“Incumbent-itis”: How to Avoid Losing your Federal Proposal Recompete

  |  August 28, 2019

Theoretically the incumbent should be in an unstoppable position.  They know the job best.  They know the customer personnel on a first-name basis.  They know where the problems lie.  And they should have deep insight into what the customer wants to see in the next phase of the program.

Yet in real life, many incumbents face an up-hill battle.  I am always amazed to see how many lose the competition.  The number one reason for losing I have seen is, for lack of a better word, “incumbent-itis”.  Below I will discuss the three most common forms this disease can take.

Complacent Attitude

Although they should know better, the incumbents I have seen are complacent a majority of the time.  They lull themselves into feeling secure because they know the program so well.  They think, “those guys couldn’t possibly work this program without us.”  Because of the almost unavoidable tendency to overestimate the strength of their position, they fail to budget enough resources to prepare the winning proposal.  As a result, they run the risk of losing a valuable contract to a competitor who took the proposal process seriously.

Failure to use a Good Proposal Process

Because they know the program so well, incumbents often think they can short change the proposal process – to just write the proposal by the “seat of their pants” method.  Bidders who do this are courting disaster.  A few of the steps they will want to use if they are really determined to win are as follows:

  1. Use a capture plan that lays out a compelling strategy or “story” to guide in the preparation of the winning proposal.  I am amazed to see how many – even large companies — do not prepare a strong capture plan.  Such a plan provides an efficient solution to problems; lays out a compelling technical approach; provides an efficient service strategy; corrects any staffing deficiencies and offers a pricing approach responsive to the realities of the next program phase.
  2. Use a proposal management process that can organize and guide the team in providing highly responsive answers to all RFP requirements.  This must include a reliable method for developing proposal answers providing features and benefits the customer likes in all sections of the proposal.
  3. Provide training for in-house proposal team members.  This is not going to make the company personnel into overnight proposal professionals.  But it can give them enough added insight to significantly improve the quality of the proposal.
  4. Use a proposal process in which seasoned proposal writers assist the subject matter experts in drafting proposal sections that can score maximum points in the proposal evaluation.  The importance of this phase can not be over emphasized.  This is because, in the average proposal competition, the winner is separated from the loser by less than one (1) evaluation point.  Therefore, it is incumbent on the serious bidder to write each proposal section in a highly responsive manner.
  5. Perform a Competition Analysis.  In today’s market an incumbent planning to win a contract needs to generate enough competitor information to avoid getting blind-sided.  This involves estimating what solution / price will be needed to beat the competition.  This usually requires engaging a qualified consultant to conduct a Price-to-Win (PTW) analysis or the more rigorous Competitive Analysis.
  6. Perform a Red Team review supported by fresh and expert reviewers.  To win, your Red Team reviewers need to receive a mandate from the CEO to be merciless in finding all flaws needing to be corrected.

Failure to Staff the Proposal Adequately

Probably the most common symptom of “incumbent-itis” is the failure to assign adequate staff to the proposal effort.  Overconfident companies mistakenly believe their position is so strong they do not have to put many resources into the proposal team.  The worst problem I have seen is to assign personnel who don’t have proposal experience to serve as proposal writers.  Thinking that anyone who knows the subject matter can write a proposal section, they will assign whoever is currently “on the bench” to the proposal team.  This can be a devastating mistake, because personnel who do not have several years of proposal writing experience usually can not write a proposal section that will score well in the proposal evaluation.

It is usually the case that, even good writers who lack proposal experience can not write a proposal section that scores well.  This is because preparing a proposal section is a unique type of writing.  The writer is not just writing a discursive essay.  Instead he or she must use a challenging process that includes the following:

  1. Determine what is the requirement
  2. Find evidence that demonstrates the company can perform that requirement in an excellent manner
  3. Fold in the “win themes”
  4. Be sure to emphasize features and benefits of the solution that are attractive to the customer

Unfortunately, personnel who are not seasoned proposal writers rarely can do this type of “pitchy” writing in a way that scores evaluation points.

The common solution to this problem is for the bidder company to employ professional proposal writer consultants.  The consultants are then mated with the subject matter experts (SMEs) in the company.  And together the SMEs and the proposal writers can cooperate in successfully preparing proposal sections that score maximum points.  How they do this varies widely, depending on the skill sets of the different individuals.  The proposal writer can help the SME with the outline; the proposal writer can interview the SME and write his or her section; or the proposal writer can iterate draft sections back and forth with the SME until they are good.

Conclusion

“Incumbent-itis” is a really unfortunate problem, because it is a problem that doesn’t have to happen.  Any incumbent who fails to take the competition very seriously has to take full responsibility for losing the contract.  When it comes time to pin the blame on someone, they just need to look in the mirror.

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