Virtual proposals are becoming a lot more frequent, and more companies are starting to embrace the concept. It is still uncharted territory for others, however. There are various beliefs about virtual proposals that prevent people from embracing the concept. The main one is that it is impossible to generate the same level of creativity and ideas as one can in a “boiler room” or “war room” situation. There are also proposal security concerns and doubts about whether one can be as efficient in managing a large team remotely. I have been running virtual proposals for years, but for this article, I wanted to bring you the perspective of a true virtual proposal expert.
This article is an interview with Ben Rowland, a Washington, DC capture and proposal consultant who also helps companies implement virtual solutions, including remote collaboration tools, processes, and procedures. Ben has been in the federal contracting proposal market for 12 years, entering it from the graphics side of the house. He has had a whole spectrum of proposal professions, from an artist and graphics director to proposal coordinator, volume lead, technical writer, proposal manager, and proposal director. He has experience setting up proposal shops and proposal departments and has been running virtual proposals of all sizes for nearly a decade.
We spent more than two hours discussing virtual proposals with Ben so that you can pick up a number of useful tips and insights from this interview:
O. Ben, when did you seriously delve into the world of virtual proposals?
B: I have worked on smaller virtual proposals for a long time but started running large virtual proposals six or seven years ago with managing a $500 million proposal for Unisys. I was in charge together with two other colleagues, overseeing a virtual team of 70 geographically dispersed people. Smaller groups have always had great success in virtual proposals, but this proposal really gave me my first chance to see lots of moving pieces, subject matter expertise needed, and editing cycles on a very large scale. When we started the proposal, everybody said: oh, this will never work… not having your subject matter experts (SME) on-site, not having editors available here to work around the clock, it won’t work. The team decided to adopt the opposite attitude: it would work even better because of the team’s locations in different time zones. I had staff at my beck and call 20 hours a day. It ended up working very well, we made the deadline and came on budget. And Unisys won.
O: Do you see a lot more virtual proposals these days?
B: Oh yes, and I’ll tell you why. The main driver is cost savings. Savings shows up in not having to provide a room, a chair, a desk, and a desktop for an employee. You save electricity, time and labor badging, parking, travel expenses, all the way down to less pizza to buy. There is value and efficiencies beyond just cost savings, but I really do think that the driving force behind the trend is cost savings.
O: What are the biggest challenges you have encountered in virtual proposals?
B: Well, challenge number one has been security. Quite frankly, the reliable technology to keep network documents secure has been around for more than a decade, but what hasn’t been around being the mentality that this technology can be trusted. It has been harder to run proposals virtually in larger companies, whereas it has been traditionally easier in smaller companies.
O: Do you think it may be largely due to policies? In a large company, even when a capture manager or proposal manager would rather use a better virtual proposals tool, the security department has a policy not to, or it severely restricts the use. Smaller companies are more flexible, and decisions are easier to reach…
B: Yes, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. That’s been the dance back and forth between security officers, IT departments, proposal departments, and executives for quite some time. Often many over-arching policies are antiquated. They are based on technology several years ago and haven’t really been updated because, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. So these policies have stuck around and become what I would call a “cultural barrier.” Which, again, has broken down quite a bit with Centrix and Veritas and a few of the different remote desktop-type applications that are built specifically on a secure platform. That issue is slowly easing up with the winds of times.
O: What about other challenges?
B: In addition to security, another big issue is version control. People think of version control often as “one person controls it all.” With the advent of modern tools, it has changed a lot. Automated version control with some oversight from the proposal manager or coordinator makes much more sense. As SharePoint and other tools have moved along in capability over the years, automated version control has certainly become easier, making the old way of doing it antiquated and inefficient.
The third challenge has always been the actual responsibility of the remote worker. This is where I’ve had some hiccups along the way. As an example, when I was remotely coordinating the writers and the editors on a large proposal, about half of them were contractors who worked in the remote environment before, were comfortable with it, and would always give you what you ask for when you ask for it.
About another half of them were actually company employees who were given time off to participate in the proposal, and oh golly they were able to do it from home! They were having a tough time hitting their deadlines and calling in. Typically, I found that “in-the-chair” employees forget about getting on a conference call when they’re sitting at home. They also don’t think oh gosh, here comes four o’clock, I wonder if I’ve done my work for today. Over the years as I’ve worked with lots of virtual proposal workers in small and large companies, I have developed a basic belief: some people are really good at it, and some people just aren’t. Now I ask people how accustomed are they to working from home before they become part of my team.
O: Well, I think there should be a distinction made between working from home and working remotely. Some people can’t work from home because they are too tempted to do non-work things. For those types of people, it is better when they work in a virtual situation from an office.
B: You are right, they were true office workers, and if they were back at their desk working, I think we would have seen a higher level of productivity. The advantage of being able to work from home was that people didn’t have resistance to working around the clock when they could do it from home, whereas a few people who were working from the office had a bit more resistance to working the odd hours. But I do agree with you, you better serve a full-time employee in a virtual proposal environment asking them to work from the office if that’s where they’re accustomed to working from.
If this is the first time they’ve worked from home, I let people know that this is a test, this is not a guarantee it will continue like this. As we bring different people on, like subject matter experts or team members, we tell them that most of our proposals are run virtually, but if it looks like it’s not working, we will bring people into the office. We’re not going to let the desire to keep our proposals virtual be the driving factor. For the most part, it’s worked well.
O: You help companies build their virtual teams. What exactly do you do?
B: Well, I’ve set up a number of proposal departments. For one client, I came in and set up their proposal department which had a virtual component to it. They were actually split between offices in Texas and Virginia. While the production staff and writers were in Texas, the program managers who doubled as proposal managers were in Virginia. I developed a process, a schedule, and a set of best practices for managing proposals in a virtual setting. As the success of this set-up grew, proposal people got their choice whether to work from the office or from home. We had great success with that. In fact, it was kind of funny: about 50% of the time people chose to come into the office then working virtually, and the other 50% of the time they worked from home. They took the work from home more as a nice benefit or a luxury, and for the most part, they were diligent workers and didn’t want to look like they were abusing this privilege. In that case, it required a lot of technology upgrades, because they at the time had split servers. We had to mirror servers so we could have identical information. I implemented SharePoint with them, and when we ramped up, we managed virtual proposals with 25 internal people and more than a dozen team members.
O: Tell me, please, about the tools you use that are best of breed for virtual proposal management.
B: Well, SharePoint is the standard, it’s got it all with the exception of price point. On the other side of the scale is Central Desktop. It is inexpensive, robust, and it’s built on a secure platform. I know you’re an advocate of Central Desktop as well.
O: Oh yes. I’ve been an avid user of Central Desktop for almost three years, and I swear by it.
B: Central Desktop potentially does away with many IT department jobs that are there to maintain a bulky applications like SharePoint. I find it similar to people preferring to use Illustrator, rather than PowerPoint in developing proposal graphics. I can tell you, having grown up in the visual arts industry, using Illustrator is all about job security. A real artist, especially with the new 2007 PowerPoint, can do anything that’s done in Illustrator, in one-third the time with maximum reusability, so that anyone can change the text or graphic for future proposals without bringing the artist back. You can rapid-develop graphics in PowerPoint so much faster than you can in Illustrator.
O: We’ve talked about SharePoint and Central Desktop. Have you looked at Privia?
B: Privia requires a tremendous amount of setting up which costs money, and it doesn’t have the flexibility nor the accessibility for users to change screens or customize it as easily as Central Desktop. Even SharePoint has gotten easier these days.
Again, the reason why I like Central Desktop so much is that you can jump in and 20 minutes later you can be putting proposal material out there. I’ve done business development tool implementations and they can last for months. It can take months for people to agree upon what their process is going to look like before you do the configuration. Expensive, very expensive…
Now Privia has the proposal module, which helps tailor down to proposal management and capture needs. But, again, I don’t know how much it costs these days, the last time I looked at was a hefty implementation fee with another configuration fee, so it came to nearly $20,000 for less than 25 users.
Microsoft Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is another expensive but great business development tool one can use to run virtual proposals. I’ve implemented Microsoft CRM at two different companies. We actually created a process inside the CRM that allowed us to put all the business triggers, bells, and whistles into the proposal process that we wanted. As an example, when the RFP was released, we put that date in, and five days later it sent out an alert to everybody that said Have you read the RFP completely? That was an interesting little prompt that we found really helpful because we had a problem with the people actually reading the RFP when it was released.
The tool literally had tabs. The first tab had a checklist in the form of the tasks. As soon as you got an RFP, the first task was to email it to all concerned parties. Number two, confirm they’ve read it. Number three, prepare for shredding. Number 4, develop a master schedule. And you couldn’t move onto the next tab unless you checked off those pieces. We did the whole workflow in CRM, and it was so nice because of course, it married right up to Outlook. Every time someone sent an e-mail that had to do with the proposal, they could press a button that said CRM, and it allowed them to attach that email to the CRM file associated with that part of the proposal. You ended up with all your capture material in one place, and the audit trail was invaluable. CRM was used company-wide, from the admins up to business developers and project people. We were able, in the proposal department, to track back and look at the history all the way through capture and BD, as opposed to having to walk over to the BD department and say Hey, what did you guys do with the proposal X?
It was appropriate for that company, but the implementation cost was $20,000-plus. If you’re a business that can handle that, well that’s great, but when we needed to change some of the navigation and processes that we had initially designed as we refined our process, we had to call Microsoft consultants back to make changes in the CRM. We didn’t have access to the design tools that allowed for the configuration of the CRM.
O: What is the ideal toolset that you absolutely need for running a virtual proposal, such as project management and document repository type tools, MindJet for brainstorming, webcams, GoToMeeting, or teleconference services?
B: I have two scenarios: One is if I did a proposal for a small business that had nothing, the other is if I came into a large company that had infrastructure.
If I went into a small company with a blank slate and a limited budget, I’d use Central Desktop, Pidgin for Instant Messaging (IM), GoToMeeting, PowerPoint, and a drawing tablet. Then, I’d need a scanner. I never seem to use fax anymore. I’d need Microsoft Office Suite plus Visio and Project. I need to have Adobe Acrobat Professional edition and Adobe Photoshop, in lieu of having the entire Adobe Creative Suite, which is preferred. Then, there are other tools: AcronymFinder.com, and a piece of ShareWare that actually rolls up acronyms from the document. I think it’s called Acronym Master. I should also mention RFP Monkey. I’ve used it a few places, and it shreds RFPs rather nicely. It’s membership-based at about $300-$400 a year for their basic package. When you receive a 200-page RFP, it’s well worth the investment.
O: Have you heard of Office Communicator? It has a video chat option and an IM tool. It is part of the Microsoft Office Enterprise Edition.
B: Yes, I like staying with Microsoft Office to the extent that I can leverage it. That being said, of course, there are free services of which Skype is the best known. You can do video chat, exchange documents, you can do IM, you can do teleconferencing, all in a free environment. But Skype doesn’t interface with Microsoft. It would be nice if the Skype scheduling feature were to interface with the schedule in Outlook… but it doesn’t.
O: In a large company, would your ideal tool list change?
B: Yes, I’d alter it slightly. I wouldn’t go for some of the ShareWare programs, like Pidgin or Skype. They inherently have some problems that pay-for products have worked out, and that’s the value of paying for them. I would absolutely use SameTime as my document and IM exchange, and it also does video chat now. I would also use SharePoint because this is where large companies are naturally headed anyway. I never had a good experience with Privia, so I would leave it off my list. I personally like Microsoft CRM, if you’re looking for something to manage contacts and a deeper database for document archiving.
O. What features should you absolutely have in a proposal collaboration tool? For example, I have to have frequent digest emails to feel the proposal team’s heartbeat, email notification when the files get posted, version control, announcements, self-maintaining contact lists, calendars, task management feature, integration with e-mail, the ease of adding people and controlling their rights, and all of it in a web-based, highly secure solution. What are those for you?
B: Well actually, you just hit the list. In my mind, I also really like SameTime features. I like knowing who and when is online and available, and having the ability to IM. I’m a big IM’er once we are in the proposal cycle. I use e-mail for external team members but I love IM with the production and internal staff and love knowing when they’re on when they’re off. You can see who’s on. You can set your status… If you’re running to lunch for 20 minutes you can have it say Running to lunch for 20 minutes. You can also push files and images across.
O. Do you use MP3s as a recording of the stand-ups or just-in-time training? I think with communication, the rule is to repeat the same message six times until everyone gets it. In a virtual proposal, it is easy to under-communicate. I tend to post MP3s for people who cannot attend the meetings so that they can be on the same page.
B: I haven’t, but that’s an excellent idea. I’ll have to integrate that into my process. I’ve had a lot of resistance to recording, especially at a corporate level, so I haven’t had a chance to promote it or use it yet, but I am now going to. What I’d like to record are the Win Strategy brainstorming sessions. I tend to be particularly diligent at capturing everything, but so much is lost when you take everyone’s enthusiasm and creativity and try to convert them into words and bullets on the fly. It would be a great place to record.
O: Now, let’s switch gears here from the tools to process. What are the process steps that need to be added to manage a virtual proposal more efficiently and effectively?
B: It’s all about clarity and frequency of communication. I tend to over-communicate in a virtual proposal. We always do stand-ups as many as people can bear. If they let me do it daily, we’ll do it daily. If they let me do a morning and a noon one, we’ll do a morning and a noon one. That’s mostly because I tend to run stand-ups very efficiently and quickly. Stand-ups are not a place for debating, you do that at sidebars. Stand-ups are where you get information pertinent to the management of the team.
I also tend to require daily status updates that go out in an e-mail. I have a rule with all the virtual workers – if they’re going to miss their deadline, they let me know at least a few hours in advance. If they do that, I have no problems with them missing their deadlines because I’ll know who’s online and available at any given moment, and I can help them. That’s really my job – to help them succeed. Some proposal managers think it’s everybody else’s job to make them look good. I go about it in the opposite direction. It’s my job to make them look good.
O: I’m glad you said that because I’m from the same school. I’m on the soapbox frequently enough about it.
B: I am a personal believer in processes, routines, and scheduling, whether it’s a virtual proposal or working in the war room together. So we set up very strict processes, call-in times, and virtual stand-ups. Processes are even more valuable in virtual proposals. It is somehow easier to get things done when you’re in a war room with people because you can hear things in the room, you can see people’s reactions.
In lieu of having that, it’s very important to have a virtual schedule that is posted and easily accessible by everybody. I tend to use some bells and whistles. On some of the proposals I’ve done, we’ve been on SameTime. SameTime not only allows instant message and file distribution across the network. It actually allows me to see who’s hitting their keyboard. So I can literally tell that I have three editors out here, two of whom are online right now. I know in real-time whom to ask to drop everything and do a section for me.
Another communication secret is that not every call I make to a worker is about the proposal and business. There has to be some relationship building that goes on too. You have to call and go Hey, how’s your dog doing? I know you took it to the vet yesterday and did not have it be and oh by the way, how’s the volume coming? You have to actually do some relationship building, that’s very important. You can usually tell the people who need that more than others.
O: Is there anything you do differently as far as progress reviews? Do you tend to have more frequent checkpoints?
B: You know, that’s a really good question. I’m a “nervous Nelly.” I have lots of checkpoints. I’m not compulsive, though. I’m nervous in that I always want to know the status in real-time. But I try not to make everybody crazy.
I put a lot of checkpoints in progress. Especially when I’m managing a large group of editors, graphic artists, and desktop publishers… I tell people this all the time: “Listen, I have no problem with you not being able to meet a deadline, I have a huge problem with you not communicating that first. If you tell me, then we have no problem, because I can find somebody to jump in. But don’t wait until after the deadline to contact me, and Lord forbid, don’t make me track you down.”
O: Is there a system you use for follow-up?
B: You know, it’s different for every proposal. I don’t have a formal communications plan. It’s just my nature to follow up. My nature is to empower people to be in that same culture of communicating frequently, over-communicating, really letting everybody know where they’re at. I just find that it makes for a smoother process and people do appreciate it.
O: Some people, when they do virtual proposals, like to use some in-person meetings such as kick-offs, reviews, or brainstorming sessions. Do you think a proposal can run well completely virtually?
B: Completely virtual teams work well for mostly everything. The only area that’s more difficult in a virtual proposal is conceptualizing graphics. It’s facilitated easier in person when you can actually whiteboard. What I end up doing is using GoToMeeting in combination with a tablet and PowerPoint, so I actually draw and others can see it remotely.
O: Yes, I just bought a Wacom tablet for that exact purpose.
B: Oh yes, yes. This way one can virtually whiteboard. I have done it for years, interviewing SMEs and pulling the graphics out of their heads. It’s true, there is a lot that you get by interacting in person. It’s a little more sterile in a virtual environment, but again, I don’t want to leave anyone with the thought that it doesn’t work. Conceptualizing graphics virtually does work, it just works a bit better in person.
O: What about brainstorming, such as the development of a concept of operations, solution, and win strategy, especially when you have a large group?
B: I would say the same thing… ideally it’s better facilitated in person. But it doesn’t thwart the value of doing it virtually. It’s not even the difference between an A and an A+. It comes back to an earlier example. An artist can make something look pretty in PowerPoint or Illustrator if they’re an artist. Brainstorming can work well virtually or in person if it’s facilitated correctly, your players are playing, and the environment is set. It just comes down to how effective is your leader. A good facilitator of a brainstorming session, no matter if doing it in person or virtually, will get a high-quality result. I use GoToMeeting and a tablet anytime we need to whiteboard something and take extensive notes.
O: I would like to add one observation: whenever we virtually brainstorm, I like to have everyone dialed in on the phone using their own line instead of some group of people sitting around the table, and other people on the phone. That way everyone sees the screen, and it is so much easier to hear everyone speaking. It cuts down on frustration.
So are there any other important rules, besides telling you in advance about not meeting a deadline, that you tell your team?
B: Here is one: if you get bogged down… don’t get bogged down for more than three minutes. IM somebody and get your answer in two more minutes.
O: Some people are convinced that it’s nearly impossible to do fast turnaround proposals virtually, especially with deadlines of 5 days or less. Would you agree with that?
B: I would disagree completely. In fact, I would submit that if you have an existing team that has some cohesion that is used to working in a virtual format, they can do it faster than a similar team that has to find time to meet in the office. The thing about virtual proposals is that you can access people instantly regardless of where they are – driving on the Beltway or on vacation.
O: What if it’s not an existing cohesive team – would they be able to do a 5-day turnaround?
B: Well, I think back to all the quick proposals and deliverables we did over the past decade at BearingPoint and KPMG… I guess the way I would answer that question is that it depends entirely on the quality of your staff. A high-quality, experienced staff can turn around a 5-day proposal whether they’re working virtually or in the war room. Again, it goes back to the Illustrator and PowerPoint example – a real artist can use both. I think it’s not so much about the tools or the technology, it is about the quality of the people. Do you have an experienced coordinator that can keep all the pieces moving? Do you have staffing at the right level and support services at the right level? Do you have an experienced proposal manager who can drive the writers and the volume leads? To me, it’s more about management skills and experience than it’s about being remote.
O: On regular proposals, a lot is done in the hallways, not part of a formal communication process, and not even by consciously picking up the phone. It’s when you bump into someone accidentally and you suddenly remember you have to ask them a question. There is a lot of informal interaction, where people just “marinate in the juice,” and just talk to each other randomly. People say you miss that completely in a virtual environment, do you agree?
B: It’s definitely a benefit of a non-virtual environment that you have hallway or water cooler chit-chat that breeds creativity and ingenuity. I don’t believe that’s enough to counteract the advantages of a virtual proposal, however. A hallway chat is basically IM. I use IM in place of that hallway chat. Especially with Pidgin, you see people come on and off their computers, know when they go to lunch or sit back down. They put little status checks under their name. I can put something like â€œburied in pink team material. It’s a more informal way to communicate than e-mail or phone.
Again, if I call someone I’m managing every time about another task, I lose a dimension that’s very valuable, like asking how’s their kid, or just checking to see if they got to basketball practice in time. I do that on proposals because I understand the value of connecting with people. Especially when I’ve never met them or they are in another state, I always take the time to do it.
O: Is there anything you could advise people who have difficulties getting into virtual proposals?
If you sit down and do a pros and cons analysis, you’ll notice that the benefits outweigh the risks for virtual proposals. The most common area for pushback is cost. That’s just an awareness issue, people aren’t aware they can get powerful tools like Central Desktop at a low cost. People think they have to get SharePoint or some other enterprise-level system. So if you get pushed back on cost, I recommend people look at wikis, Central Desktop, or other low-cost systems. If they get pushed back on security, look at the fact that Verisign is used on most of these products. Central Desktop, for instance, has full encryption and a security profile that even enterprise corporations would be impressed with.
O: I give Central Desktop whitepaper on their security to the companies that are nervous – so far it has passed the scrutiny with flying colors. I can also buy an extra package for $98 bucks a month where we can specify the IP address from which team members can log on from – this is extremely secure.
Are there any downfalls with virtual proposals that cannot be overcome with technology and processes and communication?
It’s hard to receive pizza virtually, although I’ve done virtual pizza parties before with people. But seriously, it would have to be interpersonal, informal communication that does exist in a day-to-day non-virtual environment.
There’s a creativity and spontaneity that does come out in being in proximity of someone that you don’t have in a virtual environment. That being said, it wouldn’t hold me back as there are ways to mitigate that, such as over-communication and reaching out to people on a personal level to build relationships. We’re never going to totally create a water-cooler atmosphere in a virtual community but besides that? I don’t really see anything.
O: Could you share some lessons learned on virtual proposals?
B: Personally, I will never try out a proposal person for the first time in a virtual environment. They either have had to do one before or I don’t want to use them. I especially mean support personnel such as desktop publishers, graphic artists, and coordinators.
I had a proposal manager for two years who had two children and who participated in the conference calls. We just set it up that way, and we would laugh about the kids and stuff. It was never a problem. And then, on the other hand, I’ve had so many people whom I’ve had to ask to turn down their TVs. Should you even be watching the basketball game while you’re working on staffing problems? Some people just don’t have the skills to work remotely. My lesson learned is I try to look at a person’s skills and attitude and try to gauge if they will be an accountable, virtual worker.
I’ve had no security problems or issues ever, so I haven’t learned any lessons there except to say that that whole issue seems overhyped.
A lesson learned for version controls is that you do need an automated process using tools like SharePoint or Central Desktop. They are always better than a manual process. I’ve seen some fantastic manual processes, but none of them stand up to the automated processes.
Also, people don’t work for “virtual pizza” alone. Show them you care. Treat people with honor and value, and respect. I never treat them as replaceable proposal specialists. As a manager, I tend to think I get a lot more back from my people than other managers do. This is because I walk into the situation respecting my peers and I have an absolute desire for flexibility and finding ways to work things out. If someone says I have to take two hours off tomorrow mid-day, I say “sure, do what you need to do, but we still have a plan to meet our goals, right?” That is a lesson learned. In my earlier career, I thought it was about instructing people on what to do and they showed me respect by getting the work done. I’ve learned how it’s about empowerment and it starts with the proposal manager as the leader.
O: Yes, education, empowerment, and organization are key so that you enable people to function within the process.
B: Yes, indeed. Another lesson learned is when working with inexperienced or unknown writers, I always Google some passages of their work to check for plagiarism.
O: I never thought of that, but what a good idea!
B: Yes, it’s sad, you’d catch more people than you think you would. We unfortunately live in that sort of time. Now, I don’t have as much of a problem if they cut and paste from another internally developed proposal. Somebody externally can’t Google and find it. That’s not to say I want them cutting or pasting at all. But if I find something from a private website, then oh boy, I let them know how disappointed I am.
Another lesson learned is that cost volume will be the last thing finished. It makes no difference if a cost volume is virtual or not, for some reason it just always takes longer. I can’t put rhyme or reason to it, and I’ve worked with very accountable people, but every time the discussion of cost expands to fit the time allotted to it, you can count on it.
O: What is the single greatest piece of advice to take away from this discussion?
B: The virtual environment is not coming, it is here and it is driven by powerful economic factors, green factors, and changing corporate cultures. I’m sure you’ve heard of President Obama’s plan to expand broadband out to rural areas. The plan has tremendous support because it will expand the workforce. We can then reach virtual expertise anywhere in the country. Since the virtual world is growing, get on board now, learn the tools, make it work for you, and move forward. The amount of direct cost savings that one can equate to a virtual environment alone makes it a smart deal. When you add in some of the other efficiencies, it makes it imperative that you get with the times.
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