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Effective Teams: The Holy Grail?

Teamwork is one of the most effective methods to achieve proposal success – and one of the most enjoyable, when it works. (Image by StockSnap from Pixabay) An effective team is one of the keys.

Interested in learning what makes effective teams? They are not the Holy Grail! This post came out of a session at BPC Orlando in 2019, updated here with new content. It was inspired by a speaker who got the attention of the audience by opening his presentation with this observation on proposals:

Learn the 5 Factors of teamwork that can make your proposal team a success.

And we’ve all been there, haven’t we?

In sum: as proposal managers, we organize opportunities to bid on the right ones. We help subject matter experts contribute. PMs support writer efforts to create compliant and compelling content. Then there’s the job of scheduling gate reviews and coordinating with finance people for cost proposals. At the end of the day, we deliver documents to production departments for a timely response. Sleep is optional. Meals are what’s on the conference table.

The PM role works with a diverse group of people inside the organization. Add consultants from outside for a dash of complexity. Then, toss in a management team with a mandate to grow the business. Lacking the right approach, it’s a recipe for immediate disaster. Worse, long-term failure to thrive as coworkers is just one consequence. The scars of failed proposal teams litter the landscape of proposal management, leaving residual damage everywhere.

Teams: There’s a formula to capture the dimensions of success.

Successful proposals hinge on effective teams and teamwork. Through after-action reviews of bad experiences, I learned there are five key factors. Failing to address these factors undermines proposal teams, wreaks havoc on proposal managers, and results in poor scores during evaluation. Does paying attention to them guarantee success? Of course not, but it makes working together easier, more productive, and creates capacity for future collaboration.

In our experience at Strategy Horizon Consulting, these factors are:

1. Management Support

First, decide “Who’s in charge here?” The Proposal or Project Manager (PM) is an essential leadership role and the supervising manager has to back up the PM’s authority, assignments, and timeframes.

2. Structure

Next, ask “What are we doing?” Team structure should relate to proposal structure. That means clear assignments of activities to relevant members of the team.

3. Role Definition

At the same time, make it obvious “Who’s doing it?” Clear role definitions for all participants must distinguish their responsibilities distinct from other members of the team and their accountability to meet deadlines.

4. Communication

What’s happening? Frequent communication “keeps everyone on the same page” and ensures that the proposal manager identifies and addresses problems.

5. Intervention

Finally, pay attention to the question: Where are we? Proposal plans can go wrong at a moment’s notice. Proposal managers must recognize trouble. Then, intervene with the team to get back on track.

The story below combines multiple experiences into one, worst-case scenario: What Not To Do.

Proposal? What Proposal?

This image shows a telephone pole with a snarl of lines running to and from it, suggesting confusion and miscommunication.
Miscommunication, misunderstandings, misfired projects – all result from poor planning and control. (Off to a good start?
  • New to Company X, the Proposal Manager (PM) had years of experience at a large company with substantial proposal resources. Her outline had assignments, timeframes, and full story-boarding.
  • About five days after release of the RFP, the PM was ready for a kick-off call.
  • She scheduled a call, sending the agenda, RFP, and outline to the SMEs the morning of the call.
  • The call seemed to go well with no questions or comments from SMEs on the two-week turnaround.

Time Marched On…

  • After the two weeks elapsed, the Proposal Manager viewed the SharePoint folder she created for draft documents and checked for emails with expected content.
  • No emails. No content. No SMEs completed their assignments.
  • The Vice President immediately removed the PM and SMEs from the team.
  • She then brought in consultants to finish the proposal with two weeks left before it was due.
  • The result? A close loss to a major competitor, and the PM resigned without notice.

Failed team, Failed Proposal

What happened with this proposal? Examining the 5 Factors gives us insight into this fiasco.

This image shows a young man surrounded by images of question marks, suggesting that is confused and not sure of the answer.
Wonder where the answers are? Starting with a well-defined and supported team is a good place to start (1. Management Support.

Does it make sense to turn over a major opportunity to a new staff member without someone to help her learn the ropes? No. And, when the content deadlines passed, shifting leadership to consultants undermined the PM role.

2. Structure.

There was no structure to the group working on content. The PM made assignments to individual SMEs, but leadership was not engaged. No oversight, no accountability.

3. Role Definition.

When working with SMEs who have day-to-day responsibilities, it is essential to clarify their roles on the team. Assigning sections to them needs to take into account what other responsibilities they have and the extent to which they can and have time to do the proposal. No one asked that question.

4. Communication.

The kick-off call was a complete surprise to everyone but the PM. No one had time to read the RFP or the proposal outline. Was the presentation so good that no one needed additional information? Hardly. The lack of questions, discussion, or comments demonstrated the lack of engagement. And, the PM did not follow-up to make sure SMEs understood the assignments and were working on them. The outcome? The lack of results came as a complete surprise to the PM.

5. Intervention.

Ultimately, the intervention was both harsh and untimely. It was also expensive and unsuccessful. Removing responsibility for the entire proposal made the PM feel sabotaged. The proposal then went to consultants without a background in the opportunity, requiring extensive work and rework on an emergency basis. Utter chaos.

A narrow loss to a major competitor? Not a team experience anyone needs.

Finding the Holy Grail

Indeed, major proposals are not tests for new managers. The concept of “Sink or Swim” has no place in a team. And, groups of people without buy-in or direction are not teams. Many companies lack the time and resources for advanced team-building. They need a way to create “just-in-time teams” that work well together. While that is not easy, it is doable. With the right oversight, structure, and support, people can come together quickly and perform effectively.

Strategy Horizon can help

Get the support you need in all aspects of proposal management, including facilitating high-performing teams. We are ready to help your team win with 5-Factor proposal support:

Team Formation

Management. As your consultant, I work closely with senior management to assess the competitive opportunity, document the need for subject matter experts, and create realistic timelines and review processes. I also help create supportive documents, including the writers’ outlines, compliance matrix, and competitive analysis to articulate win themes. Identifying strong proof points for use in the proposal is one more way to support project success.

Structure. Who’s on first? Working with your Business Development organization, we map staff to scope to ensure a team structure that covers the scope of work, aligns content creation with SMEs and proposal writers – and connect to you effective, external resources if you need them.

Team Process

Role Definition. We support the proposal team with structure and oversight to ensure SMEs understand their assignments, if any, and can complete them. We maintain contact with the team, building trust, so team members are empowered to ask for help they need to complete the work.

Communication. Communication plans are an important tool for teams – and communication vehicles help ensure everyone is “in the loop.” We can use a Microsoft Teams site, simple email, Zoom calls, and other methods to keep the team as a whole informed of the status – including daily huddles to quickly share status and surface issues.

Team Outcomes

Intervention. Working with the team or with individuals who are part of the team, we quickly provide insight, ideas, editing, and, yes, writing, to help keep things on track for a complete, timely, compliant, and competitive proposal.

What else should you do?

Finally, formal education is a sound approach. We recommend the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) membership, certification, and Body of Knowledge. APMP can provide the know-how – and your company can provide the leadership to bring it all together.

The Strategy Horizon Learning Center incorporates that knowledge into practical and focused content that you can access 24/7 through easy-to-use online and on-demand tutorials and webinars.

Learn more about APMP here: Learn more about Strategy Horizon Learning Center here.