Color Outside the Lines: Departure from Proposal Tradition
April 8, 2019
Who de nes the “best” in best prac ce? How long is a best prac ce appropriate? Should professionals con nue to embrace the virtues of business tradi ons without challenging their validity and applicability? Taking me to ask these ques ons will yield answers that reveal underlying assump ons and provide the opportunity for business development professionals to evolve and nd new ways to more meaningfully connect with customers during the capture and proposal processes.
As people, we are inundated or indoctrinated in cultural Dos and Don’ts; this repe on of expected norms and prac ces o en led us to inherently believe these messages and instruc ons re ect true, unchangeable principles. As a child, did you ever ask the ques on “why” and the answer was “because I said so” or “that’s just the way it is”? Perhaps that cultural response set the stage for us to just accept the status quo.
This tendency persists in our homes and families, learning ins tu ons at all levels, faith-based organiza ons, and yes, even in business. In business, some of us were taught “if it ain’t broke, don’t x it.” However, successful, innovators ip that conven onal wisdom and instead say “if it ain’t broke, break it.” To evolve and grow, these pioneers closely examine “tried and true” prac ces, reverse engineer them, and seek aws or opportuni es for improvements. Innova ve people don’t se le for the current situa on or condi on. Rather, they challenge and change it, or at least try. When presented with a set of “rules”, they skillfully non-conform, not to be de ant, but rather to seek a di erent and hopefully be er approach.
As a child, were you ever presented with a coloring book and told “be sure to color within the lines?” Were you able to follow those instruc ons? The results likely varied depending on several poten al factors (e.g., age, maturity, ability, dexterity, etc.), but for you crea ve, innate “free thinkers,” you preferred developing your own art rather than a predictable image within the constraints of the line drawing. Art is a subjec ve pleasure. Some prefer a more tradi onal canvas, while others prefer art that experiments with new ways of seeing and with fresh ideas.
To enable change, we must not be afraid to ques on, challenge or at least reconsider the ideals of tradi on or normalcy. Hence, as proposal professionals, we should consider the merits of “coloring outside the lines.”
Virtues of Traditon
Things done again and again just because someone, somewhere along the line, started it and we choose to continue it, is the very de ni on of tradition. Rou ne and schedule-oriented people or organizations cherish traditions because they ease the planning process, create a sense of accomplishment, and provide a perception of order.
Traditions are important because they include our best knowledge (best prac ces) garnered over a period of months or years. There’s good reason organiza ons rely on traditional methodologies: when they’re created and executed well, they can produce an cipated and repeatable results.
However, reliance on tradition has some inherent risk. Investment companies o en add a disclaimer like the following: “No information, forward looking statements, or es ma ons presented herein represent any nal determination on investment performance.” Likewise, carrying out traditions that have worked before does not guarantee future performance.
Drawbacks of Tradition
Maintaining the existing state of a airs, while comfortable and easy, can lead to complacency and even poses a risk to your business. For example, if your proposal stresses the processes you have always followed, the customer may perceive your solu on as unimagina ve, priori zing legacy success over originality, innova on, and value. This risk must be assessed periodically to ensure your company’s posi on con nues to outpace the compe on, and equally as important, that your own company con nues to drive to remain relevant and not rest on its laurels. If your company has enjoyed success, it might seem reasonable to ask, “Why change a winning formula?” Well, the answer is simple: you are not the only variable in the formula.
Failure to reimagine your company’s brand based on the changing market dynamics tends to shape a narra ve that is predictable, unoriginal, and trite. This obviously puts you in an unfavorable posi on. Presen ng a solu on that preserves the status quo without evalua on can render your solu on irrelevant as it can result in a proposal that fails to present a value proposi on needed to demonstrate your company’s ability to address the customer’s needs.
Merits of Moderniza on
Moderniza on requires discipline, pa ence, and constancy of purpose. However, those more systema c a ributes, coupled with novel cogni on, trigger a culture of thinking di erently, unconven onally, or from a new perspec ve and supports the “Color Outside the Lines” concept.
Because of proposal management’s unique, adjunct role as in the overall business development func on in Business to Business (B2B) and Business to Government (B2G) organiza ons, moderniza on is impera ve to evolve core processes or methods to meet the needs of an increasingly more progressive market. For most organiza ons today, proposal management is the backbone of sales opera ons and cri cal to the business development structure.
To that end, the proposal management func on needs to think of itself (and be perceived as) an investment that enhances the e ec veness of the en re organiza on, not simply a func on to maintain some adequate, consistent level of support. If improvement of the business processes is considered a return on that investment, then the organiza on has a choice: maintain a current level of e ec veness or enhance/accelerate the rate of change. By con nually focusing on enhancing the business rather than simply maintaining it, business development func ons are encouraged to improve by adop ng a more customer-centric focus on their unique needs.
An essen al func on of the organiza on, business development’s proposal core competency supported by proposal management is to win business by ul mately making their customers successful. Of course, an integral element of making this happen is for the business development team to be er understand the dynamics of the market it serves. It needs to know the processes, speak the vernacular—feel the pain of their customers. Once we see the processes through the customers’ lens, then we must combine that view with an approach that addresses their needs in an innova ve and compelling way.
Depart from Conven onal Proposal Wisdom
Inject Emo on into the Prose
In a procurement world that has highly sophis cated processes and buying professionals, one would think that logic and ra onale would prevail as the leading factors in the selec on of a product or service. The assump on being that most choices are made based on a thorough analysis of the available alterna ves. This presump on is par cularly true when highly technological solu ons are evaluated.
“The reality is emotions greatly in uence and, in many cases, even determine decisions. In fact, a study performed by the CEB in 2014 which examined the impact of personal emotions on B2B purchases found that nearly 50% of buyers who see a personal value in a B2B purchase will end up buying the product or service, and 8x more likely to pay a premium.”
Despite a buyer’s best e orts to remain neutral in the interests of the company/agency and the end-user community the product or service bene ts, they allow their personal feelings to enter the selec on process and in uence purchases. For the seller or bidder responding to an RFP, the focus must be on telling a story that resonates with the buyer on a personal level, within the organiza onal restraints imposed by the RFP instruc ons. Connec ng with people makes a posi ve impact and more likely leads to a sale.
There is no shortage of proposal thought leadership that focuses on the virtues of accentua ng solu on features and bene ts. To appeal to their emo on, however, the emphasis must be in skillfully linking customer bene ts to di eren a ng features that ma er to the customer. How will the solu on ease their pain, enhance their capability, reduce cost, etc.? To take it a step further, iden fy the opera onal impact that they will experience by selec ng your company and its solu on. How will your solu on a ect the day-to-day opera ons? How will you make their job easier, be er, etc.? As always, it’s best to substan ate your claim with salient examples or stats to bolster your case. Demonstra ng that you truly understand the thoughts, needs, and circumstances facing your customer can foster an emo onal connec on with the reader.
Insert Personality into Your Proposal
“When it comes right down to it, a proposal is an interaction created by people to convey a message to other people.”
Every company should have a set of characteris cs that express the human aspects of their brand, with which the customer can relate. A successful brand ampli es its personality with behaviors that resonate with the customer or industry segment. These behaviors may vary between government to commercial customers. In fact, behavior nuances may apply within the government sector—defense vs. civilian agencies, or federal and state customers. From a proposal perspec ve, this considera on helps an organiza on shape the way people feel about them as a company; their products, services or mission, and elicits a posi ve emo onal response that help weight the evalua on scale in their favor.
It is prudent to weigh all poten al changes against the culture of the market and certainly adhere to the RFP instruc ons. That said, as an organiza on, you may want to convey a style that accentuates your unique brand. For example, you may want to exhibit that you’re easy to work with—that your style is collabora ve and a able. To display these traits, you must decide to present your proposal in a strictly business style or a adopt a more casual approach. Table 1 displays some ideas to portray your company as a people-oriented organiza on and conveys relatable experience.
|Conven onal Wisdom||Non-tradi onal Approach|
|Contractions||Business wri ng guidance typically suggests that contrac ons (e.g., do not, we will, you are, etc.) should not be used. Presents a formal, conserva ve, and perhaps smug bidder||• Contrac onusageismoreconversa onaland less formal; more personable/relatable
• Depictsacomfortable,relaxed,familiar partner
|Company name||Using your company name inherently makes the proposal appear redundant, self-centered, uninteres ng, monotonous, uninspiring, an quated, passé, dated||• Toachieveacustomer-centricproposal,your company name should be used considerably less than the customer name
• Usepersonalpronounstohelpsentences ow more smoothly and make them easier to read
|Titles (Mr/Ms)||Referring to company employees with tle pre x creates a formal proposal atmosphere and could in uence the formal post-award rela onship.||• Using rstandlastnamesinthe rstinstance and rst name therea er produces an informal, coopera ve rapport|
|Risk||Discussing risks highlight vulnerabili es and could defeat the pseudo “safe choice” strategy||• Weavinginappropriateriskwithassociated mi ga on discussion throughout the proposal demonstrates realism, experience, and maturity
• Calloutriskexamplesandlessonslearned during other like programs to demonstrate past performance.
|Resumes||Simply presen ng a sta c, chronology of per- sonnel quali ca on maybe adequate but not compelling||• Considerresumesasastrategic,winningtool that clearly communicates a laser-focused messaging to reach the target audience
• Tailorresumestoaddressspeci ccapabili es de ned in the RFP
• UseRFP“buzz”wordstoclearlycommunicate relevant experience
• Whenplausiblemakethemappealing,even graphical (experience dashboard; infographic)
To meet the sundry preferences of a diverse popula on, renowned ar sts such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Klee, Alma Thomas, and Elaine de Kooning chose to exercise their crea vity and unsubscribe to the accepted standards of tradi onal art, o ering humanity an art category that was once inconceivable and following its introduc on became cherished by many—abstract art. This example leads us back to the original premise of this ar cle—color outside the lines. A person’s art style is a ma er of choice; if you like tradi onal or abstract art, both are art nonetheless. As proposal professionals, we need to ques on how we are and want to be perceived and then choose the approach and style that aligns with our industry and especially our customers and causes our company to stand part from the compe on.
Alan L. Lewis, CF APMP, is the Senior Proposal Manager at Envistacom, LLC. He has more than 25 years of pursuit management, process development and improvement, and marke ng communica ons experience in the public and private sectors. Alan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.