RICK A RICE CONSULTING
Technical and Marketing Communications for the IT, Software, IT-Security, Change Management, AEC, and Media Sectors
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Rick Rice has been developing (managing and writing) proposals since 1982 and participating on proposal teams in the Architecture/Engineering/ Construction field since 1994. His experience includes developing proposals for the following:
FEDERAL CONTRACTS: DoD
A key part of developing Department of Defense proposals involves mastering the nuances of Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) Contracts. My ID/IQ experience includes:
Just what is this thing we are chasing? After many years of wandering through the forests of proposal pursuits, there is one thing that has become abundantly clear to me: proposers very often pursue opportunities based on miss-assessments of the real needs of their prospective clients. We tend to pursue the things we want, such as lucrative contracts, rather than to organize efforts to address the things our client's need. We focus on task deliverables and often miss the programmatic requirements of the opportunities we pursue. We fail, at the proposal stage, to provide the delivery of the leadership services required to pull task deliverables together under the governance of quality management and operations plans to provide the complete package of services required for the client to see a clear path to success.
The "Hierarchy of Program Delivery" (right) provides a general overview of a generic facility design-build project; one with a lot of stakeholders and social equity requirements. Contractors can really plug in on any of those levels, depending upon the types and levels of services they are able to offer.
The disconnect for many proposers on projects is that they don't align the services they provide with those that the client needs. This is typically an outfall of the approach taken by the proposer, typically based on their perception of Request for Proposal response requirements. The "we understand what the RFP requirements are" often over-powers the more important understanding, which is of the project itself and what the client needs to be successful with it.
It is a matter of understanding this thing that is being pursued. Is it our thing that we pursue, or is it the client's thing?
The graphic below illustrates the all-too-standard approach, starting with "THE WANT", typically defined inwardly, as in "what we want" from a pursuit. In the bottom half of the panel there is the alternative approach, which starts with defining "THE WANT" from the client perspective. Clients typically have some goal or objective they are trying to achieve, and they have a need to hire skills they do not possess themselves to complete tasks required to achieve their goals and objectives.
Subcontracting types focus on the tasks the client understands as needing to be accomplished. There is nothing wrong with task work, provided that is what your firm has determined itself to be: a provider of specialty services.
The alpha dogs of the competitive world rarely do task work exclusively, and in many professional fields they don't do task work at all. Their focus is on programmatic matters: the services that tie task work together to have it produce a product that meets the wants and needs of the client, usually expressed through a high level project description with details of tasks defined in a contract. It is the high-level achievement that the client will reference when describing their achievement to stakeholders and interested parties. Professional services pursuit managers must provide appropriate services at appropriate levels to make that possible.
Interested in a crash course in proposal development?
Click on the graphic below, titled "The Proposal", to open a PowerPoint presentation used by RAR Consulting to provide a high-level over of a comprehensive proposal process that is particularly appropriate to pursuit of large Federal or commercial contracts in the AEC or IT sectors.
If "The Proposal" PowerPoint presentation is just too much for you, perhaps the panel below will provide as much information as you need in a simple, one-page snapshot.
One Man's Long Journey Down the Treacherous Highways of Proposal Land
By RICK A RICE
I moved on to writing case studies for health care fundraising projects, interviewing stakeholders and developing compelling proposals that demonstrated the need for program improvements, detailed alternative funding mechanisms, and weighed public support for proposed schemes. I also became active in developing proposal packages for publishing projects.
In 1994 I took my first full-time proposal writer position, accepting the position of Marketing Director for the venerable landscape architecture and planning firm Royston, Hanamoto, Alley & Abey, now known simply as RHAA. This experience immersed me in the Request for Proposal (RFP) and Request for Qualifications (RFQ) process, because RHAA at that time was a proposal mill. Between 1994 and 1997, I developed over 150 proposals, statements of qualifications, and expanded letters of interest, often single-handedly doing all of the writing and graphics production for the submittals. RHAA’s primary client groups were the National Parks Service, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, municipal and regional governments, academic institutions, commercial, and corporate clients. Virtually all of these contracts used a two-part system under which competitive firms were short-listed based on the merits of their proposals, and then required to endure an interview process. I short-listed RHAA at a rate of nearly 100 percent and routinely received extraordinary ratings on my submittals. Former Associate Vice Provost for Planning at Stanford University David J. Neuman rated my winning proposal for infrastructure planning at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station “one of the finest proposals I have ever received, including proposals submitted for far more important architectural projects…”
My proposal development experience graduated to a new level when I joined the Bechtel Corporation’s Infrastructure group, BINFRA, as a consultant. Where I had been a soloist at RHAA, I became a proposal team member at Bechtel and there got a taste of how big-time proposal operations are run. BINFRA pursued only mega-projects, for which they primarily focused on program management, and our victories there included the $2.5 billion-plus Doha International Airport, the $1.3 billion Seattle Monorail project (partially funded), the Tacoma Narrows bridge and the Portland Light Rail project. Bechtel introduced me to the proposal kickoff and Red Team review processes and got me up close and personal with complex joint venture operations, which added an entirely new layer of understanding of proposal development. Successes with the BINFRA group led to other proposal opportunities with Bechtel’s Mining & Metals division, which included participation in the $7 billion-plus Saudi Arabian Ma’aden Aluminium project, which included a bauxite mine, refinery, smelter, heavy gauge railroad, and sea port.
I am currently developing proposals - or "deals" as they call them - for Cisco Systems. My role as a "Bid Developer" is primarily project management. A consultant to the Proposal Experts team, I am assigned to account teams responding to RFP from service providers (primarily), often in "emerging markets." We primarily provide network hardware and software solutions (products) for Internet Service Providers, IPTV and telecommunications companies. My role is to organize proposal kickoff meetings, work in close coordination with account managers for the deals, clarify strategies, establish and manage the proposal development timeline (including legal and finance review), and manage the development of the document(s). Cisco uses a "workbook" approach to proposal development and I maintain this document, which is used to identify the "virtual team," assign responsibilities for the technical response, identify and resolve "non-standards" and "futures" (products not currently available to be delivered at a future date, which translates into deferred revenue), track development progress, and perform reporting and close-out duties. I search Cisco source documents for content appropriate to responses to RFP, modifying it as appropriate for each engagement.
When I joined Innovative Technical Solutions, Inc. (ITSI) I gained yet
another layer of experience, this with proposals for Department of
Defense (DoD) contracts. ITSI is a prime military contractor providing
environmental engineering and construction services to the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers (USACE), the U.S. Air Force (AFCEE and AFCESA), and
the U.S. Navy. DoD contracts are primarily offered as Indefinite
Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) vehicles, and firms compete with
firms of similar size (i.e., 8[a], Small Business, Large Business) with
the firms selected for contract having further opportunities to compete
for individual task orders.
The proposal kickoff meeting typically sets the tone for the proposal development process and how well it is managed often determines how smoothly the process will work. The main purpose of the meeting is to introduce the proposal team – one would hope that multi-partner teams would be defined by this crucial stage. The kickoff introduces the key personnel and establishes the Division of Responsibility (DOR) discussed below. The meeting identifies the projects that will be referenced in the proposal as “relevant experience,” and the personnel that will be represented in resumes.
Most importantly, the kickoff meeting is used to set the strategy for the proposal effort. Likely competitors are identified and their relative strengths and weaknesses are discussed. The proposal manager captures the proposal team’s ideas about their own strengths and weaknesses and how best to position them relative to the competition. From this discussion, themes should emerge – points that should be consistently emphasized throughout the proposal, some to convey why your team is most especially qualified for the work, and perhaps to subtly undermine the perceived strengths of competitive firms. Bringing focus to, and managing, this process is one of the most important skills that any proposal manager can possess. Proposal teams rise and fall on this crucible.
The Red Team is a formal review process that is tough by design. Proposal experts, primary stakeholders, and technical experts intimate with the thinking of the client agency for which the proposal is being developed review the draft proposal and offer their critiques. These can be tremendously useful, psychologically damaging to the proposal team, or a complete waste of time depending upon how they are managed. Sometimes they are all three things at once.
Great proposal managers have mechanisms for managing Red Team reviews, which are usually built around provision of effective scoring mechanisms for review participants, means for gathering useful information, and methodologies for limiting the extraneous. The bigger and more powerful firms are often the ones that struggle most significantly with the Red Team process because they attract the biggest, most powerful casts of Red Team reviewers. I have seen major players in the engineering/construction industry battle past midnight for days running over the wording of executive summaries, technical approaches, milestone schedules, and the numbers on spreadsheets.
Marketing Small and Large Firms
My experiences developing proposals at Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure and at ITSI brought into focus the difference in approaches that must be taken when marketing 8(a) and Small Business firms versus a giant firm like Bechtel. It has to do with the types of contracts each pursues, and the types of people each has on staff.
Bechtel is among the largest engineering/construction firms in the world and my experience, working at the firm’s San Francisco headquarters, was that it is a company of “superstars.” (I would occasionally ride the elevator up to my office in the morning with former Secretary of State George Schultz, who was one of Bechtel’s directors at the time.) Bechtel hires high profile guys like former astronaut Dr. James “Ox” Van Hoften and NFL Fall of Fame lineman Tom Mack to represent the firm to clients. The war horses you see around the corporate offices tend to be guys with four and more decades of experience, including work on some of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken. Bechtel has made a corporate decision to be a program management firm almost exclusively, and to leave the relatively pedestrian tasks of project management, field engineering, and engineering design to smaller subcontractors. There is an attitude there that engineers are a dime a dozen and inexpensive to boot. The old bulls in the firm hardly need to be marketed, their resumes speak for who they are and what they know. Bechtel tends to throw resumes into proposals by the dozens to show that their resources are more than sufficient to handle the largest projects.
When I went to the smaller firms, which were pursuing ID/IQ contracts, I learned that their challenges in marketing their expertise were significantly different from what I had experienced at Bechtel. Most RFP for DoD contracts only request resumes for four or five “key personnel,” usually a Program Manager who will oversee all task orders under the contract, a Senior Project Manager or two who will run work in the field, a Health and Safety Specialist (usually a CIH) to ensure that work is performed safely, a Quality Control Manager to ensure the quality of the final product, and possibly a Contracts Manager. There may be resumes provided for important technical personnel, but not always. Firm resource issues are often handled in tables providing summary information (numbers and locations of offices, project managers, site superintendents, etc.). On resumes the smaller firms are tasked with showing how their handful of project leaders are qualified to meet the requirements identified in the scope of work (SOW) stated in the RFP. They often do have experience relevant to parts of the SOW, but more often than not marketing smaller firms is all about positioning the experience of key personnel in ways that emphasize why what they have done qualifies them for what they will be expected to do. The idea is to score as many points on the client’s rating sheet as is practically possible.
In that sense, marketing a smaller firm is far more nuanced than marketing a Bechtel or a URS (another large firm for which I have worked). At ITSI I received excellent training in making these sometimes challenging qualifications statements. I learned to explore each bit of professional experience represented on a resume to emphasize tasks relevant to the RFP SOW. I grew to understand the specifics of field engineering, to view projects from a task level. This is a critical skill, whether developing project past performance information, company profiles, or resumes. You must play from your strengths, emphasizing what you have and deemphasizing what you don’t.
Dissecting the DoD RFP
Dissecting DoD RFP is a special skill in its own right. They are all organized in the same way, as defined under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), with the biddable scope items enumerated in Section A, a project overview in Section C, and details of the submittal requirements laid out in Section L. Section M provides detail on how the information provided in the proposal will be evaluated, and proposal writers spend a great deal of time analyzing those sections.
Part of that analytical process relates to something I have noticed from the first RFP I ever developed a proposal for, that being that RFP requirements are often not stated very clearly. The biggest cliché in the world is the line “This RFP is really poorly written.” Someone says that at every proposal kickoff meeting, and it is often true. Organizations like USACE generate a lot of RFP. The tasks usually land on the shoulders of administrative personnel who typically borrow from previously released RFP and retrofit to meet the current need. Since the organization of DoD RFP is standardized, this borrowing makes sense, but frequently magnitudes are mismatched; texts from multi-million dollar RFP are used to put together requirements for $100,000 task order type RFP, and disconnects occur.
DoD groups address these common problems by allowing prospective proposers to pose questions about the RFP process, with answers provided through specified websites. Sometimes these questions surface problems of sufficient gravity that they require the publication of an amendment to the RFP. Whatever the case, it is critical that the proposer watch the solicitation website closely so that submittals can be developed that “answer the mail,” as the cliché goes, i.e., are fully responsive.
DoD RFP are also narrowly scoped to define specific types of work, and analysts must educate themselves to understand these contract vehicles. A sense of history helps, too, as some contract vehicles are follow-on to previous contracts. The Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence (AFCEE) Heavy Engineering Repair and Construction (HERC) contracts, for instance, are a follow-on to AFCEE’s Worldwide Environmental Restoration and Construction (WERC) contracts, the WERC being environmentally focused (e.g., remediation, restoration, abatement, assessment) and the HERC being focused on follow-up heavy construction. Those are both big budget ID/IQ. DoD proposal writers will also deal with smaller contract vehicles like the Multiple Award Task Order Contracts (MATOC) offered through USACE district offices, which usually cap task orders at $100,000. Obviously each of those contract types require entirely different proposal approaches.
Capturing the details of response requirements for an RFP is essential to ensuring compliance in the submitted proposal. The Compliance Matrix identifies every element of the response requirement, including page limitations and tabbing requirements, and details the evaluation criteria listed in the RFP for each section. It also typically provides information on how various criteria is weighted in the overall evaluation, and it captures contract details (Firm-Fixed Price, Best Value, etc.) and important schedule and contact information. Probably most important, it provides a means for the entire proposal team to review the RFP or RFQ through the same prism of understanding, which further allows the challenging of assumptions and further refinement of approach.
Division of Responsibility
Large firms with large proposal teams will use a “Division of Responsibility” (DOR) document that outlines the deliverable sections of a submittal, identifies the lead writer and lead reviewer for each part of the submittal, and identifies a timeline for drafts, review and completion. The DOR also serves as a punch list of required pieces, including tabs and other document infrastructure. Smaller firms tend to be less formal about the process, but I have found the use of the DOR to be indispensable, if only because I prefer the clarity of a central organizing document.
Proposal Cover Letter
Approaches to cover letters for submittals vary widely. Some firms eschew them altogether, and others may as well because they simply use the cover letter as a transmittal sheet to identify the solicitation number for which the proposal is being submitted. These missives tend to be central issues of discussion at professional services marketing seminars, with marketing consultants ripping the use of formulaic, cliché language. Unfortunately, many firms unintentionally use them in a way that demonstrates how extraordinarily prosaic they are.
I personally believe the cover letter is one of the most important pieces of any submittal. It provides an opportunity to say something about why the firm is pursuing the work, introduce the makeup of the team, and create positioning for everything the reviewers will encounter in the formal submittal. The cover letter provides the set-up that proposals usually require, and they usually don’t figure against limited page counts.
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