Some psychological studies assert that if someone writes down an idea and its implementation, there is close to 50% probability of it becoming a reality. If the implementation is broken down into steps that are captured in writing, the probability of being down goes up to 70%. Adding a date to each step raises this idea’s chance of becoming real up to 95%. It means that planning ahead clears the path for even the most unpredictable and seemingly impossible projects. This principle also applies to the mystery of business development process in government contracting.
In today’s change-driven economic environment, some might give up on planning for winning opportunities further than just a few months ahead of the projected date. Everything shifts to the right, and becomes unpredictable despite our attempt to keep on the pulse of news and trends. Most experts agree, however, that planning is still a quintessential part of a business success.
Alex Brown, business development expert with 20 years of experience, reveals some of his secrets of pipeline planning for government contractors, in his interview on business development planning strategy.
Role of Planning
Q: What place does planning hold in your business development strategy?
A: The definition of planning is both the organizational process of creating and maintaining a plan, and the psychological process of thinking about the activities required to create a desired goal. The basic definition of Business Development (BD) is evaluating a business (or business line) and then realizing its full potential through strategic analysis, account planning, intelligence gathering, and positioning. Simply put, you cannot perform business development properly without planning. It is part of every step, or should be. The key to BD planning is what I call flexible process. You have to develop a pipeline, but you have to be able to move with the constant changes in federal government contracting, and each agency’s reactions
Q: What are the main steps of the pipeline planning process?
A: The steps consist of answering five questions: “who?”, “what?”, “where?”, “when?” and “wow?” Who are you as a business—and what are your capabilities, key skills, and strategic goals? Where and when have you performed within your capabilities? Do your capabilities and past performance match your current goals and direction? Is there any “wow” from the customer’s viewpoint that would enable you to stand out from the competition? This is the basis of your initial planning in qualifying the bids. There is a quote that I think about when I think about planning: “If you want to know your past, look into your present conditions. If you want to know your future, look into your present actions.”
Q: When do I have start planning for the next year?
A: On the day you start, and you never stop. Seriously, there is no point in time early enough. Timelines are often used such as a year out, or two, or five, but think of the process more as a closed feedback loop rather than a line – you continuously update your pipeline for the years to come.
Q: What kind of sources should I use when planning my pipeline?
A: There are many paid commercial sources (GovWin IQ, Centurion, Bloomberg, e-Pipeline, Onvia, and so on), and public sources such as FedBizOpps and agency websites. You also need to dive into the CCR and FPDS for some competitive and teaming analysis. Use your current contacts (i.e., your operations support on contracts) and your key managers. Remember, you have to have everyone on the same page to be able to move forward quickly and efficiently. Once your pipeline is developed, it needs to be reviewed and updated consistently to stay current; the industry landscape changes on a weekly basis.
Q: How often throughout the year should I review my pipeline and how does it change my BD strategy?
A: You should set milestones at two levels. The first level should be completed weekly at a minimum, preferably daily, to reflect changes that are happening in the agencies and contracts you are following. The second level should be completed quarterly. You have to be prepared to point the company in the right direction; if the current line of business is shrinking due to budgetary cuts or all contracts going to other IDIQ or schedule vehicles, you must be ready to move to open waters. You have to continuously assess risk based on your customer’s predicted behavior, company’s position with the customer, and competitive landscape. Risk will drive the decisions. And what is out of reach today may become necessary when needing to add skills and past performance either through teaming, joint ventures, or even mergers and acquisitions.
Q: What are your predictions for the industry for the next year?
A: The contracting world has become a game of musical chairs—the chairs are disappearing and everyone has to fight for the remaining seats when the music stops. Very large businesses and very small ones are relatively safe, but the mid-tier companies may be the ones who are stuck without a chair. Many stand-alone contracts are moving to already awarded IDIQs or being slated to the upcoming MAC vehicles. Cost is king and will remain so with the budget reductions and everyone watching their bottom lines. This environment will cause many companies that have stayed in their “core competencies” to venture out and explore new lines of business. I call this environment the 6 degrees of separation. There will come a time where everyone will be connected because of all the cross-teaming that goes on.
Q: How is industry climate different now from when you started and what is still true now?
A: I do not see that the climate is different. Every few years someone proclaims “It is more competitive now than it ever has been,” and at the time this statement is true. But, it is ALWAYS becoming more competitive. What I see today is more agile companies navigating faster and winning more. The thing to keep an eye on is not climate but trends. Who are the agencies spending with, and what are they spending on. Firm Fixed Price is the future for now, with the Time and Materials element built in to make it even tougher on the contractor, with less Cost Plus vehicles, but trends will tell you we will go back when the need is there. Companies are more willing to take a risk, cut down the fee, use an unusual approach, and accept T&Cs they would NEVER normally say yes to. This leads back to the term I used earlier—“flexible process.” The government wants agility, and they want to work with companies that can be just that, agile. But there is a point at which one cannot cut any further or accept more risk, and time will tell when we reach that stage.
Q: So, what is more important in BD: relationships or knowledge and skills? What is the balance between them, and how to find/reach it?
A: This is the age-old “chicken or egg” question. The answer is, to properly perform BD at its best, you must have both. Balance is key. Cirque du Soleil proves this point every time they take to the high wire. With balance, you can perform miracles.