5 Critical Proposal Skills Problems – And Fixes

  |  March 8, 2018

Tom Porter

Note: The author addresses this question based on 25 years experience managing division- and sector-level proposal groups for Fortune 500 companies.

A few years ago, I was asked what skills are needed from Proposal Managers and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to prepare winning proposals. I responded as follows:

• Critical Solution Development

• Detail-oriented – to address every requirement in Sections L and M

• Ability to Communicate

• Ability to Write

• Team Focus – to own your responsibilities and follow instructions

Decline in Skills

These are the key skills that help managers and authors prepare winning proposals. Over the past ten years, it seems that new proposal contributors are displaying less skill in these areas. It shows up in Pink/Red Team reviews, where we find more frequent missing sections, excessive parroting, immature solutions, and inconsistencies across related sections. Even the reviewers are less skilled, as they fail to focus on issues important to the Government evaluators.

Reasons for the Decline

Why are the skills eroding?  We can blame some of it on competition and budget pressures. The rise in Low Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) acquisitions lessened the pressure on companies to develop strong technical solutions, and increased the pressure to lower overheads, both of which resulted in smaller proposal organizations and less emphasis on internal training.

How to Rebuild the Skills

Rebuilding proposal skill sets will involve all of the elements below:

Managing Career Progression. Proposal Management requires more than just facilitation and schedule control. Too often our proposal managers are “process police,” when we need them to be “process enablers” – training SMEs and authors to identify requirements, mature solutions, develop graphics and narratives that score well, and prepare authors to function in proposal rooms, both virtual and real. We need to groom proposal managers through relevant lower assignments (e.g., author and book boss), mentorships, and internal/external training, including certificate programs now available through local colleges and the APMP.

Training and Coaching Authors. The education community has learned over the past fifteen years that on-line training, although convenient, does not completely replicate the effectiveness of classroom approaches. As a result, many schools are implementing Blended Learning, to combine on-line and traditional teaching methods. They have also advanced Project-Based Learning (PBL), to develop skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, communication, collaboration, and self-management. We can also do the same for proposals, with blended learning provided to upcoming capture teams. For example, a few years ago, I managed the capture and proposal efforts for a Navy acquisition that included a typical technical/management proposal, followed by an orals presentation. The Government required that only key personnel would participate in the orals, and they would: (1) be provided a set of relevant technical scenario questions in the morning, (2) be sent to a conference room with no phones or computers to develop scenario solutions, armed only with blank flip charts and markers, and (3) present the solutions to a Government evaluation panel in the late afternoon.

To prepare our orals team, we first trained them using the typical orals coaching techniques for analyzing requirements, building presentation materials, and practicing presentation delivery.  But we also spent a number of days using PBL techniques to practice the entire process with sample scenario questions based on the RFP Performance Work Statement. The first trial run was painful, but they started to learn how important it was to understand each participant’s strengths (not the least of which was who could neatly print organized thoughts on a flip chart), break down the scenario questions into manageable sub-topics, build discriminators into the solution details, and manage the time allotted to the full process. They completed three trial runs, each concluding with a presentation to a Red Team to mimic the Government’s evaluation panel.

Adhering to the Process. Company leadership and line/functional management must promote, require, encourage, and/or incentivize all proposal participants to follow documented proposal processes, directions, and milestones. It only takes one author deviating from the process to cause requirement gaps, inconsistent sections, or overall weak responses.

Adapting to the Mobile World. Virtual meetings and shared folder infrastructures have made remote, dispersed teams more the norm. And since most people today are reasonably fluent in Microsoft Word and SharePoint, some managers assume that SMEs and authors only need brief orientations and minimal tracking to contribute to the proposal process. But conducting tag-up status meetings or delivering PowerPoint training slides with a remote, faceless group is a very different paradigm, with authors becoming more of an audience and less of an engaged team. Affordable collaboration tools are available that enable active meeting facilitation, participation, and dialogue.

Get Ready. The pendulum will swing back, and Government acquisitions will start to focus on stronger definitions of technical acceptability, or more frequent use of technical/cost trade-offs.  Our proposal leaders need to be ready, and to be the catalysts for developing skills and managing processes suited to today’s workforce.


    Traci Birdsell

    Great article and I totally agree. Proposal Managers need to be more than Process Police. We have work d with Proposal Managers that don’t write at all or even know how to use MS Word.