Climbing a mountain for the first time can be just as unnerving to an inexperienced rock climber as tackling your first solicitation can be if you’re a proposal newbie. The process may seem paralyzingly-scary at first, but just as with rock climbing, you can learn the skills necessary to succeed at proposal development. You have to hone your technique, continuously build your stamina, and let your enthusiasm grow with each successive challenge. That’s an oversimplification, but if you observe a few basic principles, you’ll be at the top of your game in no time.
The 4 Iterative Stages of Proposal Professional Development
Mastering proposal development is an iterative process:
- Every iteration yields a product;
- The product continuously improves with every iteration; and,
- Constantly making progress is a feel-good motivator for making even more progress.
Iteration is an excellent way to break daunting projects into manageable chunks, allowing you to accomplish things you never thought possible. It will help you learn proposal development in stages and fine-tune your understanding of core principles and best practices as you go. These iterative stages, detailed below, will help you evolve into an expert proposal professional over time.
Step 1: Get Proposal Training
Proposal development is an expensive, time-consuming, high-stakes/high-reward process. To make the most of it, it’s useful to understand the basics of developing winning proposals to grow your business. Taking one or two proposal development classes, like our Foundations of Proposal Management and Win Themes Development workshops, can give you that basic understanding and lay the foundation you need to gain a competitive edge over other offerors.
The proposal development procedures you learn through classes and practice are important, but good processes alone won’t help you write better proposals. To make your proposals really stand out, you have to develop and include value-based win themes that fall into one of the following three categories:
- Discriminators and differentiators
- Common themes based on strengths
- Turnarounds and ghosts
The key takeaway here is that you have to develop win themes that either matter to your customer now or that will matter to them in future; otherwise, they’re not win themes at all.
Step 2: Experience the Proposal Development Process
Nothing can replace the experience gained from working through the stress of actually developing a proposal—e.g. participating in brainstorming, interviewing SMEs, tracking assignments from multiple authors, providing authors feedback on their sections, writing sections, accepting criticism in front of your peers, and working under difficult deadlines. Proposals show you who has the mettle to make it through 18+ hour days and the challenges of working with and relying on others. You might think you can walk the walk, but the truth is that proposals put all the talk to the test and show who’s truly capable of getting the job done.
The real value of a proposal professional isn’t just being able to complete assignments; it’s being able to help out with anything that’s needed to meet the deadline. For instance, you should always be asking yourself questions like these:
- Can I help with color reviews or peer review another author’s sections?
- Can I provide recommendations on how to make the proposal better instead of pointing out errors?
- Can I help an SME draw out the benefits of their solution?
- Can I support the Proposal Manager by facilitating a brainstorming session to strengthen the solution within a section that didn’t score high during a Red Team review?
- Can I pick up the slack of a busy executive who overpromised when s/he said s/he’d take on the management section?
Proposal Managers sometimes have to write sections, Editors often have to desktop publish, Proposal Coordinators occasionally have to lead brainstorming meetings… At the end of the day, winning is a team sport, and being a team player in the proposal world is crucial to success. The question you have to ask yourself every time is, ‘What can I do to help my team get this proposal done and make it outstanding?’
Step 3: Continue Learning and Cross Training
By actively engaging in the process, you can apply your training and then assess what you’ve mastered, where your skills are lacking, and what you need to learn next. Becoming a proposal expert requires critical self-analysis, practice, and the capacity to learn the varied skills needed to develop proposals (e.g. persuasive writing, graphics conceptualization, editing, desktop publishing, management, and cost volume development).
A true proposal expert doesn’t just focus on one thing, like the technical volume; they also spend time with their pricing team to understand how different elements of the solution will affect price. Likewise, a good Proposal Manager will start cross training in capture to learn the strategic actions their company must take to position for a bid. Continue adding advanced levels of training and ongoing practical application to your repertoire, and you can shape your proposal experience into mastery.
Step 4: Repeat Steps 1-3
Working through the cyclical process of training, applying what you’ve learned, assessing where you need to learn more, and getting/applying additional training will continuously yield benefits throughout your proposal career. Inevitably, you’ll grow with each training-experience cycle, iteratively working your way towards becoming a superior proposal professional. You’ll gain insight into your performance, preferred techniques and quirks with each successive proposal you complete. That kind of relentless iteration is the key to becoming the kind of proposal expert who’s always in high demand.
Keep an eye out for part 2 of this 3-part series, Are You a Real SME or a Wannabe?
Proposal Coordinator and Technical Writer
OST Global Solutions, Inc.