Traditional Capture is Wasteful – Long Live Capture-less Proposals?

We all hate being wasteful. I gather this is why some people feel that they don’t really want to spend money on pursuits until they get to a real battle – the proposal. They avoid pre-proposal work or capture, thinking that it’s there for those with bigger budgets and deeper pockets. After all, who has time or money anymore for lengthy brainstorming meetings, large Black Hats, proposal development before an RFP ever hits (so you get to rewrite the sections almost from scratch when the RFP is out and your SMEs really focus on the problem), or composing lengthy PowerPoints for your management to feel comfortable.

For most, capture boils down to a couple of meetings with the customer and a teaming strategy. Sometimes the customer contact is limited to an exhilarating phone call with a contracting officer where they share a couple of friendly details in addition to a projected RFP date, and don’t hang up right away. Then the proposal battle begins.

Classically trained capture managers, I beg you to hear me out for a couple of minutes before you scream “off with your head!” because I am going to argue that those people are mostly correct.

The way capture is taught and practiced IS wasteful. Many companies are absolutely correct to avoid what traditionally passes for capture because it would be throwing away money, and wouldn’t get them far anyway. They might as well just wait for an RFP and write a good response, hoping to win on price – the end result is largely the same, with a few bucks saved in the process.

Most capture efforts I observe lack focus. Even when select steps are correct, they miss the point. See, all capture really boils down to only three goals:

  1. Limiting your competition or avoiding a competitive proposal effort altogether
  2. Getting the customer to look forward to your proposal
  3. Preparing as much as you can for a winning proposal

All actions have to serve these three goals, or they are wasteful.

1. Limiting your competition or avoiding a proposal altogether.

The most important goal of capture is to stack the deck in your favor. Forget for now about proving you are the best among the most awesome competitors. Let’s think how we can reduce the number of competitors. Or, avoid the competition and get a sole source award. Note that when you are trying to reduce the competition, you are at odds with the government customer, but you are strangely helping them as well.

Limiting competition is bad on one hand because competition is supposed to result in a better deal. But, it is a double-edged sword: it delays much-needed services or products the government needs (sometimes for years due to protests); and wastes money through a lengthy and cumbersome selection process. Even the premise of a better deal is questionable. Why not help your customer by saving resources and adding scope to another contracting vehicle you hold, or figuring out how to get the work awarded to you on a sole source basis? Another idea is to scope out the competitive landscape, and drive this opportunity as a task order on an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract you dominate, with highest chances of getting a task order. Or, how about making sure the procurement goes small business or even a specific type of set-aside? Could you influence the contract type or selection criteria that are in your favor but would damage your competition? Could you ne utralize competition through ghosting? These numerous ways work especially well in early capture when acquisition strategy is still undecided and you can freely talk to the customer.

2. Getting the customer to look forward to your proposal.

Your second goal is to get the customer excited about your company, and looking forward to selecting you. To do this, you have to understand their written and unwritten requirements, position yourself as a trusted advisor, and vet your solution in advance to make sure they are fully in agreement with you and look forward to what you have to propose. Customer intimacy is the holy grail of capture. Again, it takes a while to build relationships, because you can fit only so many meetings in just a few months – trying to see someone every week to build a relationship will get you a big stalkerazzi stamp on your forehead. Although it’s not a full-time effort, it’s a long-term one – this is why it takes years when it’s done right.

3. Preparing as much as you can for a winning proposal.

If you couldn’t avoid a competitive procurement, every action is about arriving in style to the point when you have to write a winning proposal. More so, it is not so much the actions but a pragmatic and practical state of mind. When you start asking yourself: what are the specific statements from a Black Hat that will make it into the proposal, everything effort takes on a different shape. For example, don’t run a win strategy session. Instead, run a win themes development session that results in win strategies (and not vice-versa). When you gather intelligence, every nugget you find has to have a home in your proposal. You should know which section this information will help. When you think of a competitor, think how you will ghost them in a proposal or highlight a solution better. When you pick a teammate, picture how you will describe the reason why they are on your team, and exactly how you will showcase their past performance. Don’t pick them if you can’t. Document every piece of information painstakingly – if it’s in someone’s head, it doesn’t exist or doesn’t count. Your solution development has to be focused on what you plan to say in the proposal section specifically, and not just the general approach. And, use checklists to streamline your brainstorming instead of free-flowing for hours.

This is, by the way, the reason why I don’t believe that pre-proposal preparation is a separate function from capture and should be handled separately. Everything in capture has to be done to prepare a proposal – not just the pre-proposal preparation stages. Capture managers have to practice running and writing proposals. A capture manager who has never run a proposal is only half as good as a capture manager who’s done both.

Here are a few tips that will help you become less wasteful. Cross-train as a capture manager in business development and definitely learn how to write and manage winning proposals. Document everything. Culminate every strategy in how you will showcase it in your proposal. Finally, change your attitude – focus on critical outcomes out of each capture action, rather than following capture steps. This is when capture will finally have meaning and make a winning difference. Otherwise, skip capture and focus on writing good proposals while being the lowest bidder.

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