completion. It isn’t always that easy, though. There have been times when I’ve had to get in the trenches, generate the entire solution from scratch—literally from nothing, when there wasn’t even a loose plan in place for meeting the customer’s needs yet—and then write to that solution by drawing information from the subject matter experts (SMEs) and/or having them contribute content.

The decision to be a process leader vs. a content leader lies on a continuum, with these two scenarios on either end. In my experience, the average proposal requires a level of management somewhere between the two extremes of providing guidance/training versus driving the team to develop and explain a solution in a compliant-yet-compelling way. With each proposal I manage, I have to ask myself at the onset, ‘Based on the experience of my team, what balance is needed to develop an outstanding, winning proposal?’

What Balance Is Needed for This Proposal?

I recently worked on a proposal where I had to think long and hard about the answer to that question. On the one hand, I knew the team hadn’t developed a solution or even done any brainstorming yet, so they seemed to really need a content leader. On the other hand, there were numerous SMEs on the team who wanted to “jump into writing”; they felt they just needed a process leader to get them started and provide a little guidance along the way. To make matters worse, many of those SMEs were PhDs who had strong opinions about how the proposal should flow, and some of those opinions differed greatly. I knew I had to overcome several major (and fairly common) challenges to strike the right balance between process and content leader. To help my team create a winning proposal, I had to:

Develop a Winning Solution When I came on board, there wasn’t a plan. Capture up to that point consisted of building the team, not thinking about how the team would get the job done. I had to help them figure out the best solution for their customer, nail down the execution details, and identify which points to highlight to show they really understood their customer’s needs and desires.

Unite a Geographically-Dispersed Team – Since the team was spread out geographically, we had to do everything virtually. I used a mix of online conferences, phone conversations, and email to share information and keep everyone on the same page throughout the process.

Teach the Team the Win Theme & Proposal Development Processes – Several of our key subcontractors had no knowledge of win themes and no experience developing proposals. I had to provide a mix of JIT training and constant guidance throughout the proposal process to make sure the team understood each task at hand and executed it well.

Complete the Project on a Tight Schedule – We had just 30 days to get this proposal done. To make matters worse, the task order request for proposal (TORP) came out a few days before Christmas, with several other holidays before the due date. I had to create a schedule that condensed the typically longer processes of developing the solution, writing the proposal, reviewing it, editing, and performing desktop publishing into that limited time, all while working around the distractions of the holidays.

Brainstorm the Solution & Write the Proposal – Since we had limited time, we had to act fast and brainstorm on our solution quickly, leaving enough time to finalize the execution details and explain the solution through compelling content. My SMEs wanted to just jump in and start writing, but I knew that skipping brainstorming is a recipe for disaster, so I fought hard for it. We compromised by reducing the number of brainstorming days I’d originally scheduled so the writing could begin two days earlier. Thankfully, we also received a one-week extension that gave us more time for brainstorming, capture, and content development. (Tip: Don’t be afraid to ask your customer for what you need during the Q&A period. We got an extension after I asked for it due to the scheduling challenges the holidays presented.)

Even with the extra week of time, the team wanted to keep brainstorming to a minimum. To accommodate, I led a series of marathon hot button brainstorming sessions so the writers would know what to write about and what points of our approach to emphasize. Usually these sessions lead to win theme development, followed by solution development, but they’re just wasn’t enough time for the complete process. To get the most from the little brainstorming time we had, we focused on the components that would deliver the highest returns. As the solution emerged from our discussions, the team saw the value of brainstorming and actually requested that we revert back to my original schedule.

After a week of brainstorming, I started seeing diminishing returns and building frustration among team members. I had to make a conscious decision to shift from leading content development to managing the proposal process. I provided some JIT training on brainstorming individually and in smaller groups. I mapped all the hot buttons to the outline and handed content control over to the writers to finish. At that point, they were armed with a consistent set of benefits that we’d developed from the hot buttons and that they could use to frame their narratives for every section. Additionally, the brainstorming process created a sense of shared ownership, which fostered a collaborative environment that helped the team move the proposal forward on our tight schedule.

Be an SME at Becoming an SME – The subject matter for this too was completely new to me, so I had to learn it as well as I could in a short amount of time. I also had to maintain control over a team comprised of some of the top minds in their field, without allowing my all-too-basic understanding of the subject to impact their respect for me as team leader.

There’s one key competency that makes a Proposal Manager truly excellent: the ability to quickly become an SME on each new proposal topic encountered. You have to be a chameleon of sorts. To do that, you have to draw on your past experience, the requirements, and online/offline research on the subject so that you can at least ask your SMEs the right starter questions. From there, you have to continuously learn more about the subject through discussions with your SMEs so you can help the team develop the optimal solution and ensure that the proposal presents it in an educated manner.

Pick the Right Number of Color Reviews for the Situation – Traditionally, Proposal Managers like to have a Pink, Red, Gold, and White Glove Review, but we only had time for 2.5 reviews on this proposal. My original schedule included more, but we couldn’t sacrifice a whole day for more reviews when we really needed that time for writing. Whenever you’re facing schedule challenges and need to save time somewhere, start with a close look at the number of color team reviews you have planned.

What Makes a Proposal Manager Truly Effective?

Being an effective Proposal Manager means continuously maintaining the balance between leading the proposal process and developing winning content. There are times when I move along the spectrum from one proposal section to the next. If a section presents a weak solution, I focus on developing the content; if it’s well-articulated, I work on managing the process to complete the section. Throughout, I rely on an understanding of basic proposal management principles that help me know when and how to best modify the proposal development process to suit the situation. A proposal is a constantly evolving document that requires a lot of flexibility from all team members to create and perfect. The best Proposal Managers know how to be flexible and modify the process to serve them, rather than being slaves to it.

If you want to learn how to be a more flexible Proposal Manager who can fluidly move along the Process Leader vs. Content Leader Continuum as needed, check out our Foundations of Proposal Management and Advanced Proposal Management courses. We cover basic principles in these classes, but we also present practical applications and challenge our students to modify our process to meet tight deadlines.

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