Contract Incumbentitis Is a Disease. Here's the Cure.

In•cum•bent [in-'kəm-bənt] Noun. The current holder of a contract. Ex: The incumbent was preparing for a recompete of work it had successfully performed for years.

In•cum•bent•i•tis [in-'kəm-bənt-'i-tis] Noun. Disease-like condition leading to lost proposal recompetes and resulting in widespread abdication of responsibility, distribution of blame, and devastation of morale. Frequently disfigures the BD process and scars the psyche. Highly contagious; should be quarantined immediately if symptoms appear. Fatality rates range as high as 90% if left untreated. Ex: The proposal relied too heavily on past accomplishments and customer relationships, failing to demonstrate a new solution or offer adequate innovations to meet future requirements, and thus indicating a diagnosis of severe untreated Incumbentitis.

The Diagnosis: Itchy, flaky scalp, patchy hair loss -- whoops... that's the heartbreak of psoriasis. The heartbreak of Incumbentitis is far greater: the only thing worse than losing a proposal you've worked on day and night, weekends and holidays, for weeks (or months or years)… is losing a proposal you should have won.

Fortunately, if you recognize the signs early enough, you can cure the affliction while it's still in your current performance period, long before it spreads to the capture and proposal efforts.

Here are four steps to perform a basic self-exam. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you noticing subtle changes in your relationship with the customer?
  • Do you really understand how the customer evaluates your current performance?
  • Do you have an uneasy feeling that you aren't getting the whole story on the motivations behind the recompete?
  • Are you concerned you're over-estimating your win probability?

If you answered these questions affirmatively, you may be recognizing the symptoms of early-onset Incumbentitis. In the early stage, Incumbentitis is largely just a failure to pay attention, and can be easily cured by a renewed dedication to customer satisfaction, as evidenced by frequent contact and sincere efforts to ensure continuous improvement.

You need to be vigilant at this point, to ensure the condition doesn't degrade further. If you think it already has, you can judge the severity of the affliction by listening carefully to how you and your team are describing the effort required for the recompete.

Do you hear any of these comments?

  • "The customer knows us."
  • "The customer loves us/our PM/our staff."
  • "That's what the customer said, but from experience we know better."
  • "We tried that before and it didn't work."
  • "We are the best."
  • "Our competitors don't have a chance."
  • "We have no real competitors."
  • "Those problems were resolved long ago. No one cares now."
  • "The customer can't afford the transition risk."
  • "The customer knows they have to pay for these senior staff."
  • "The proposal is just a formality."
  • "We'll reuse a lot of boilerplate from the last proposal."
  • "The program team can write the proposal."
  • "It's ours to lose."

If you hear even one of these comments, it should set off alarm bells. One or more of these opinions spoken repeatedly indicates the condition has reached the critical stage. This is characterized by confidence that has metastasized into arrogance, making the incumbent take the customer for granted and thus fail to continue earning its position as a trusted contractor. Your capture and proposal efforts could be suffering severe damage. Immediate emergency treatment is warranted.

Treatment: The earlier you implement a treatment program, the better your chances for a complete recovery. The following steps will set you on the path to a healthier recompete effort.

  • Listen to the customer. Schedule time for you to meet with them to discuss your current performance, and ask them for a "wish list" of things they'd like to see you add.
  • Listen to the customer. Schedule a neutral Third Party Assessment (TPA) to be sure they're really telling you what you need to hear.
  • Listen to the customer. Find out who else, besides your end customer, is driving the new procurement, and set about learning what their priorities and preferences are.
  • Listen to the customer. Answer the current RFP. Don't rely on the old proposal. What you're doing now may not be what they want in the future.
  • Listen to the customer. Don't tell him he's stupid. Bid what the RFP requires, not what you know "they really want/need." After you win, you can seek approval for changes.
  • Listen to the customer. Bid to win, and worry about performing later. As the incumbent you've had a lot of unexpected costs and have implemented numerous fixes—but don't automatically build them into the new proposal if they aren't in the RFP. Your competitors won't.
  • Listen to the customer. Bring in outside SMEs, capture managers and proposal managers as consultants to bring a fresh perspective to your tried and true approach.

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Written by Carol Turpin

Carol Turpin is a Proposal Consultant and former Vice President of AOC Key Solutions. She has more than 25 years of experience as a proposal strategist, proposal manager, publications manager, contract negotiator, technical writer, and editor. Ms. Turpin has led proposal efforts, helping to win over $6.5 billion in contract value
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