Ask the Proposal Doctor – Frustrated at Stupidity

Dear Proposal Doctor,

The powers that be in my company took drastic measures after a number of proposals were submitted containing errors resulting from use of old proposal material. As of now, no one has access to old proposals so that everyone will have to write everything from scratch. Of course there are still some electronic and hard copies floating around, so the hunt is on to see who has the biggest stash.

Is there an official best practice with respect to using previous proposals? If we don’t get this policy reversed, it seems to me that we are going to be re-inventing the wheel at considerable cost to the company. And ultimately to our customers.

-Frustrated at Stupidity

Dear Frustrated,

Good artists copy. Great artists steal. Who said that? I don’t know but, I think it was Picasso, or someone equally gifted. Yes, there is a best practice, and it is all about balance. It makes no sense to start with a blank piece of paper if there are existing artifacts that are relevant, and it is dangerous to rely too heavily on previously developed content. When I have used old proposal sections (or even pages or paragraphs), I have ended up changing every single sentence. But it still saved me time to have text from which to start.

Your company’s reaction reminds me of a comment a European friend made to me years ago. She said, “Americans either over-whelm or under-whelm. You would be better off if you could just ‘whelm.'” The policy you describe is over-correction. It is easy because it is absolute, but it is also, forgive me, dumb. For two reasons.

First, it is likely to result in a black market, a trend you have already alluded to in your letter. Maybe the executives in your company are familiar with what happened in the United States during Prohibition? It was not pretty, whatever one thinks of alcohol consumption. The reuse that is traded on this black market is sure to be of inferior quality and might even contain serious errors. Chasing after it will become a preoccupation with significant opportunity cost. Second, the policy is focused on the symptom and not the disease. The issue appears to be a lack of quality control, not a reliance on re-use.

See if you can find an executive who is willing to listen to common sense and try these arguments out. Maybe one person working behind the scenes can be more effective than someone orchestrating a frontal attack, as tempting as that might be.

All the Best,

Wendy Frieman, The Proposal Doctor