After Privia were acquired by Xait we asked Cheryl Smith (formerly with Privia) to write a series of “travel letters” exploring both features of XaitPorter and to share her expertise; Cheryl have been writing and managing proposals since 1998. Shipley trained, she has helped establish proposal centers and advised on capture strategy, coached orals teams and lead marketing, communications and knowledge management programs. Read part four of the series below!
When many of us began our proposal management journey the industry was labor-intensive; visibility was low, version control was manual, and reviews were troublesome, to say the least. But teams were passionate and together we tackled some of the big challenges. Features that seem passé today, like centralized documents, version control and review collaboration became the status quo, helping us achieve greater efficiency.
Today the industry has evolved. To remain competitive government contractors are also evolving their tactics. They are looking beyond the status quo to capitalize on new, innovative ways to collaborate on large, complex proposals, and win and grow.
Proposals may feel business as usual, but here is what’s changing and how it can help you continue to drive value for you and your business.
Proposal writing is a team sport. Formatting your proposal, however, is not; there are rules to respect and requirements to follow and those are the responsibility of the proposal manager and the production team. While proposal formatting is an eye-catching, visually appealing, and compliance necessity, it can also divide our writing attention and lead to some late-night, last minute production sprints.
Status Quo: Centralizing proposal development is a time-saving way to start-off your proposal; proposal managers skip all of the emails, quickly share requirements and strategy documents, establish document “shells” for writing, control access, establish task ownership and deadlines, and even invite sub-contractors to the collaboration. Directors can also establish a standard online workspace to enforce process and lend familiarity to each proposal project. But as your village of writers and subject matter experts write, review, and revise, the formatting gets overwritten and cluttered by different formatting from past proposals and each writer’s personal style. When it’s time for production? Your production team has to touch each and every word, paragraph and page individually to manually apply consistent and compliant formatting.
Status Grow: When you centralize your layout, it enforces your formatting throughout the proposal development process, including everything from font and type size to headings, numbering, headers and footers, graphics, figures, portrait vs landscape pages, odd and even pages, and tabloid page fold-outs. The team can still use styles that help them organize their writing, but that won't impact review copies or the final proposal. As content is added, it automatically formats to your established layout. So, instead of worrying about fonts, indenting paragraphs, adding bullets and headings, your team is using their mental bandwidth to focus on the task at hand; writing the content. When it’s time to review or produce your final proposal, your proposal will automatically have the consistent and compliant layout you established at the beginning, saving more time for printing and delivery.
Bonus: Develop and deploy any number of layout templates, from standard government requirements to two column pages. You can even quickly change the layout template as an amendment or corporate branding dictates.
As we said, proposal writing is a team sport, tasking experts from across your organization to collaborate and bring a compliant and compelling win strategy to life in the proposal. Writing as a proposal team, however, is a different story. The people who comprise your proposal team also have full-time jobs, shifting priorities and conflicting deadlines. Waiting to write is not an option for them, not if you want to hit your deadline.
Status Quo: Proposal writing can often feel like hurry up and wait, and wait, for another writer or subject matter expert to finish and unlock the file. The more people writing means more locked files, more waiting to write, and more version control issues. While content is centralized and secured, when a team member locks a file to write, they are writing in a silo, without visibility into the bigger compliance, strategy and content picture until review time. That means more details, differing styles, tone and voice to address during reviews.
Status Grow: Today, government contractors are ditching file based systems for co-authoring, database-driven systems. Gone is the file check in/check out process. Everyone on the team accesses the proposal when it is convenient for them. Instead of writing in a silo, teams write together, in parallel, at the same time. Version control remains automatic, automatically saving every 30 seconds as your team collaborates. Now your team can take an agile approach to writing, running reviews in parallel with content creation to advance your content more quickly so reviews can focus on things like compliance and strategy. Meanwhile, proposal managers use security measures to ensure only the right team members and partners have access to certain content.
Bonus: With controlled co-authoring, or writing and reviewing together in parallel, you save time, time your team can invest in personalizing and tailoring your to better engage evaluators and ease the evaluation and scoring process.
Content libraries are awesome, they make getting to your first draft faster and easier, saving more time for improving proposal quality. And they can be used in a pinch on a tight-turnaround. Just remember, software doesn’t write proposals, people do. Evaluators can easily recognize when a team fails to tailor and personalize a proposal just for them.
Status Quo: Content libraries are used for all kinds of reusable content. You can standardize your best solution overview, different flavors of your executive summary specific to different client types, past performances, security certificates, resumes, and even answers to frequently asked questions. Maintaining your content library is a different story; and if you aren’t regularly reviewing your content library, you’ll find the team spending more time on rewriting.
Status Grow: The simplest way to maintain your content library is to establish a knowledge network drawn from the subject matter experts who already work on your proposals. The number of people needed to maintain the library is relative to the amount of reusable content you wish to house in your library. Now, add expert assignments and expiry dates backed by workflow, and you’ve got content you can maintain on a regular basis. Simply assign one expert per discipline. When it’s about time for the content to expire, the expert is notified for an update. While you don’t have to have a content library, it does make things easier on writers and experts; they can more easily search and reuse standard content to begin their writing and tailoring. And the updates experts provide keeps content fresh and vital for the team – and prepares the content they need for their next proposal assignment.
Bonus: You can also restrict content library edit access. For example, if you’re adding a standard solution overview to your library, you don’t want anyone but the expert making changes. That means the team can pull a copy into their proposal and edit it for that proposal, while the original copy, the master, remains standard in the library.
Proposal reviews are a crossroads for your team; where the writing revisits the win strategy, compliance is confirmed, competition is ghosted, scoring is tested and story and narrative are evaluated. On the other hand, proposal reviews are time-consuming, energy-intensive, take precious time away from writing, and don’t always yield the results the team needs to advance proposal maturity and quality.
Status Quo: Reviewers are on a mission of discovery, how do we improve the proposal, and the team wants insights and direction. When they have secure, centralized, anytime, anywhere access they can provide the direction the team needs while collaborating with their fellow reviewers to come to consensus on instructions that avoid redundancies and discrepancies that delay revisions. Comments live in the software, not the document, so there is never a chance of inadvertently including review comments in the final proposal submission. Yet, there is a lot of pressure on linear review cycles, where the team goes pens down and the reviewers step in, that make them time-consuming and unproductive. How many times have you hoped for feedback like “this section isn’t compliant” or “here’s how to hone the strategy in this section” and got “this needs more” or “this word is misspelled”?
Status Grow: Today’s teams are relying less on “big bang” review cycles and more on the agile approach; writing and reviewing in parallel. For example, teams are reviewing and revising requirement response while the technical overview is still being written. Focusing on mid-cycle reviews enables faster decision-making while reducing review cycle strategy course corrections. Reviews are laser focused on producing the right tailored content and compliance and less on just getting something in there for the next review. The result is more time tailor content to ensure accuracy and quality. Meanwhile, proposal managers have visibility into the reviewing and revising, and an opportunity to step in and provide their feedback.
Bonus: Teams can still run review cycles, but now the focus can be on strategy because your content has already been heavily vetted during the writing phase.
Proposal managers want visibility into the team for the same reason executives want visibility into the organization: it helps them set expectations, manage resources, hit their deadlines and achieve their business goals. Remember, the majority of your team has a full-time job, and everyone has conflicting deadlines and shifting priorities. Our brains may be powerful computers, but having too many tasks on our plate means some tasks will inadvertently slip from our minds, get lost in the shuffle or be trampled on by other tasks. That’s where the proposal manager steps in to keep the team on track.
Status Quo: Between geographically diverse teams and locked files, many of proposal managers feel like they are leading their teams by feeling their way around in the dark. Is a writer working? If we keep writing at this rate, will we make the deadline? Should I postpone the review? Unknowns like this put your proposal deadline at risk.
Status Grow: An operational dashboard gives proposal managers the big picture Intel they need to focus on the bigger questions and take more timely action. For example, do I need to reassign these tasks to make the next milestone? This big picture view identifies where the proposal is falling short throughout development and ensures the main goal is being addressed each step of the way; submitting a high-quality, stand-out proposal on deadline.
Bonus: An operational dashboard also serves your writers and reviewers as well as proposal managers. For example, their tasks are highlighted along with due dates, empowering contributors to take timely action. As tasks move through the process workflow, the dashboard updates real-time, keeping the team on point with their responsibilities. As the proposal is reviewed, new comments appear on the dashboard so responsible contributors can track and address them between reviews and before production.
Proposal managers know all too well just how challenging it is to lead their teams through the many obstacles and milestones that come along for the ride with government contracting. The status quo, centralized documents, version control, and collaborative reviewing has taken us this far. Now new technology is fostering more accountable, more strategy-driven, and even more collaborative tactics that help teams save time, bring their A-game, win and grow.
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