Shaking an incumbent out of its complacent rut

Dear Proposal Doctor,

I am working with a team that is about to bid on a contract for which they are the incumbents. They have been doing this work for a while and they get plenty of kudos from the customer.

However, re-competes are always difficult. These people cannot generate any ideas about how to do things better or differently in the future. They are convinced that they have the answers and that the way they have been delivering services up until now is actually the best way. What can I do to throw a grenade into this scenario? I know that with this attitude, we will lose.


Dear Scared,

You are correct. The complacency of incumbent teams is now a thing of legends, and everyone has at least one story of the incumbent we were sure the customer loved who lost and, in some instances, lost big.

The good news is that techniques exist to get your team out of its complacent rut. First, however, you should ascertain how much change the customer really wants. Risk tolerance often appears to be greater than it is.

Next, consider bringing in a graphic artist to work with the team. Often, creating a visual image of the process or technology – something that your team will have to do anyway – stimulates new thinking.

Many resources exist to help you promote creativity and innovative thinking. A lot of content on the Harvard Business Review website is free or available at a very reasonable cost. You might want to start with an interesting interview on harnessing creativity.

I can also recommend the exercises and processes in a recently published book called 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization by Vijay Kumar. To implement these concepts, you will probably need to introduce a new person into the team to facilitate one or more sessions until you get the ball rolling. If you have access to an organizational development professional in your company, consult that person for ideas and suggestions as to how to generate new ideas.

The point is to shake things up rather than expect the behavior of the team to change on its own. Good luck, and think about sharing your experiences in an article or blog post when you are done because a lot of other proposal managers struggle with this issue.

All the best,

Wendy Frieman, The Proposal Doctor

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Lohfeld Consulting