The Proposal Manager’s Puzzle: Navigating Conflicting Sections C, L, and M

For proposal managers, the journey towards success is filled with numerous obstacles, with one of the most daunting challenges being the infamous trio: Sections C, L, and M. The misalignment, ambiguity, and other difficulties in these sections can turn creating a winning proposal into an ordeal. This blog post describes the notorious trio, outlines the challenges they pose, delves into a scenario encountered by a proposal manager navigating the trio, and offers strategies to overcome difficulties.  

Understanding the Notorious Trio: C, L, and M

Table 1 defines and describes the notorious trio.

Table 1: Introduction to Sections C, L, and M

Section NameDefinition
Section C—Statement of Work (SOW) or Performance Work Statement (PWS)Section C describes what the procuring agency expects you to accomplish. It’s the “what” of the project, detailing the scope of work, specific tasks, deliverables, and acceptable performance criteria.
Section L—Instructions, Conditions, and Notices to OfferorsSection L provides instructions on preparing and formatting your proposal, stipulating what information to include and how to organize it. Adhering to Section L is crucial for a compliant proposal.
Section M—Evaluation CriteriaSection M outlines the criteria the agency will use to evaluate and rank proposals, guiding you on which aspects of your proposal should be emphasized to align with the evaluators’ priorities.

Common Challenges Produced by the Trio

When Sections C, L, and M are vague, conflicting, or unaligned, it’s like trying to piece together a puzzle. Table 2 describes four common challenges.

Table 2: Challenges Produced by Misaligned or Conflicting Sections C, L, and M

ChallengeDescription of Challenge
Misinterpretation of the requirements, instructions, and/or evaluation criteriaThe foundation of a compelling proposal lies in accurately understanding and responding to the requirements of the request for proposals (RFP). However, when Sections C, L, and M are unclear, the risk of misinterpreting these requirements increases. A misunderstanding can lead to a proposal that either misses the mark on the agency’s needs or fails to comply with the submission instructions. For instance, if Section C is broad and lacks specifics, you might propose a solution that’s too generalized or off-target. Misinterpreting evaluation criteria in Section M can also result in not emphasizing the aspects of your proposal that are most likely to score points with the evaluators.
Difficulty in prioritizing the proposal sections and page countA well-organized proposal that adheres to the page limits and emphasizes the right content areas is crucial for success. However, deciding how to allocate your limited page count becomes challenging when there’s vagueness or conflict between what’s emphasized in Sections C, L, and M. For example, if Section L requires a concise proposal but Section C’s scope suggests a need for extensive explanation, balancing detail with brevity while ensuring compliance can be difficult. This balancing act can lead to prioritizing less impactful sections at the expense of more critical content, diminishing the proposal’s score.
Increased proposal planning time and costsThe ambiguity and misalignment in RFP Sections C, L, and M can significantly increase the time and resources needed to prepare a compliance matrix, outline, and proposal. The effort to decipher the requirements, seek clarifications, and verify alignment across different sections demands additional resources and can extend the proposal development timeline. This increase in planning time can strain resources, especially for firms with tight bid and proposal budgets.
Increased risk of scope creep during operationsUnclear RFP sections can directly result in a project’s expansion beyond its initial objectives. If the proposal team misinterprets broad or vague requirements and wins the contract, the project’s actual scope may become a point of contention. Without a clear agreement on deliverables and performance expectations, managing the project can become fraught with requests for additional work that wasn’t initially planned for, increasing costs and timelines and affecting client satisfaction.

Once Upon a Time

Imagine you’re a proposal manager at the helm of a critical bid for a government contract focusing on cybersecurity infrastructure—a domain where your team excels due to its innovative solutions and cost-saving technologies. The RFP is critical for your team’s fiscal year portfolio and has the potential to set up your company as a front-runner in the cybersecurity solutions arena for a government agency. However, the RFP’s misaligned Sections C, L, and M present an obstacle course that you must navigate with precision and strategic insight.

  • Section C’s Broadness: Section C describes the desired cybersecurity infrastructure in broad terms, mentioning the need for “state-of-the-art” and “future-proof” solutions without defining what these terms mean in the context of the agency’s current systems and future objectives. The lack of specifics leaves too much room for interpretation, making it challenging to pinpoint the exact solutions that best align with the agency’s needs.
  • Section L’s Vagueness: Section L contradicts itself by demanding proposals in a specific format but failing to clarify key formatting requirements. It mentions using an unspecified “government standard” for document presentation but doesn’t specify which standard. This vagueness risks the proposal’s compliance, as non-conforming proposals could be rejected outright, no matter their technical merit.
  • Section M’s Misaligned Criteria: To complicate matters further, Section M’s evaluation criteria focus on cost-effectiveness and past performance, with innovative solutions seemingly an afterthought. This misalignment with Section C’s broad request for innovative solutions creates a dilemma. Should the team prioritize innovation, as vaguely suggested in Section C, or lean towards cost-saving measures and highlighting past successes?

These challenges are everyday occurrences in the life of a proposal manager trying their best to develop a winning proposal.

Tips for Overcoming the Challenges Presented by C, L, and M

If you find yourself in the unenviable position described above or are confounded by the conflicting or vague requirements from Sections C, L, and M, Table 3 presents seven tips for overcoming these challenges.

Table 3: Seven Tips for Overcoming Sections C, L, and M Challenges

Tip No.SolutionDescription of Solution
1Seek clarifications and ask questionsUse the question-and-answer (Q&A) period to seek clarifications on vague or conflicting sections. This helps you gain a better understanding and demonstrates your interest and diligence. You might also ask if you can include a compliance matrix. However, the customer is not obligated to answer your questions or release answers promptly, so plan accordingly.
2Conduct a thorough review with a teamAssemble a multidisciplinary team to review the RFP. Different perspectives can help uncover ambiguities and interpret the requirements more accurately.
3Create a compliance matrix and detailed outlineDevelop a compliance matrix that maps out every requirement of Sections C, L, and M. Create a detailed proposal outline and instructions for proposal writers that provide them with greater insight and ultimately help improve your proposal score.
4Prioritize according to evaluation criteriaFocus your proposal’s content on the evaluation criteria listed in Section M. Align your solution’s strengths with these criteria to enhance its appeal. Produce multiple strengths across every evaluated criterion.
5Develop clear and direct responsesCreate a clear and concise proposal that directly addresses Sections C, L, and M. Avoid assumptions about vague terms and focus on substantiating your capabilities.
6Engage in pre-submission peer reviewsHave peers or colleagues not involved in the proposal development process review your proposal. Fresh eyes can catch compliance and responsiveness issues and offer valuable feedback on clarity and persuasiveness.
7Prepare for scope creepYour proposal should define a clear scope boundary when sections are broad or conflicting. This will help manage expectations and guard against the risk of future scope creep.


The road to mastering the proposal management process, particularly when navigating the complexities of RFP Sections C, L, and M, is marked by strategic thinking, attention to detail, and an unwavering focus on compliance and clarity. The challenges these sections present, while daunting, are not insurmountable. By adopting a structured approach, as outlined above, you can transform potential obstacles into contract wins.

Related Content:

By Brenda Crist, Vice President at Lohfeld Consulting Group, MPA, CPP APMP Fellow

Lohfeld Consulting Group has proven results specializing in helping companies create winning captures and proposals. As the premier capture and proposal services consulting firm focused exclusively on government markets, we provide expert assistance to government contractors in Capture Planning and Strategy, Proposal Management and Writing, Capture and Proposal Process and Infrastructure, and Training. In the last 3 years, we’ve supported over 550 proposals winning more than $170B for our clients—including the Top 10 government contractors. Lohfeld Consulting Group is your “go-to” capture and proposal source! Start winning by contacting us at and join us on LinkedInFacebook, and YouTube(TM) .