Do I have to understand the proposal contents as the Proposal Manager? Ask the Proposal Doctor

Dear Proposal Doctor,

Do I have to actually understand what is in the proposal I am managing? Sometimes this is an overwhelming task, and it distracts me from the blocking and tackling of the day-to-day management.

Often the material is technical and written for people who are “inside the bubble” and who understand all the jargon and acronyms. This makes it difficult to know if the writing is not persuasive or if it is intrinsically not understandable to a layperson. Yet it is hard to give direction to the writers if I don’t know anything about the content. How do others manage this challenge?

-Struggling to Keep Up

Dear Struggling,

This is a constant challenge, and you will be disappointed—or relieved— to know that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

There is no question that we are better proposal managers when we have a grasp of the subject matter. It helps us get clarity from our contributors and keep them from writing to a narrow audience or assuming too much knowledge on the part of the evaluators. Sometimes that good grasp is just out of reach. Several years ago, I managed a highly technical proposal that weighed in at over 500 pages. A number of people working on it had PhDs. There was no way that I could really understand all of it, and I didn’t spend much time trying.

How much time and energy to invest in understanding the subject is going to depend on how much lead-time we have and how much access we have to the SMEs who create all this complicated stuff. Here are several strategies that might help:

  • First, on the really big ones (I mean with page counts of 1,000 pages or more), limit your involvement in the substance to the high-level outline. Unless you have several years to read into it, or you have been a practitioner in the field being proposed, you will drive yourself crazy trying to understand all the content.
  • Second, if you have a draft RFP in advance and you have time to prepare, ask the capture manager or the SMEs to explain the solution to you in layman’s terms so that you know what to look for. Then read and understand as much as you can without losing sight of the bigger picture and all the logistics.
  • Third, if you can’t understand the content, make sure that someone you trust (capture manager, solution architect) does.
  • Fourth, if the proposal is short and not highly technical, I recommend getting heavily involved in the content so that you understand all the major sections and the content of the figures and tables. If the team can’t explain that information to you in this context, it probably means that they don’t understand the material themselves.

In short, context is everything. Assess what makes sense in each situation, knowing that the more content you understand, the better.

All Best,

Wendy Frieman, The Proposal Doctor


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Lohfeld Consulting