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The sessions at the 2018 Bid & Proposal Con follow four main tracks: leadership and professional development, managing processes, win the business, and tools/tech. Highlights from a few of the sessions on May 18 are below.
Mastering the Work of Managing a Portfolio of Proposals
“You get trained well on how to win a single proposal. But the reality is we’re all managing, or working on, multiple proposals,” said William Rogers, Vice President and Chief Workplace Architect at R3 Business Solutions LLC.
Managing multiple proposals comes down to being or having an effective and efficient project manager, said Betsy Blakney, Director of Proposal Management at CACI, Inc. The project manager is looking for the right balance of resource allocation, using the team and sometimes bringing in consultants.
For Gillian Dionne, Director of Proposals at General Dynamics Information Technology, it comes down to knowledge management: Figuring out what information matters to what you’re doing right now, making sure that information is current, and being able to find it easily.
You need to have up-to-date software, hardware, and systems agreed Beth Wingate, President at Lohfeld Consulting Group, Inc., and your resources should also be readily accessible and easily searchable. She added that commitment and support from your IT department is key to achieving this. And the leader of the group needs to be able to write up a list of what their team needs and be able to fight to get it.
Tracking schedules with a master calendar was an important method, although the tracking tool itself didn’t matter. Kristin Dufrene, Vice President of Proposal Development at Vencore, Inc., likes to set up a report in CRM and pull it weekly, keeping an eye on the pipeline 120 days out and talking with proposal managers about projects three months out with an awareness of what the next six months would look like. Blakney prefers to use an Excel spreadsheet, color coded for each person, and she checked it daily to stay on top of what everyone was working on at any given moment especially as they work on multiple bids. She advised starting with the end date of a project and scheduling backwards. By doing this with each project, you can start to see where the gaps and major conflicts lie.
The consensus was that there needs to be one point person who’s in charge of scheduling, possibly with a second back up, so there aren’t issues with calendar version control as things changes. Dufrene plans to tackle 70% of projects with her team and 30% with consultants, understanding that there would be drop-offs and pop-ups. She’s in the federal world, so the schedule shifts constantly and it’s never exactly clear when things are going to hit. The tricky part was maintaining the delicate balance of figuring out which proposals to send to a consultant and when, but it helps to know where collisions will happen as a start. She keeps a master calendar in SharePoint, and she can invite a particular color review to the calendar via Outlook. To that point, Wingate suggested clearly documenting where information is housed so that if there is a change on the team, the new person can get briefed. Everyone should understand the big pictures and how everyone works so someone can easily take over from someone else.
Prompted by audience questions, panelists had a conversation about processes on both ends of the spectrum: getting caught up in process for process sake and working with a team (for example, of lawyers) who are against implementing processes.
Dufrene warned that if you give people an opportunity to not use their brains, they won’t, and this can happen if they’re simply checking boxes. Instead, the panel suggested for both ends of the extreme to focus on milestones with targets, a flexible framework to prevent total chaos. This helps everyone understand what artifacts (documents) are necessary at each milestone before moving forward so there are no surprises at the end. And avoiding the term “process” and using words like “framework,” “milestone,” or “artifact-outcome driven” can help process-phobic teams. One audience member pointed out that it’s important to speak in the same language as your team – lawyers, for example, think and bill by the hour, so going through a process isn’t billable time. But Wingate emphasized that some sort of process was key to avoiding burnout and winning.
Panelists also talked about maintaining quality standards, especially because, as Wingate pointed out, you’re not always going to get the A team and individuals have varying levels of expertise. Wingate emphasized building regular trainings on various parts of the proposal lifecycle into the process. Have resources people can read and understand so they grow more comfortable, and make sure to schedule in this training time during lulls. An audience member agreed, adding that they often have brown bags about what the proposal team is trying to accomplish at each level, what the different color team reviews mean, etc. Wingate added that it’s a good idea to track, over a series of months, where the holes in quality come up so you can put that as part of your lessons learned and focus your energy on where the actual problems lie.
A proposal library can also be a good tool, although panelists emphasized that it needs to be up to date. Dionne suggested rating the content within the library and labeling it with keywords. Then someone is responsible for keeping it up to date and can begin archiving data as it goes out of date so it’s less accessible but still tracking what that information was used for and what it’s been replaced by. Blakney suggested a “best in class” folder within the library, looking for examples of proposals that the customer said were done well, regardless of win or lose. Her team also looks at proposals that were ranked slightly under “best in class” and talked about what could have been done to get them to that point. Regularly scheduling in times to update the content is also an opportunity to cross train if the person who updates it changes.
Overall, managing a portfolio of proposals successfully comes down to communication, the panelists agreed, and other soft skills. Persuasively tell your superiors what you need. Keep an updated point of contact list. Be able to handle politics diplomatically. And make sure that the message you conveyed to your team members are what they actually heard.
Proposal Strategies from Around the World
Working internationally – on bids in other others and/or teams in other countries – has the same challenges as any other deal, except they’re more complicated, says Felix Becker, Head of Bid and Proposal Management in ANZ and Japan at SAP. Many of the same basic principles apply, especially this one: If you don’t know your customer, you’re not going to win.
For example, APMP’s best practices still generally apply worldwide, but think of the body of knowledge like a restaurant menu, says David Taylor, Principal Manager of Capture Management at Rockwell Collins. Select what you need to fit the situation. Shannon Smith, Tender Manager at Voltage Power Ltd., agrees, saying that you need to be flexible and sell these best practices to your team in a way that they will understand. And Becker warned that it’s the subtle cultural differences that are likely to make your bid stand out.
Cultural differences can show up in the most surprising aspects. When Becker introduced color teams in Japan, he didn’t realize that some colors have different connotations. He also came across a process in Singapore that made the proposal take longer – every page had to be signed and scanned. The main takeaway is don’t assume – Beck didn’t know about this until the last minute.
View things from the customer’s perspective and not yours, said Taylor. While working on a bid for a project in Japan, his team put a traditional image of Japan on the cover, but their Japanese counterparts wanted to see something much more modern.
Taylor recommended the book Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway for learning about cultural taboos.
Working across time zones
First, whenever you’re doing something that is inconvenient in someone else’s time zone, like a conference call, acknowledge it and show appreciation.
Taylor suggested rotating times so one person or team isn’t constantly working at inconvenient times or ask if someone has a preference. It’s possible someone on your team prefers to have phone calls that are after the work day in their location, for example, because that’s when the office is quiet.
Smith has a clock on her wall that shows the time with each of her teams and keeps track of who is in which time zone. She’ll delay receipt of an email to arrive in someone’s inbox at a time that is more convenient to them. And remember that not every location follows daylight savings time, so time differences may shift every six months.
Becker acknowledged that sometimes you have to be strict across time zones especially when you’re working with short timeframes. If there’s a quick deadline and there isn’t time to come together to discuss things, set up some simple standard guidelines for everyone to follow.
Similar to time zones, Taylor advised tracking the local work week. Countries in the Middle East, for example, may not be open for business on Fridays. He also has holidays in other countries marked on his calendar so that he knows when his international colleagues will be out of the office.
Languages and translation
Taylor’s company works exclusively in English, so when the RFP comes in, there’s about a week-long delay for it to be translated into English and then, at the end, another week to translate the proposal into the destination language. He suggests having boilerplate language translated ahead of time if you work in another language often. He also advised not finessing with the proposal’s language too much if it’s going to be translated. Instead, use a translator who can help do that kind of finessing in the destination language. He and Becker also said to use plain, simple language and short sentences, and it’s important to avoid local vernacular that won’t translate well. If you’re working with technical vocabulary, work with translators who are familiar with that vocabulary. It’s also crucial to protect the integrity of the final version of the proposal in each language, especially if negotiations and other conversations don’t happen until several months into the future.
Working with multiple writers, especially if they come from different English backgrounds, can also make things complicated because different parts of the proposal can be written in different types of English. Smith has built in autocorrect options in Microsoft Word to automatically change spellings (color to colour, for example), but panelists agreed that it really comes down to having a good editor who can help put the entire document into one voice. Becker also pointed out that sometimes it’s not worth adapting the English to what sounds more correct to your ear if it matches syntax or phrasing that’s more common in the local form of English, if that’s where the bid will go.
Make important documents bilingual, with both languages on the same page.
If you work with a translator consistently, they will become familiar with words and phrases you use a lot. Translation is expensive, so be strategic in what documents should be sent out for translation.
Taylor also pointed out that interpreting and translation are not the same thing. Since interpreting happens in real time, provide your interpreter with a script a few days beforehand so they can prepare.
Becker talked about how language can complicate things when speaking, even if everyone is speaking English. For example, the word “yes” has different connotations in every country. A German who says yes means they’ll probably get to it. An Australian may mean they’ll probably do it, but not right away. An Indian saying “yes” may simply be acknowledging that they understood, but they may or may not actually do it. Even in English, the same words don’t mean the same to everyone. Think, for example, of the differences between American, Australian, and British English.
Communication styles differ worldwide as well, so understand if you’re in a culture that values direct or indirect communication. Communication styles will affect how you craft your cover letter, executive summary, etc. Oral presentation techniques also differ.
Smith has to travel for her job, sometimes taking multiple methods of transportation. She plans out how long each step will take, where things can go wrong along the way, and backtracks from there. Taylor also recommends getting on top of visa requirements early, especially because that can add extra time. The same goes for any necessary immunizations.
The United States is one of the only countries that doesn’t use A1 paper size. Taylor recommended ordering a different paper size in bulk from your local paper supplier (this could be Staples), although panelists also suggested Mimeo and Amazon. Printers should have sliders to adjust to different paper sliders. And Taylor has formatted boilerplate language to fit different paper sizes.
Many countries, however, are taking electronic submissions rather than print. This depends on the company, but paper is required less and less. The sales team should find out what these requirements are ahead of time. An easy way to submit electronically is via PDF. Both Becker and Smith are seeing an increase in Excel submissions, which everyone seems to hate but are still using.
If you’re submitting confidential or proprietary information via email, password protect it. Smith will preset this with the client, set up the password protection, and then ensure that the person receiving the document has the password to access it. If it’s through an online portal, Becker said any trusted supplier should have security on their end.
Taylor likes to use web tools like Skype to have visual contact with team members who are in different locations.
Regarding import and export regulations, Taylor pointed out that these rules are not necessarily written down in every country, so start early and talk with local experts. For example, in Brazil, if he sends software on a disk, that product is subject to duties; if it’s sent or the internet, it’s not. Both Smith and Taylor prefer to have someone hand carry products because it’s easier to talk your way through customs than to have something get stuck via shipping.
In the end, people buy from people, and the number one rule to follow when working internationally is to respect the customer.
Save the date! Bid & Proposal Con 2019 will be June 3-6, 2019, in Orlando, Florida. Look for registration to open in early 2019.