As proposal professionals, we all seek to improve our skills and deliver more impact to our organizations. We belong to APMP to access a wealth of information on proposal management, we attend Bid and Proposal Con to network with like-minded people from across the globe, and we study best practices to apply them in our jobs and deliver winning proposals for our clients. These activities are important for us to continue to learn and grow, but sometimes the things we learn can be difficult to apply directly to the environment we work in. When this happens, it is important to know when to follow best practices, when to make a change, and how to adapt what we have learned to our own needs.
I have had to adapt many proposal best practices to fit the needs of my organization and our sponsors. Starting from a single pilot proposal in 2010, my colleagues and I evolved our organization’s proposal capability into a robust team responsible for submitting hundreds of proposals a year to a diverse variety of sponsors—but the path to get there took a careful blend of APMP best practices and team ingenuity. The following are guidelines I used during my journey.
Leverage existing strengths and resources
First, gain a clear understanding of the existing strengths and resources your organization has available before trying to add to or change the process. It is critical to take time to survey the current proposal process and understand what is working before recommending steps for modification.
- Build relationships across the organization and use them to help you understand both the big picture and the detailed issues you need to navigate. These contacts will also be good advocates for you and your team as you expand support within your organization.
- Utilize your existing roles as building blocks to introduce new activities. Look to where you are seen as a subject matter expert and add support and expertise as a natural extension of your current responsibilities. For example, if you already help manage a piece of the production process, you may be able to create new tools to assist the process or implement strategic improvements based on your experience.
- Leverage the experience of successful proposal teams that already exist in your organization. These team members will be the first to recognize what could help them be even more efficient and successful or identify pain points that could be relieved. These might not be “official” proposal teams, but they are likely people who have already been thinking about how to make their process work without the BOK or APMP.
- Understand the environment you are working in by gathering data on how proposals are currently developed and stay abreast of evolving changes to the proposal environment. Seek to identify strengths and weaknesses in the process and use this knowledge to focus your support on what matters most.
- Utilize best practices from APMP. Once you understand your organization’s current process, take advantage of the wealth of knowledge within APMP and start identifying areas for improvement based on APMP proven best practices. Think about how APMP approaches will bolster your organization’s existing approach, rather than trying to start from scratch.
Start small and pilot your changes
Adapt best practices for your environment by starting with small changes, and pilot your approach before expanding on a larger scale. Working on one change at a time not only lets you get into the details of what works well and why, but it also helps you communicate successes and next steps more clearly when it is time to expand your efforts.
- Seek to understand what works and what may be difficult for your organization to follow. In some circumstances, the best approach has already been developed by others, but sometimes specific processes or structures may not be a good fit in a different area. It is important to be able to recognize when you may need to make a change.
- Nurture what works before introducing new ideas. While it can be tempting to jump in and fill gaps that aren’t being addressed, it can often be more effective to nurture what is working before introducing things that hadn’t been done before.
- Conduct lessons learned and document your results so you can identify areas for improvement. Capturing what you have done and recording metrics on your process are vital in building long-term success for your team.
- Communicate success within your team and with your organization. Good news and stories of success go a long way to helping build advocacy for your process.
Accept limitations posed by your environment
When you start to implement a new best practice in your organization, you may encounter elements that can’t be easily followed due to structural or cultural limitations. If this happens, start by focusing on what you can work with. Your process may differ from others for good reasons and trying to add the wrong approach can sometimes do more harm than good. Start with what you can influence and look for future opportunities to address other limitations.
- Be aware of limitations, internal structures, or an organizational culture that may require you to adjust your approach. For example, the size of your team, complexity of your proposals, existing processes, or support of your leadership can all introduce limitations you may need to account for.
- Consider unique needs of different sponsors or clients, as each may require a different approach when writing proposals to fit their needs. In some cases, it can be beneficial to have multiple processes that are specific to each customer, rather than making everything fit within the same approach.
Focus on the activities that will provide the highest value
Rather than trying to accomplish everything at once, seek to understand the needs of your organization and focus your efforts on addressing their needs and solving their problems. Focus on the activities that provide the highest value and see where that leads. One small win can bolster your strengths and gain advocacy with your organization, which can lead to long-term success.
Alyssa Kolski, CP APMP, is the proposal education lead and a business development specialist at Sandia National Laboratories, supporting proposals in health and energy sectors. She has a M.A. in Writing and Rhetoric from the University of New Mexico and is a class of 2021 40 under 40 for APMP.