How to Keep Your Capture and Proposal Activities on Track
By David Browder, Principal, David Browder Group LLC

Introduction
Whether you are a large or small company, complaints seem to be part of pursuing any opportunity. What is interesting is that often management is complaining about the cost of the pursuit and the lack of apparent progress, while at the same time the capture team is complaining they don’t understand what is going on or what they are supposed to be doing. These symptoms usually indicate some combination of a breakdown in the process, misaligned expectations and poor communications. 

Survival of every company is dependent on winning new business. The more efficient a company is the more opportunities it can chase and the better its chance of not only surviving, but growing. Efficiency is all about keeping your capture and proposal activities on track.  This is best accomplished by establishing a process, setting expectations, using checklists, and communicating.

Define the Process
No matter what size your company is, the first step to getting on track and then staying on track is to define a process for acquiring new business. You need a process that encompasses the entire life cycle.  This life cycle moves from advanced marketing and intelligence gathering to target identification to opportunity qualification to the bid decision to proposal development to submittal of the final proposal revision and ultimately to contract award. The process needs to explicitly address how you will organize your pursuit, who has what responsibilities, when management or gate reviews will take place, and what the expectations are for each review.

If you don’t have a defined process, there are a number of sources available. The Association of Proposal Management Professionals (http://www.apmp.org/)  offers training, resources, and access to a large number of proposal professionals.  Shipley Associates (http://www.shipleywins.com) and Lohfeld Consulting Group (http://www.lohfeldconsulting.com) are two of the several companies that offer training, as well as consulting services to work with you to develop a process specifically for your company.

The next step is to educate everyone on the selected process.  Don’t assume either management or the capture team understands the process to get from where you are to delivery of a winning proposal. This applies to companies with well documented and mature processes, as well as companies with only ad hoc processes. My experience is that management often lacks real knowledge of their company’s formal business acquisition process and relies on their experience to judge progress. Likewise, very few members of the capture team have more than a superficial knowledge of the business acquisition process. Some, especially subject matter experts and members of the technical staff, have no knowledge of the process.

The leading contributor to frustration is when the capture manager or proposal manager assume a level of knowledge that is not present within the team. At the beginning of each phase of the life cycle and whenever new members are added to the team, the capture manager should arrange for just-in-time training on the selected process. The emphasis should be on the phase that is about to begin, the desired outcomes, the processes that will be used, and the roles and responsibilities of the participants. I am constantly surprised by how effective such training can be and how infrequently it occurs.
These training sessions are also an excellent time to identify what knowledge is required to complete the capture and be sure that this knowledge is available on the team.  The knowledge that capture efforts often require ranges from the company’s internal processes and capabilities to the customer’s mission and specific needs, the client’s buying habits and acquisition processes, project management, the technology to be incorporated as part of the solution, desktop publishing and graphical design, and contracts and contract law. Incredible amounts of time can be wasted if the correct knowledge is not available to the team when needed.  The capture manager and proposal manager must be constantly vigilant for situations where members of the team are trying to solve problems for which they lack the appropriate knowledge. This can range from word processing skills to understanding the difference between a firm-fixed price contract and a fixed-price labor hour contract. 

Set Expectations and Use Checklists
Winning capture efforts start with well defined expectations and consistent monitoring of progress. The management team must determine the overall expectations and how they will judge whether their expectations are being met. This includes identifying what information will be used during internal gate reviews to determine whether the team is on track. The capture manager should use that information, along with the defined business acquisition process to set expectations for the various elements of the pursuit. These include the customer requirements, the win strategy, the solution to be proposed, competitive intelligence, win themes, and teaming strategy. The capture manager and proposal manager should then work closely together to translate these top-level expectations into specific assignments for the capture team. To maximize the effectiveness of the team and keep it on track, everyone needs to have a clear, unambiguous understanding of what the team is seeking to accomplish, the schedule they will follow, and how they will work together to accomplish their objectives. Each participant needs to understand their role on the team and what they are expected to contribute.

Bidding for government contracts is becoming increasingly complex. The sales cycle can take months to multiple years. The solution can require sophisticated technology combined with large multi-company teams. In such an environment, the participants are up against two main difficulties. The first is the fallibility of the human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events. The second difficulty is that people can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. After all, certain steps don’t always matter. This can be disastrous with a proposal. I’ve seen companies disqualified from competitions for not adhering to straightforward, explicit instructions in the RFP.  

A checklist is one of the best tools to overcome the fallibility of any one individual and make sure that each step is addressed. Depending on the size of the capture effort, you will need several checklists. Each needs to be sufficiently detailed and specific so as to be meaningful to those tasked to complete the necessary actions.

As a minimum, have a checklist for each phase of the business acquisition life cycle and have a separate checklist for each artifact that gets produced. Once in the proposal phase, every author should have a checklist of what they are trying to accomplish and every review team should have a checklist to be sure that the work product is compared with the RFP instructions and expectations for that review.

In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande defines three kinds of problems: the simple, the complicated, and the complex. Dr. Gawande describes these problems this way:

Simple problems are like baking a cake from a mix. There is a recipe. All of the ingredients are available. Sometimes there are a few basic techniques to learn. But once those are mastered, following the recipe brings a high likelihood of success.

Complicated problems are like sending a rocket to the moon. They can sometimes be broken down into a series of simple problems, but there is not a defined recipe. Success requires multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise. Unanticipated difficulties are frequent. Timing and coordination become serious concerns.

Complex problems are ones like raising a child. Once you learn how to send a rocket to the moon, you can repeat the process with other rockets and perfect it. One rocket is like another rocket. But not so with raising a child, the professors point out. Every child is unique. Although raising one child may provide experience, it does not guarantee success with the next child. Indeed, the next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one.

Very few capture efforts are simple problems. Many fall into the category of complicated problems and an increasing number are complex. In the course of a capture effort, the teams run into hundreds of difficulties – difficulties they never could have predicted or addressed in a checklist designed in advance. Some teams deal with such problems by leaving it up to the judgment of individual participants. This approach has a serious flaw. Capture efforts involve many experts. In the absence of a supreme, all-knowing expert with command of all existing knowledge, autonomy is a disaster. Yet, large capture efforts are too much for any one person to be that all-knowing individual.

The real lesson is that under conditions of real complexity—where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns—efforts by management to dictate every step from the top will fail. People need room to act and adapt. They require the seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation—expectation to coordinate and also the freedom to make decisions within their sphere of knowledge.

Not everything can be anticipated and reduced to a checklist. The daily stand-up meeting is an opportunity to recognize and deal with unexpected problems.  This also provides a forum for discussing when to let someone follow their judgment and when it is critical to follow a procedure. You want people to get the easy stuff right. You also want to leave room for craft and judgment and the ability to respond to unexpected difficulties along the way. The use of checklists for simple problems seems obvious. Checklists can also avert failure when the effort includes everything from simple to complex problems.

Whether facing a complicated or complex capture, effective management requires balancing a number of virtues: freedom and discipline, craft and protocol, specialized ability and group collaboration. For checklists to help, they need to take two opposing forms: supply a set of checks to ensure the mundane activities are not overlooked, and supply another set of checks to ensure people talk and coordinate and accept responsibility while nonetheless being left the power to manage the nuances and unpredictability the best way they know.

Measure Progress and Communicate
Effective interaction and exchange of information among the participants of a capture effort is critical to proposal success and improved probability of win. Marketing intelligence learned from the customer and competitor interaction must be infused not only into the proposal, but also into the capture planning, the bid-no bid decision making process, the proposal kickoff meeting, and the internal proposal review sessions.

The capture manager must explicitly define opportunities for interaction among participants and provide checklists to ensure information is exchanged. This is not always easy. Often the information becomes perfunctory or merely reporting on progress. The capture manager and proposal manager must create an environment in which real communication takes place.

One aspect of the communication is around the status the team’s efforts. This starts with the defined process and expectations established clearly at the beginning of each phase. Next, the capture manager and proposal manager must objectively measure performance against expectations. This information should then be shared with everyone to let them know where the team stands.  If one aspect of the capture is not making appropriate progress, the team is better served if the capture manager discusses the situation openly and describes the steps being taken to get back on schedule. Management also needs to be kept informed as to progress. This makes it easier to get their help in a timely manner when it is needed.

Keeping your capture and proposal activities on track is all about establishing a process, setting expectations, using checklists, and communicating. These essential elements will make any team more effective and increase the efficiency of your new business acquisition efforts.


David Browder is consistently recognized as a leader in business development, capture management, and creating winning proposals.  He founded the David Browder Group LLC to help companies make their capture efforts more efficient and effective. Contact David at David@DavidBrowderGroup.com or 703-795-5697.


If you don’t have your own FREE subscription to Bid-Winning Proposals, sign up now at http://www.24hrco.com/ezine.html. Join more than 1800 other proposal professionals who get answers to their most pressing issues and challenges from recognized industry experts—every other month. Plus you’ll have access to all back issues and our growing library of proposal resources.

Send this article to a colleague:
Share with my social networks:
Social networking logos

Linked in Share on Facebook Share on Twitter