As proposal professionals we are very process and procedure oriented. Process gives us control. Because of this, the progressive, sequenced structure of color-coded proposal reviews is appealing.
On major proposals where you have lead time of 30 days or more or when you have a draft RFP that can help you jump start the process, this works. But does it work if you have two weeks or less from kickoff to delivery?
The short answer is yes. Below are a few changes in approach that will allow you to reap the benefits of the proposal review structure while not being held prisoner to the tyranny of the amount of time normally perceived as necessary to conduct effective reviews.
Crisis Action Planning
In the military, "crisis action planning", addresses the unexpected or events that may be anticipated but that unfold more rapidly or in an unexpected manner.
The key thing to remember about crisis action planning is that it doesn’t throw out the planning steps and principles; it just accelerates them in a way that seeks to minimize risk to mission accomplishment.
Developing a Proposal Review Plan for a Short Turn Around Proposal
Color-coded reviews are based on accepted principles and are the industry standard for a disciplined, logical process to bring an RFP response to winning completion.
However, when you don't have the luxury of time, like the military’s crisis action planning process, you have to understand the key elements and required results from each level of review in order to adapt to a short turnaround proposal.
Let's start by ensuring we understand the proposal review process before we panic at thinking we don’t have the time or resources to complete the required reviews.
Reviews: What do I need to accomplish?
The reviews represent increasing levels of maturity. At each level, the reviewers should be qualified to assess the proposal at its given stage and provide the necessary assessment and guidance to move the proposal to the next level. Each level of review should be evaluating the presence or absence of win themes and discriminators, compliance with the RFP requirements, and responsiveness to the customer’s needs that produced the RFP in the first place. The reviews should be somewhat overlapping to ensure connectivity between reviews. To this end, while you want reviewers geared to each level and each aspect that must be assessed, there is a good case to include someone from the previous level review on the next. At the end of the iterative writing and then review process for each level, the proposal response should be compliant, compelling, and complete.
Reduced time to complete the proposal does not obviate the need to accomplish these overall review purposes. Before I offer some ways that I have used to achieve these purposes in a resource constrained environment, let’s first do a quick review of what is supposed to be the outcome of each of the color reviews.
What are the goals of each review?
A Blue Team review ensures that the basic outline of the proposal is correct and complete and that a writer is assigned to each section. The Blue Team review also identifies gaps in information, data, designated SMEs, discriminators, and win themes.
The Pink Team review has essentially the same responsibility as the Blue Team with respect to compliance, completeness, and being compelling. Any gaps become key action items. However, now the emphasis shifts to the story. Is the story correct? Is the information and data current and relevant? Is the story understandable and does it speaks to the RFP requirements and underlying customer needs? Are there any Red Flags that signal a major problem in the proposal that could, if not properly addressed, result in the proposal being non-compliant and just not competitive? Reviewers should be focused on content and not on spelling except in those instances that reflect inconsistency.
The Red Team review should be done from the perspective of the customer evaluators. How does the document look? Compliance and clarity are the top priority items. Is it easy to evaluate and understandable. It is responsive to customer requirements (does it solve the problem or need?) and does it tell a compelling story? Does it show best value; does it prove that it is technically acceptable? Are there features and benefits stated and documented? Does the technical solution match the price and it priced to win? Is the solution offered too expensive, and what risks are involved in delivery?
The review team will be responsible to ensure that all pricing information required by the RFP is presented and in the formats prescribed. The team will also ensure that company pricing policies are followed depending on the type of contract (Firm Fixed Price, etc.)
The Gold Review document is complete in all sections, all information, all graphics, and fully compliant. It is formatted and looks exactly like it will for submission. The Gold Team reviewers focus is on high level win themes and discriminators and select aspects of the technical proposal that are considered key to winning the award.
The White Review, often called White Glove, review is a page by page, mostly visual, review of the document to catch any obvious errors in printing. The review will check those select item identified at Gold Review for correction. Focus is primarily on compliance items.
Some Techniques to Achieving Review Benefits
The important factor to notice about the foregoing list of reviews is that none of them have an amount time associated with them. However, each has specific results that need to be achieved. In approaching a proposal that is severely time-constrained, you must recognize that you have to achieve the results associated with each level of review. Whether you call them by the normal color-coded names or not, you still need to have reviews that give you the necessary assessment on how the proposal is progressing toward being compliant, complete, and compelling. So here are some thoughts on “shortcuts” that will achieve this without needing to block off large amounts of time. Let me stress that this approach is meant for relatively small (short) quick turn proposals. It is not meant for those that are large in pages and supporting documents and attachments such as numerous technical tables and scores of resumes.
Also, let me stress, that you need/must coordinate this approach with the client since they have to understand it, be comfortable that it will work, and then support it with the other proposal stakeholders.
1. Analyze the available time to determine the windows for review, time for formatting, time for input
- Begin by making a plan that attempts to find time for each of the reviews. Backward plan from the delivery of the proposal. Initially, try to target having the proposal done the day before it is due. This step automatically builds in a buffer of 12 to 24 hours. Also allow only a half day, 4-6 hours for review, including an hour for preparing the debrief and then an hour for the outbrief.
- Recovery should begin immediately after the outbrief with the goal that recovery should take no more than 6-12 hours. After recovery is complete the team should then work on preparing the document for the next level review. This prep should 18-36 hours. During the constrained proposal prep, do not consume time in formal prep of the documents. This can be postponed in the early reviews; maybe even until after Red Team.
- Using this guide, work back toward a kickoff meeting. This approach can allow you to take a small quick turn proposal
2. Determine when key information is needed; rolling assembling (assembly line) development
Some information may not be needed or even available until later in the process of assembling the proposal. Spending time running it down too early or putting in data that will have to be changed or updated is the best use of the proposal team’s energy. SMEs have day jobs and asking them to give the same information several times also doesn’t help create an atmosphere of cooperation. Putting information in when it is needed and ready allows review time to focus on “real” inputs.
3. Do an analysis of resource availability and get senior management buy in
As noted above, there client’s personnel generally don’t shut down all other activities to support the proposal even if it is short turn. Consequently, SMEs availability may not be at the most convenient times. One proposal I worked on had all the SMEs unavailable for the first week after kick off because of attendance an annual conference. The client was aware but did not intervene to make them more available. Taking your timeline to the client management, especially the Capture Manager is essential to explain the requirement for access to SMEs and information at key times and to get buy in.
4. Get the outline out quickly and the more detailed the better (saves time)
Getting an outline into the hands of the proposal team, SMEs, and client management quickly accelerates the ability to start reviewing. Such action shows urgency and is actually the first step in the review process. If there is information available from previous proposals or other client assets that is relevant, the putting this information in also helps jump start the process by prompting writers and SMEs to begin inputs or gathering information.
5. Blend reviews
A simple approach is to blend reviews. For example, doing a Blue/Pink or a Pink/Red depending on the time and information available allows you to accomplish the purposes of the reviews but saves significant time.
6. Staggered reviews
This approach is to review sections of the proposal as they are ready and not wait for all sections to achieve the same levels of maturity. The fact is that some sections are easier to complete, and it is more efficient to complete them and turn the resources on to other portions requiring more effort.
7. Rolling reviews
Similar to staggered reviews, rolling reviews eliminate stopping the development of the document or section and allow reviewers to look at snapshots of the document or section. This approach is particularly effective if the same reviewers work with the document from beginning to end since it allows direct follow up on action to comments and edits.
8. Use the whole clock by working in sequence and parallel
This suggestion will probably be your least favorite; it is my least favorite; but it works well in very time constrained proposals. The technique is to recognize that reviewers may be available at odd times such as after normal business hours. The approach is to schedule their reviews in the evening or overnight which allows the proposal time to begin recovery immediately the next morning.
9. Reduce the number of reviewers
Part of the length of the review process is just digesting the comments. The more reviewers that involved the more comments to digest. Even using software tools that consolidates comments, it takes a lot of time to go through 5 or 6 sets of comments, understand them, integrate the ones that will be used, and then document the action. Using one or two reviewers for the proposal or each section depending on the type of proposal and its organization allows a much more rapid review and recovery. The approach does require the careful selection of experienced and quality reviewers, usually senior SMEs and senior management. It is also useful to keep the same reviewers through all stages with the addition of new people only for the final review.
10. Be flexible on formatting and editing
Don’t get hung up on having to have the documents perfectly formatted and edited at each stage of the process. You should try to put out some basic guidelines to minimize the effort required at the end. For example, if the RFP calls for Times New Roman 12, then tell the writers that and tell them to use that. If there is accepted color scheme or table or figure format and numbering system, tell them. But don’t tie up valuable development and recovery time by having a desk top publisher go through the document at every stage. The fact is they will have to do it at the end anyway so while helping make it easier by using the templates, don’t make them do it more than needed. It will save significant time. That said, remember that graphics usually require the most lead time. While they don’t need to be put into the document until toward the end, they do need to be submitted early so that the graphic artist can have time to do the work and they can be review early enough to catch any errors.
11. Accept that you may have to step into the breach
Finally, you have to keep pressing the process forward. Try not to be obnoxious; but don’t assume that everyone is putting the same priority on keeping to the timeline as you are. Make sure that you carefully monitor the progress and keep the client management informed of any problems that will affect the ability to deliver by the due date and time. For areas that aren’t progressing well, you may be the one that has to fix it.
The approaches above are ways to achieve the good document development and reviews that incorporate the principles embedded in the more formal color-coded review process. These are not substitutes but more adapting to the environment to ensure that at the end of the process, no matter how little time is available, that you achieve a proposal that, at the very minimum, is compliant and adequately represents the client’s technical solution and capabilities to successfully meet the requirements in the RFP.
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