Industry experts’ proposal war stories and lessons learned – Part 1 of 4

We’ve all heard the war stories around the office coffee pot and at industry events and cringed, thinking, “Wow! I’ll make sure that NEVER happens to one of my proposal efforts.”

There are as many potential disasters waiting out there, however, as there are RFPs in the Cloud – and I’m sure we’d all rather learn from someone else’s horror story than become the originator of a classic ourselves!

I recently asked a number of my colleagues to share their favorite war stories – and tell us what they learned from the experience. Here is part 1 of my 4-part series on capture and proposal war stories.

  • I was in an organization that decided to bid on a job where we did not know the customer, the customer did not know us, a well-loved incumbent was in place, we only had a 75% solution for performing the job, and our solution was high-risk operationally. The bid process rocked the organization, resulting in massive dissension. The moral of the story is do not delude yourself. Put a bid qualification process in place that is objective, generates solutions that meet the customer’s business objectives, enables you to differentiate yourself from the competitors, and results in a high-quality proposal that can be produced on schedule within an acceptable levels of risk. –Brenda Crist, APMP Fellow and Principal Consultant at Lohfeld Consulting Group
  • Most memorable are the ones that involve inadequate advance planning. Here’s an example. While an Operations VP at JPL, our company decided to team with a small firm to meet the small business (SB) constraints. “Small” turned out to be an understatement. As prime, they insisted that they should prepare the proposal in their facility in Orange County, about 50 miles from the delivery office, although we had all necessary facilities within walking distance of the customer. Delivery day came and was met by a huge traffic jam on the freeways, a bank robbery near Pasadena, and a SNAFU in prime production. Their rep called us about 6 hours prior to the deadline and announced that, due to the traffic problems, they were hiring a helicopter to make the delivery. Our mission was to “find” a landing spot and remain in communication via then-primitive cell phone so as to meet and deliver the prop. We never heard from them again and couldn’t find an authorized landing spot. We missed the delivery deadline for the only time during my career of arriving on time at least 20 times. Moral: Plan ahead, keep it simple, and leave time for catastrophes. –Maury Sweetin, Capture Manager/Proposal Manager/Red Team Captain/Volume Lead, Lohfeld Consulting Group
  • I read a question submitted on a major procurement that had obviously been reviewed to death before it was submitted – obviously, because it contained parenthetical comments from reviewers, including the comment, “Who’s stupid requirement was this anyway?” The government provided a detailed response, including (in parentheses), “By the way, as the Contracting Officer, it was my stupid requirement.” Lesson learned: questions are only effective if properly posed – and carefully reviewed prior to submittal. –Randy Richter, President, Richter & Company
  • I once had a program manager from the Bronx named Tony. He had a thick accent and hired a speech pathologist to remove it before orals day. With more than $300M at stake, Tony did not think his accent would play well in Richmond, VA – which he considered the center of the deep south. It was his greatest weakness he told me. I was brought in late as an orals coach and immediately asked Tony to lose the speech pathologist and work with me to make his accent his greatest asset. It took some persuasion, but Tony agreed and additionally agreed to craft the first minute of his presentation and practice it daily 20 times. It went something like this in a very thick accent. “Hello, my name is Tony and I am from the Bronx, New York. I am the program manager and will be leading you through the next few days. The first thing I would like you to know is that my company has generously offered to provide translations services for anyone requiring them (said with an extra thick accent).” At that point, the reviewers began to roar with laughter and a few of them laughingly yelled out in deep southern accents, “You might need some this way too!” Everybody laughed. But more than that, over the next few days everybody tried their Bronx accent and their deep south accent – and others. It became the lighthearted introduction to any conversation on the stage and in the hallway. It became bigger than Tony, the company, the orals, and the solicitation – it was just good fun that brought people together. It was an unusual orals – 3 days long with over 50 reviewers in the room at any one time. Tony had done it. His company won the bid, and nobody will ever forget him. But, I got the real prize. I learned that perceived weaknesses are just that – perceived. They are not real and can even be used as strengths. It’s a choice – not a condition. –Ben Rowland, Orals Coach
  • “Deliver the car!” is best proposal story I know. Many years ago a proposal was being delivered in the trunk of a car. The delivery car was in an accident. With minutes remaining until delivery cutoff, the trunk was crushed closed and would not open. A frantic call to the boss was made. The boss exclaimed, “Deliver the car!” (In the end, the car trunk was forced open and the proposal was delivered on time.) I learned to always plan ahead, have a backup plan, and be flexible. –Mike Parkinson, Principal, 24 Hour Company (Note: Marilyn Moldovan shared this story with us at an APMP conference years ago – it’s become an industry classic! -Beth)

What war stories and lessons learned stand out in your mind? What would you share with someone new (or experienced) in the capture and proposal field? Send an email to me at with your lessons learned, and I’ll share your advice in upcoming posts!


author avatar
Lohfeld Consulting