The Proposal Dentist: Extracting a Technical Approach from the Technical Experts

by Brooke Crouter

(This article appeared in the Fall 2011 edition of APMP-NCA’s Executive Summary eZine.)

As budgets shrink, there will be fewer new contracts in the government market. With fewer deals, firms that compete for federal business will need to write sharper proposals to win their share of work. It is imperative that our proposals tell a clear story that resonates with the buyer. In particular, we must be able to present a fact-based approach that demonstrates a clear, tangible value to the potential customer. To achieve this, we need three critical elements: compliance, reviewability, and approach.

Compliance. Compliance is the “entry fee” to the game; we must respond to the RFP criteria completely or risk having our proposal removed from further consideration. Compliance defines the structure of our response and ensures we meet all requirements. We all know we have to focus on compliance, and we rarely miss a beat on this topic.

Reviewability. We have to present our approach in a comprehensible, readable, easily reviewable style that convinces the customer to give the award to our firm. We want to ensure the evaluators can easily identify the strengths of our approach and give us the highest possible score. And, we want our proposals to have some “life” — to communicate our approach like a story. That story should be easily understood and highlight the solution, experience, and knowledge that we bring to the customer’s environment, problems, and mission, engaging the customer so they visualize themselves in the story. Finally, our writing must match the technical level and understanding of the evaluators — which is rarely the same as the technical level of our subject matter experts (SME).

Approach. We must be able to discuss the demonstrated tools, technologies, and methods we will employ to benefit the customer. (This is an area in which we can all continually improve our training and coaching.) We have to convince the evaluators we are providing a superior approach that will result in superior products and services.

The first two requirements, compliance and reviewability, fall in the purview of proposal managers and editors and is part of their DNA. The third area, defining and writing our approach, however, is often a stumbling block in the proposal effort. Why? Because we are working with individuals for whom proposal writing is not a routine exercise. We may be also being working with inexperienced writers. Our writers may experience difficulty communicating about their areas of expertise in plain language. They may not understand how to write to an evaluation panel. As a result, we have to be proposal “dentists”—extracting the essentials of a task while also capturing benefits and evidence of our capabilities. The question is, can we make that extraction painless?

Extracting the Technical Approach

To avoid multiple re-writing efforts and increasing levels of frustration, I suggest using a set of questions to help technical writers identify what is needed in their response. These questions break into three topics — and when my writers respond to these questions, the technical response is on target. If a technical writer can’t get the ideas on paper, he or she can use these questions to interview the SME to capture the technical approach. I ask the following questions:

How are we going to do this work?

My team’s solution should be “feature rich” because the features and their associated client benefits become strengths the evaluators can identify and use to justify their scores. To accomplish this, my writers need to describe the specific steps, processes, procedures, etc. that will be used to achieve the client’s requirement. What resources are required to do this work? What is the schedule? What are the dependencies among tasks? Is there a true critical path?

Once the writers have answered these questions, I ask them to think in terms of steps, phases, inputs, and outputs. I ask them to describe exit/success criteria. I want to know the completion conditions for a step/task/process. In other words, what will be the result and what format will it take (report, presentation, data set to be used in another process)?

How will we review or quality check the result? Who will do that review? The client? An independent SME? Someone else on the team?

Finally, what are the risks to our approach and how will we mitigate those risks? Where have we demonstrated this mitigation approach successfully?

So What?

If we can show the client how to achieve his goals — what’s in it for him — he can embrace our solution.

So, now that we’ve extracted a detailed description of the required work from the writers, we need to get them to identify the benefits of their efforts. Features are nothing without benefits, so we need to clearly describe the benefits to the client given the features we are offering.

I ask my writers answer the following questions: How will you help the client achieve her goals? Why should the customer care about what we are offering? Have you described a better approach (faster, cheaper, repeatable/ tested)? Eliminated risk? Improved the likelihood of success? Demonstrated that your approach is differentiated from other potential offers?

Prove it.

Once I have the approach and the benefits, it’s time to prove that our approach works. We need to provide evidence of previous success, and we can often extract this information from our past performance documentation. We must answer two fundamental questions: Where has our approach worked before? What facts and metrics can we offer that objectively demonstrate that our approach works? We need to prove our case, so we must offer specifics about where, when, and for whom we employed this approach and what measureable results we achieved. We can do this by weaving in our past performance results, citing awards, or providing independent measures of effectiveness and performance. This is where I often use a case study to illustrate successful previous efforts.

As proposal managers, it’s our job to find ways to keep improving our processes. Technical extractions using the questions above can save significant time and energy — and the technical staff will be glad the dentist was in.