Industry experts’ proposal war stories and lessons learned – Part 2 of 4

We’ve all heard, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” (–Albert Einstein) Has this quote applied to any capture or proposal efforts you’ve supported?

I’ve heard war stories and observed some first-hand over the past 25 years that make me wonder how some capture and proposal folks simply haven’t learned from their own and others’ mistakes and broken the constant cycle of self-sabotage.

I asked a number of my colleagues to share some of their favorite war stories – and tell us what they learned from their experiences. Here is part 2 of my 4-part series on capture and proposal war stories.

  • There have been many wars, death marches, battles, and skirmishes through the years. When I think back, most of the war stories stem from not using a defined proposal process, and as the process matures and even small companies have come to embrace it, the wars have become fewer and less painful. A few years ago, I was called as a consultant to a large company to do a pink team review and be part of the tiger team going forward. The pink team version of the proposal consisted of an outline and large amounts of text from previous proposals that had been cut and pasted into the proposal – there were no storyboards, no solution, no themes, and no semblance of compliance. Needless to say, the entire proposal was thrown out and we started over. Again, the proposal manager did not apply the process, and the next version was better in some areas, but at red team (1 week before it was due), it was still far off the mark even in the area of compliance. As luck would have it, as we were developing the post-red team get-well plan, we received a 2-week extension. It was a rough 2 weeks, but through hard work and a lot of long hours we were able to pull together a winning proposal. Process matters…ignore it at your own risk. –Margie Regis, Proposal Manager, Management Resources Group
  • I managed a great proposal, and we still lost. There were numerous post-mortems, and everyone agreed that the document was excellent. The program manager on site with the customer had generated too much ill will. No matter what was in the proposal, the customer would have changed contractors, and we would have lost. This taught me that there are limits to what I can control, and that I will always be in a box. The challenge is to do the best job I can inside the box.Wendy Frieman, APMP Fellow and Principal Consultant, Lohfeld Consulting Group
  • Our company had the good fortune of helping a commercial division of a large system integrator win their first large government contract (a $3B blanket purchase agreement). We were originally hired to review the first draft of the proposal. After the review, it became clear to the customer that the proposal was in big trouble. It wasn’t compliant, had major solution gaps, lacked differentiating themes, had virtually no graphics, you name it. The customer needed help, but no one wanted to take over the proposal management and writing functions – not even one of the largest and most reputable consulting firms in our industry. They thought it was impossible to win. We agreed to take on the assignment simply because a valued customer needed help. Our team of four consultants was under intense pressure and scrutiny (all the way up to the chairman of the company) to help create a winning proposal in less than 30 days. I never worked harder, longer, or smarter for the next few weeks. During the proposal development process I met the chairman of the company (a national figure) who checked in on us a number of times and offered encouragement and support. Even though our chances of winning were still in doubt, our team had a great sense of accomplishment when we submitted the bid. A few months passed, and the next thing I remember is receiving a congratulatory message from the chairman that we won! Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian once said, “No pressure no diamonds.” This quote was recently popularized by the rookie Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and is as true today as it was in the 19th century. This proposal was the one of the most difficult and pressure-filled tasks of my career. It was also the most rewarding one. –Chris Simmons, Principal, Rainmakerz Consulting, LLC
  • I worked with a capture manager who crafted a great capture strategy. Unfortunately, it was all in his head – he didn’t like to write anything down! Due to a family crisis, he was out of the office for more than 8 weeks. No one had the detailed level of information that we needed to continue positioning us and to send consistent messaging into the client let alone to brief senior management at gate reviews. If it’s not written down it does not exist. –Kristin Pennypacker, Principal Consultant, Lohfeld Consulting Group

What lessons learned stand out in your mind? What would you share with someone new (or experienced) in the capture and proposal field? Send an email to me at with your lessons learned, and I’ll share your advice in upcoming posts!