Ask Proposal Doctor – How to bring proposal solutioning to closure?

Dear Proposal Doctor,

My team has been locked in a room for the better part of a week with instructions to stay there until they, that is, we, have created a solution for an upcoming proposal. We don’t have a draft RFP to work from, but we have an outdated statement of work (SOW). Everyone has a different idea as to how to build the solution, and the discussion meanders with no end in sight in my natural lifetime.

Although everyone involved is intelligent as well as competent, something is missing from this team, or we would have what we need by now. Without a solution, we cannot bid.

As a lowly proposal manager, surrounded by people more technically knowledgeable than I am, how can I bring this process to closure?

–In Solution Hell

Dear In Solution,

First of all, you are not in hell (for which there are different exit strategies), but in purgatory. Although you gave no clues as to your customer and your business area, I can definitely discern one feature of your team—it lacks a leader. Often, that role has to be filled by the proposal manager, but not if you consider yourself “lowly,” so please, for all our sakes, shake that attitude and take pride in a profession that has high standards and demands respect.

I want to address your situation at two levels: process and content. For the process, you need someone who can facilitate the discussion with the goal of arriving at decisions. Facilitation is a skill as well as an art form. Is there anyone in your organization outside the team who can play this role? It is worth identifying the good facilitators, because we need them to not only help create solutions, but also to achieve consensus, analyze lessons learned, and assist in other proposal-related processes where emotions tend to run high and the threat of deadlock looms. If all else fails, you need to learn facilitation skills yourself. There are courses and books that can help, but the most important learning device is practice.

For the content, I would start with a clear definition. Back in the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviets started to debate arms control treaties, the talks almost collapsed because the Soviets would not agree to any form of verification. Then one of the negotiators asked each side to define verification, only to find that that the Soviets were objecting to something that the U.S. was not demanding in the first place. Each side was using a different definition of the term.

A solution can be anything, so it is especially important to apply definitions in this context. Are you talking about a process, a product, a team of people, or a system? Definition is the first step.

Another concept that can be helpful is simplicity. I have managed proposals where the essence of the solution was a highly customized MS Excel workbook. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; it has to be effective at the right price point and solve the customer’s problem.

One way to get at the solution is to ask the staff you are proposing how they plan to do the work. A good proposal is a plan for running the program, and if no one knows how the work will be performed, it is worth asking whether it makes sense to bid.

Finally, don’t start with a blank piece of paper. “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” One book that is an excellent repository of solution ideas is Vijay Kumar’s 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization.

The need to break this stalemate is a wonderful opportunity for you to build new skills, show leadership, and enhance the respect people have for you and for our profession. I know you can meet this challenge!

All the best,

Wendy Frieman, The Proposal Doctor