The Day You Stop Wanting to Be Better is the Day You Stop Being Good

At the Tailhook Association’s annual reunion, I met one of the very few American Aces—the legendary fighter pilot Bill Driscoll. A quote from his book, Peak Performance Under Pressure, is the title of this article. The book is a chockfull of business wisdom, but one thing really caught my attention.

Bill writes: “Over my military career, I have noted that one of the main differences between Aces and other fighter pilots is that many of “others,” often those who needed training the most, were satisfied with their performance and seldom improved. Make no mistake, most fighter pilots are very good aviators. But those who never achieved peak performance had no personal or team-improvement program in place. They didn’t think one was necessary. On the other hand, of the more than 400 fighter pilots I have flown with and against, the 3 percent who were superstars were never satisfied with their performance. They always worked to improve, 24/7, and never let up. There’s no such thing as a natural combat fighter pilot. Those who became Aces were committed to one of the most basic ingredients for combat success: hard work. Like the Aces, your future success isn’t based on a right-of-passage or an entitlement over time. Rather, it’s the product of your hard work.”

He continues: “People who are self-satisfied or content to wing can be disastrously unprepared to lead effectively under pressure. On their best days, they will remain just average. Who wants to trust that kind of leadership in today’s economy?”

The interesting thing about fighter pilots is that only ten percent of the top one percent of all pilots get to fly fighter jets. When someone like Bill says that even elite pilots fall into the complacency trap, it’s a powerful message. Although Bill writes about fighter pilots and business in general, what he says also applies to proposal professionals. It is too easy to become content with one’s current knowledge and disinterested in investing the hard work and training necessary for continued growth.

We have to grow because the competitive landscape changes daily.

Let’s take capture, with one of its key components being competitive analysis, as an example. Many small, medium, and even large companies flounder in this area. Most capture managers pay lip service to competitive analysis, merely listing competitors’ names in their briefings. They go through the motions of finding out who some of the competitors are, and identifying a few superficial strategies to beat them. This is often done to “check the box” in the capture plan. These strategies end up having little to do with the way the pursuit is run and the proposal is written. Other companies skip competitive analysis in its entirety, wondering why they need to bother when all they can do is submit their best possible offer.

To ensure that competitive analysis yields actionable intelligence and increases the probability of winning a pursuit, capture managers have to learn and apply more sophisticated methods of gathering data, developing competitor knowledge, and turning it into actionable intelligence. For example, in gathering intelligence, capture managers have to tap into a combination of open source data, paid information, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Open source data searches have to rely on more than Google and include different sources such as the use of more than one search engine, Meta search engines, government information search sites and directories, newsgroups, discussion forums, reference search sites, online library catalogs, conference repositories, news search sites, and blogs. Paid information includes GovWin IQ, Centurion, BGov, Hoovers, DACIS, and other sources. FOIA requests include those filed directly or purchased through third parties.

The key, however, is to process the information properly and there is a variety of tactical analysis tools that can be applied to your opportunity:

    1. Win/loss analysis as relevant to the target pursuit:

  • Who are the key players on your competitors’ teams, what have they won or lost in the past, and what past performance have they put forth? This helps in choosing a team to counteract and beat a strong competitors’ team. What are the gaps that you can exploit after you identify the team?

    2. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis:

  • This analysis is designed to examine your team and solution from an outsider’s perspective. Avoid a common mistake where SWOT becomes just a SWO analysis for you, and SWT for the competitors; and don’t forget about the resulting action items. Be sure to include potential threats to your solution as well as opportunities for your competition to exploit your weaknesses and mitigate your strengths.

    3. Blind Spots analysis to analyze previous strategies that are likely to be reused:

  • A Blind Spots Analysis has three steps which begin with conducting Porter’s Five Forces Analysis on the particular agency. The Five Forces framework discusses the interplay between: Barriers to entry, Industry competitors (rivalry between firms), Customers and end users, Substitutes, and Suppliers (or Contractors). Step two is collecting competitive intelligence on the company’s capture managers and executives’ assumptions regarding win strategies, and then compare the results with the research. Step three is identifying any contradictions that arise. These are potential blind spots, presenting an opportunity to beat the competition.

    4. Alliance analysis to determine competitors’ teaming:

  • People tend to team with the same companies over and over again, and you can research different companies to see who likes to work together. With this information, you can predict their approach, personnel, positioning, which past performance they might leverage, and work share distribution. By FOIA-ing their information and understanding their team, you can have a much better idea of how to beat them in your Price-to-Win strategy through labor rate and wrap rate analysis.

    5. Black Hat:

  • Black Hat includes strategy hypotheses and war-gaming. It involves inviting people who know each of your competitors well, and includes a team representing your own company (the “home team”). Each team devises their own strategies on how to maximize their strengths and minimize their weakness. The hypothesis will be how that particular team will beat the home team—if we were them, what would we do? Participants rank the strongest strategy and then determine the home team’s strategy to beat them. However, keep in mind that this exercise could be a waste of money and resources when the teams do not know well who they are supposed to be impersonating, or they haven’t done their research well in advance. Action items that come out of this exercise need to improve your chances of winning while hurting your competitors’ chances.

    6. Price-to-Win Analysis:

  • Price-to-Win is the price at which the customer will most likely buy the solution compared with the probable price of competitor solutions and their inherent value to the customer. This is based on predicting what your competitors are going to bid based on their teaming alliances, past performance pricing on similar bids, and their predicted solutions.

The hard part is not just having a robust toolset, but knowing which tools to use to complement your team, resources, timeframe, and opportunity. Avoiding complacency is all about never being satisfied and always seeking improvement. Thinking you’re the best and you are unbeatable is the best way to lose. Attending capture training is a great way to remind ourselves that we are not perfect, however good we may be.

Bill offers some more insight into this, “Ever notice that some in your workplace are satisfied to achieve average (at best) results day after day? But a few—the aces of your organization or industry—knock it out of the park every day. They are doing what all the others in your profession have the same opportunities to do but don’t.” We all have the opportunity to be better. The best among us seek improvement every day and are never satisfied, be that in business development, capture, or proposal preparation. Remember, the day you stop wanting to be better is the day you stop being good.

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