How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 1
I have written proposals for over 35 years.
It started in 1977 when I graduated from university and landed a job working for the Danish government.
I was very fortunate in getting a job where I had to prepare memos for the Secretary of Employment.
My boss was a talented writer himself and also a seasoned civil servant. None of my drafts got anywhere before they had been through his experienced hands. I learned a lot from him as he took the time to correct my errors and mistakes. I am still impressed by and grateful for his patience.
None of my drafts went uncorrected. Back and forth several times.
It was before the days of computers, word processors, email and communication networks. We wrote long hand. Then we passed our drafts to the secretaries for typing. Then it went to the boss. Then back to us. Then to the secretaries. Then to the boss. Then back to us. Then to the secretaries. Then through the boss to his boss. Then back and forth a few times. Then to the Secretary of Employment.
Sometimes we didn’t have the time required for this refinement and had to make shortcuts. So we did and then we made mistakes. A process that vets out all the mistakes is long, time-consuming and expensive.
One of the most challenging jobs was writing “Tarzan Briefings.” A “Tarzan Briefing” is presenting a situation and the appropriate response on a single page. The “Tarzan Briefing” was used when the Secretary of Employment had to rush completely unprepared to a meeting on a certain subject. The “Tarzan Briefing” was supposed to give him enough ammunition to survive the meeting in the 15 minutes it took him getting from where he was to the new meeting location. Under no circumstances should the information provided get him into more trouble.
“Primum non nocere.”
I must have had a gift for writing because after one year of writing one-page Tarzan Briefings I was asked to prepare speeches.
Writing speeches for someone else is a challenge. Writing political speeches for someone with whom you do not share political views is a huge challenge. However, that is the tradition of the Danish civil service. We do this to support our political leaders in the pursuit of their political ambitions and we suppress our own points of view. We challenge internally, but we remain loyal in our support of the Secretary’s political strategy.
Transforming from a civil servant to a business man
Then I became a salesman with Control Data Corporation. Selling mainframes and bespoke software development always required highly customized proposal development processes. My advantage was that I knew very little about computers and programming. I had to rely on other people’s input. My focus was on the business value and how to mitigate the risk. It was my job to translate all those technical details into business benefits. Our proposals always had an Executive Summary without any technical details, but that entirely focussed on the investment seen from the customers’ perspective. We always delivered the Executive Summary as a separate document and there were always tables and illustrations conveying the most important concepts and messages.
I now realized the advantage I had in proposal writing. It was never about me. It was always about the customers. What does the customer need and how do we deliver that, mitigating the risk of failure? How can we summarize this in the briefest way possible?
From sales to management consulting
When I started as a business angel and management consultant in 2003, I brought along what I considered my excellent proposal writing skills. I also brought along my vast experience with international business development and the 360-degree experience from being a CEO.
Although I thought my proposals outstanding I lost too many.
This series of posts will explain what I found out and what I did to fix it.
Moving too fast
When you move from being a CEO or from some other executive position to management consulting you will have to let go of your idiosyncrasies. As an executive, I was a “getting things done” type of person. I was very fast at making decisions and always prepared to change them if they were wrong. I was not a corporate eagle and political master mind. I was the entrepreneurial type kicking tires and moving fast. I trust my instincts and intuition. Sometimes I am wrong. Fix it and move on.
When I started out as a management consultant and was with potential clients, I assumed that they wanted to deal with their issues today rather than tomorrow.
I was wrong.
Being very experienced and, usually, older than your potential clients gives you the ability to analyze situations fast. Very often much faster than your potential clients.
That is dangerous. Clients get overwhelmed and sometimes even scared. Some of them probably also felt that I was trying to boss them about (which I probably was).
I needed to slow down and take more time qualifying the opportunities and to wait for the client to come to their own conclusions.
I made too many proposals for situations that were not yet mature enough for a decision. Not because there was “no fire on the oil rig,” but because the fire wasn’t burning wildly enough and the client found that there was still time to consider if this particular issue was really more important than other pressing issues. All CEOs always have many pressing issues.
I learned what I now call Bech’s 3rd law:
“If doing nothing is acceptable, then “doing nothing” will be done.”
Proposals are the last thing you do
I had to learn that the speed is decided by the client, not by me. Maybe I can see a huge problem or a great opportunity, but that doesn’t matter. I learned to work with the client at his pace and I learned to be patient.
“Take your time Mr. or Ms. Client – it is your business.”
Unless the client can see a devastating fire then there is no fire.
What I also learned is that what clients want is seldom what clients need.
There is no need to engage in a consulting project unless we can measure the achievements. Undertaking research, writing reports and facilitating workshops are meaningless unless they are steps in a process delivering measurable results.
Thank you, Alan Weiss
The proposal is the very last thing you do.
There are a number of phases you have to work through first.
We will cover each phase in the next posts in this series.
To be continued
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 2
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 3
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 4
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 5
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 6
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 7
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 8
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 9
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 10
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 11
How to Deliver Winning Proposals – Part 12