Proposal Managers are excellent problem solvers and all-round magicians. We make the seemingly impossible a reality through careful consideration, attention to detail and an understanding of our customer’s needs. This is achieved through making thousands of decisions from minor ones to those impacting our chances of winning the opportunity. This is where decision fatigue can emerge, particularly when managing large, complex proposals with a long list of client deliverables and a short period of time to address them (that’s what we do, right?!).
Decision fatigue has been widely researched and can be explained as having difficulty in making good decisions as a result of the number of decisions you need to make. It has been estimated by a number of sources that the average person makes over 35,000 decisions a day, many of them are automatic but some require some serious thought and brain power to work through. In the context of managing proposals, it is not necessarily only the number of decisions you’re making but the interdependencies that exist within major proposals and how some decisions can have a knock-on effect to other areas of your submission. Add a busy personal life to the mix alongside a particularly large and complex proposal (or two!) and you have a recipe for decision fatigue.
Performance can be affected by decision fatigue, particularly after an intense period of decision making, your ability to make good decisions reduce. Another potential risk with decision fatigue is that you avoid making the decision altogether which in a time constrained environment, which will create even more pressure to reach a decision. Here’s a few things that have worked for me when managing large and complex, major proposals:
Agree the plan before the bid comes out (and stick to it): As part of the capture planning activities with your sales team, bottom out as many of the key decisions that will affect the proposal as early as possible. To achieve value from this exercise, it’s important that these decisions are signed off so that the plan does not deviate once the pursuit is ‘live’ (unless there is a client led reason).
Follow the process and document key decisions: Proposal processes are there to make our lives easier – they give us a clear framework to follow and reduce the need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and make unnecessary decisions. Alongside this, as part of your bid team meetings, document key decisions and the reason for taking them. It’s amazing the number of twists and turns that occur in a two-month proposal programme and it is easy to forget the rationale behind decisions. This will act as a good reference point when you’re questioning why you’ve chosen a particular approach.
Fail fast: If there’s anything you are uncertain about when trying out new ideas, fast track a prototype of your idea and submit it to your review team as part of an early review. For example, if you want to explore a layout idea for the submission or a new way of presenting key information, submit an example to your review team for early feedback.
Identify a listening ear: The best way to come to a decision on a complex matter is to talk it through. Do you know a fellow Proposal Manager that you can call as a sounding board? You often come to a decision yourself, simply by being able to discuss the relative merits of different options.
Delegate some of the decision making: You’re working with a talented team so share some of the decision making. Set out a vision for what you want to achieve and give your team member the opportunity to identify their own solution. Proposal Managers take their responsibility seriously and sometimes find it hard to let go of the decision making but delegating is key to supporting the development of your team and using your time effectively.
Big decisions agreed at the start of the day or start of a meeting: Over the course of the day our ability to make good decisions becomes more difficult. Agree to make important decisions at the start of the day or beginning of a meeting. In terms of review meetings, these big decisions could be overarching principles that affect all of the quality responses. Identify the ‘big’ trends that are coming from the review team and discuss them in an early agenda item in the meeting.
Prepare yourself for the final few days before submission: The finalisation of a proposal takes a lot of mental energy and a constant review of the decisions that you’ve made earlier in the proposal process. The final few days of the programme often become a crunch point for ironing out issues and taking a final decision. In preparation for these busy periods, minimise the decision making you need to make in other areas of your life, Mark Zuckerberg famously wears the same t-shirt every day so that he can focus his decision making on more important things. See decision making as a finite resource and try to conserve this for key decisions.
Take a break: Above all, take a break. Regular breaks from work and ‘thinking’ are good for your wellbeing and decision making. Decisions are often made after time away from the topic and focusing on something else. Even on a busy day of meetings, take half an hour for a walk and get away from your desk, it’s amazing what decisions you come to when you’re not overthinking it!
Hannah is a Pursuit Director for Arcadis, leading major pursuits for their Mobility business. She has worked for a variety of global engineering consultancies over the last 17 years, this has included 10 years of experience in securing major pursuits in the highways sector.