Winning solutions begin with a winning proposal team

Crafting a winning solution is an intellectual challenge, but it is also a team challenge. No proposal is won by an “I”; all are won by a team. Yet no matter how many masterminds you assemble, the proposal team is often its own worst enemy.

As a proposal or capture manager, how many times have you thought you did everything right? You develop the win strategy, win themes and discriminators; shred, outline and storyboard the RFP; pick solid teaming partners and issue data calls; and assemble a team of experts to architect, write and review…only to result in a color team draft that offers a non-compelling or even non-compliant solution. With a proposal draft that does not reflect the winning vision, what happened?

Let’s step back from the proposal solution, and take a look at the team. Proposal teams are short-term, often hastily assembled, and face enormous time constraints. People cycle in and out (writers, solution architects, subject matter experts, reviewers). The team members typically offer diverse levels of understanding of the proposal process. Often, some members are remote, working another full-time job, and/or are at best reluctant participants. They may consider proposal work low priority and demonstrate a lack of commitment to the team. Team members might even show disrespect for the proposal or capture manager who is not their line boss. And finally, proposal teams often include teaming partner companies with their own agendas.

All of these issues could be worked out if you had more time, say six months or so. All teams go through five developmental stages that psychologist and educator Bruce Tuckerman identified decades ago:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing
  5. Adjourning

Organizational research tells us that three-fifths of team time is taken up by the first two stages. With a 30-day turnaround, that means your proposal team has only week and a half left to norm and perform.

The solution is to quickly advance through the first three stages to begin performing. Through lessons learned, organizational and group theory, and the school of hard knocks, I’ve developed some strategies to evolve to the performing stage more efficiently and start working on the winning solution.

1. Forming. In the forming stage, clarity and communications are paramount. The assumption is that you are already following best practice at kick-off, and providing a detailed opportunity overview, contact list, outline, assignments, writing templates, schedule, etc. How can you make communications more efficient? First, ensure the team is clear on the goal. Yes, our team wants to win, but why? Offer a comprehensive vision of what solutioning for this win means in terms of strategy, positioning, growth, profitability and jobs. Yes, the proposal must be compliant and compelling, but how do we define those terms? Often team members don’t ask questions because they don’t want to appear uninformed. Why is each team member here? Team members may not know each other. Share with the group each contributor’s experience, competencies, role and responsibilities.

Get off-line. During forming, avoid relying solely on team meetings. Spend time off-line with each team member to ensure understanding and answer questions privately while building rapport. Remember that during the forming stage, team members tend to be more polite and hesitant to voice opinions or ask questions. By conversing with each team member privately, you can encourage them to pose questions and raise any concerns. You can also better gauge their capabilities.

2. Storming. Storming is the most challenging stage, but it is necessary in order to proceed to the norming stage. Differing opinions can create conflicts that lead to anger, confusion, hurt feelings and/or frustration. Exercise authority. Keep team meetings to the point, within time constraints and follow the agenda, but do ask people to speak up and voice opinions. Respectfully acknowledge issues or conflicts raised and try to resolve them. Continue to remind everyone of the end goal and the need to advocate for the win. Avoid getting defensive or taking it personally when team members express frustration or anger. If team members continue fighting and/or straying off topic, call them on it. Create a parking lot for their issues, and address them off-line, one-on-one. In other words, circumvent the team as needed.

Don’t get stuck in storming. You don’t have the luxury of time to work through storming at a leisurely pace. Therefore, apply an Agile, iterative approach to proposal development. Require contributors (individuals or small groups) to submit their assignments daily in small increments so you can provide feedback and coach them as needed. If you see a way another team member can help with the solution, get them involved. In other words, use storming as the pathway to continuously clarify and build a stronger team.

3. Norming. Norming is when the team members start to become comfortable with their individual roles as part of the group. You’ve helped them progress by confronting issues, clarifying questions and coaching poor or struggling performers. Continue to require frequent iterations of work products. Use praise and constructive, actionable criticism as needed. Quite often, some team members may refuse to norm. You may have to remove them from the team if they are disrupting progress.

Anticipate regression. Be aware that as team members cycle out (after completing a writing assignment) and cycle in (as reviewers), the team may regress back to storming. You need to apply the same method of working one-on-one with new team members, coaching and clarifying issues to develop the solution. You also need to gather feedback and lessons learned from the exiting members.

4. Performing. During the performing stage, the team becomes more self-directed. As new members cycle in or out, the team is less likely to regress back to storming. Continue to be fair, decisive, in control and demanding. Ensure the proposal products are on schedule, compliant and compelling, and redirect the team if they are moving off course.

Exploit strengths and weaknesses: As the team is now a cohesive unit, the proposal team members better understand each other’s competencies. Ensure the team is exploiting these – in other words, if someone is better at reviewing the solution than writing, switch roles. If someone isn’t adept at using Word templates, tell them not to waste time making the proposal pretty. Assign work based on competencies so everyone is performing at their peak.

5. Adjourning. Once the proposal is submitted, remember to thank team members for their contributions. Part of your lessons learned process includes gathering feedback from each contributor as well as assessing each team member’s performance to use in the future when building proposal teams.  This assessment also includes subcontractor teaming partners. Record lessons learned on how well the techniques described above work. These ideas sound easy, but are often difficult to practice and require repeated proposal efforts to perfect.

Don’t forget the team after submission. Remember to inform all team members of the bid outcome. And of course, invite the entire capture and proposal team to the win party!

by Lisa Pafe (originally published in APMP-NCA Executive Summary, Fall 2012)

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Lohfeld Consulting