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Sometimes in the proposal world, we pursuit managers must make tough decisions about how to best spend resources preparing written content before the RFP is released — in some cases, with only a vague idea of what the final requirements will be. If you’ve got a long lead time on your proposal — six months, a year, maybe even a full 18 months — it can seem like you have all the time in the world to refine your solution, draft project sheets, develop compelling win themes and write your approach.
What’s the best way to go about that in those cases where you don’t know how the solicitation will look? Especially when you’re the incumbent on a re-compete, the temptation to write the whole proposal based on your assumptions about the RFP may be strong, but there is a good chance the requirements could be different when government finally releases a solicitation.
If you instruct authors to begin writing, you risk committing to content that you’ll have to shoehorn in or entirely discard. As the captain of the ship, the proposal manager must chart the best course, and sometimes that means making the decision not to write.
But that doesn’t mean doing nothing! You can capitalize on your long lead without wasting B&P dollars. Let’s look at some options that will give your capture team confidence that you’ll be prepared when the RFP drops.
Everything But The…
Even though you may not know the exact specifications your RFP will include, you can make some safe assumptions about the major sections that might be asked for. Relevant experience, key personnel and quality management are standard sections in almost all solicitations. Previous RFPs from the same client are one of your most valuable resources here. What evaluation criteria have been used in other solicitation in recent months? What major sections were required? Take some of your long lead time to research previous RFPs, not just the one from five years ago (the last time you bid on this requirement, if it’s a re-compete). A lot can change in that amount of time.
Armed with that knowledge, you can instruct authors to begin writing “safe bet” sections, freeing their time to focus on the technical approach once the RFP is released and making the most of your time on deadline.
Outlines and Storyboards
If the team feels strongly that everything needs to be drafted in advance of the RFP release, consider having them create outlines and/or storyboards of the sections you think will be asked for. This avoids having anyone commit to writing pages and pages, and gives you a solid foundation to work from once you’re on a live deadline.
Outlines and storyboards are useful tools to give everyone a sense of what you’re going to say and how it will eventually look on a page. It will encourage your authors to think about and refine the solution they’re offering without falling in love with specific content. If you’ve collected previous RFPs and have a sense of the client’s font, margin and page count restrictions, a storyboard gives your team a chance to brainstorm graphics that will fit within the available real estate.
Some bid and proposal professionals feel strongly about writing the executive summary first, and this can be a useful strategy. Writing an executive summary, even if you may not be able to include it in the final proposal, can give the team confidence in their understanding of the solution and messaging. Aim to sum up everything in a page or two. And then let it be. Perhaps you use the executive summary to brief senior leadership on your proposed approach and win themes.
You should revisit your executive summary when you receive new intel about the pursuit to validate that your solution is still responsive to client needs and that your messaging will resonate with evaluators. Once the solicitation drops, the executive summary can serve as a blueprint for the larger proposal.
A Hybrid Approach
Another strategy is to develop a repository of proposal material that you and your team can slice and dice into a proposal when you have the final RFP in hand. This shouldn’t be boilerplate (or not only boilerplate). You can strike a balance between tailored and general material, pulling from previous proposals, writing small amounts of new material and outlining to develop a rough sketch of a proposal that can be easily pulled together on solicitation release. Base your section outlines on the draft scope of work, draft RFP or previous client solicitations.
This can give authors a lot to work on in the months leading up to a solicitation release. The idea is to throw everything possible at the wall, and then wait to see what sticks, which may be favorable in situations with a high degree of uncertainty about procurement strategy.
Pre-Solicitation Color Teams
Regardless of which strategy you opt for, a pre-RFP proposal review is the next logical step. This gives your team a chance to get some perspective on what they’ve been working on and validate your efforts. If the pre-RFP review team doesn’t think the team is on the right track, you can easily pivot to another strategy without feeling like you have wasted a ton of effort writing material that’s never going to see the light of day.
Stick to Your Convictions
Not writing in advance can be a hard sell. Some feel that when you have a long lead, you should be able to write the whole proposal and be ready for an advanced draft review by the time the RFP is released. But as we all know, every proposal is different, and as capture, pursuit or proposal managers, we must be willing to acknowledge when we don’t know what we don’t know. Besides being caught unawares by a solicitation, the worst-case scenario is having a lot of written material that is completely unusable because the requirements turned out to be vastly different from what was assumed over the course of the long lead process. Bring your team suggestions for an alternate plan and go forward with confidence that you’re both getting prepared and staying flexible.
Jennifer Patton, CF APMP, has more than nine years of experience in proposal development. She is a federal capture manager at Dewberry, where she leads the full lifecycle of capture efforts for federal clients, with a specific focus on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Connect with her on LinkedIn.