Anticipating The Chaos You Can’t Control

(second in a series)

Can proposal chaos be tamed? Or is it so inherent to the task of winning business as to be ineradicable? Gripes from the trenches aren’t encouraging.

Many of the marketers who shared their experiences at the the BSA Marketing/PR Wizards meeting do the majority of their work for large private institutions, municipalities, and the state. The proposals they generate must adhere to standards and processes that are themselves chaos-ridden. These demand attention to detail, and no detail is too small.

The way RFPs are written (how and by whom) lend to their clarity. For example, an RFP for a student center containing content from multiple stakeholders can be a model of consensus-building, collaboration and democracy. It can also be an unholy Frankenstein of a document whose unordered and even contradictory ideas require close analysis and intuitive guesswork by respondents. This makes “tailoring” existing materials for “relevancy” more exacting. RFPs written by facilities management professionals are much easier to follow. In these cases, internal consistency is assured, and one can prepare response materials with greater confidence.

State forms are especially complex – byzantine, even! One form even has its own 130-page instruction booklet (though I wonder how much of that 130 pages is government-mandated whitespace). The design and format of these forms have pitfalls as well. Managing unstandardized font style and size specifications can make an RFP project resemble preparing the space shuttle for liftoff. Developing a template from a previous form for repeat use is ill-advised, as variations of the state forms have proliferated.

“And God forbid you use the wrong version of the form, or you use someone elses’s form and not theirs!”

Kari Rosenthal at Ann Beha Architects has bypassed many of these problems by using InDesign. She opens original PDFs of the forms in InDesign and adds transparent textboxes over them. This allows her to keep her formatting and content separate from that of the form.

Firms that don’t go after public work on a routine basis have even less of a chance of making the proposal process bearable. Without sustained external pressure, they aren’t sufficiently motivated to control their own chaos.

One of the first lines of defense against chaos is to be more selective about the projects you undertake. But for many firms, a “go/no-go” decision is moot; anything and everything is worth going after, except in obvious cases when the fix appears to be in (e.g., the RFP is written with a certain firm’s capabilities in mind – and sometimes written by the firm itself). Successful go/no-go decision processes do exist in firms, and these range from the informal and ad hoc to a regular standing meeting. The common discontent heard is that this process can prolong dithering and delay before a decision to proceed is made. This forces the proposal assembly work, with all of its headaches, into less time.

Even if a proposal assembled under less-than-ideal circumstances does land your firm the work, haste lowers the standard of quality that you can depend on in the future, and you will need to add more time into your proposal project timelines because you’ll be troubleshooting proposal materials as you assemble them.

A robust decision analysis discipline can help to slow the overall pace of your marketing operation by reducing the number of leads you have to track at any given time. With this, it may also vary the pace so that your focus can shift away from proposal management occasionally to address other parts of marketing such as web site maintenance or PR. With a little more calm, you’ll be better able to plan and execute on bigger initiatives.

But if you are still prone to panic, you will still be pushed there unless you prepare ahead of time to ensure that you get – and give – proper support. I’ll be talking about Containing The Chaos in my next post.

Add Your Comments: What do you think? What are your experiences with finding the right forms and requirements to use? Have you found ways to reuse previous work or minimize the steps you take to repackage standard information? 

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