March 7, 2008

Capturing the Lessons Learned

Nobody can afford to waste experience. It cost way too much to acquire it.

How do you capture lessons learned from your proposal writing experience? And how do you convert those lessons into improvements that affect everyone?

That’s our topic this time.

There are a number of activities you can engage in after you have submitted the proposal. Some of these are on-going steps in the sales process. Others are intended to help you learn what works and what doesn’t to improve your next proposal. Both kinds of activities should be a regular part of your post-submission regimen.

In the private sector, and even in some government bids, contacting the decision maker after your have submitted your proposal is a good idea. Maintaining open communication after submission may help win the deal, since it can be an opportunity to begin closing the deal and negotiating terms. (In some government bidding processes, you are expressly for bidden to contact the Contracting Officer, and doing so will result in your disqualification from the bid process, so make sure you understand what’s allowed.)

It can also be a great opportunity to learn what worked and what didn’t. Often, after we have finished a major proposal, we’re so sick of the thing, we don’t want to look at it, much less talk about it with the customer or with our colleagues. That’s understandable, but if we don’t make the effort to do some basic analysis, we’ll never learn to do a better job. We’ll tend to repeat the same processes and produce the same documents over and over.

Talk to the Customer

The decision has been made. You won. You lost. The award was split between you and a competitor. Regardless of the outcome, there are still things you can do to learn and possibly to influence the future. Some of these activities include debriefings, win/loss analyses, and research to prepare you for the next opportunity.

Debriefings. If you were competing to win business from the federal government and have been notified that you did not win, you have the right to receive a debriefing after the decision has been announced. This is a legal right which you can exercise under Federal Acquisition Regulation Part 15.506. Among state and local governments the rules vary, but often you can request a debriefing in those situations, too. And if you have been competing in the private sector, there’s nothing to prohibit you from asking the prospective client to provide you with some insight into their process and how well your proposal stacked up. (Of course, there’s nothing to prohibit them from telling you to go pound sand, either. In the private sector, they don’t have to tell you anything.)

If you do arrange for a debriefing, use it as an opportunity to learn as much as you can about how the agency handles acquisitions, what their key decision criteria are, whether or not they followed their own guidelines, and anything else that may help you in the next opportunity. Don’t go into a debriefing with the notion that you are going to turn around the decision that was already made. That’s not going to happen.

Instead, focus on process. How were the proposals evaluated? How were scores assigned? If you think that the evaluators failed to understand or ignored important aspects of your proposal, try to think like a courtroom attorney. Ask a few innocent and nonthreatening questions that establish the assumptions, then start asking the tough ones. If you hear that some of your references were weak, ask which ones and what specifically they said that seemed lukewarm. You should also focus on specific content about your proposal and how it was reviewed. If you go in with a few prepared questions that address the actual content of your proposal, you’re more likely to learn something you can use in the future to improve your works.

Win/Loss Analyses. Even if a particular client won’t give you a formal debriefing, you can still learn a lot about how your proposals are doing. Start conducting regular win/loss analyses the same way that businesses conduct customer satisfaction surveys. That is, select a specific percentage of all the opportunities you propose and seek feedback. Conduct the analysis whether you win or lose. You can do it in the form of a questionnaire, a telephone interview, even a site visit if that’s convenient. Be sure to make it clear that you are not trying to re-open the decision process, but are interested in getting feedback to improve future proposals. Keep the analysis short, factual, and focused on the actual document—format, pricing, length, clarity, use of differentiators, and so on. If you have the resources, you might even consider hiring an outside firm to conduct these analyses for you. That makes the process more objective and also less threatening to your clients.

Research. Win or lose, maintain contact with the client organization and listen for opportunities that may lie ahead. Contact them regularly, sharing with them new ideas and developments, articles that you think will be of interest to them, and so forth. An on-going campaign of regular communication can help establish strong recognition for you and your company and may help open channels of information that will be invaluable on the next bid.

Talk to your Colleagues

At the conclusion of each proposal project, after a suitable period of rest and healing for the proposal team, conduct an internal review for about an hour. The main goal is to review the process and the deliverable to find out how you can do a better job next time. What lessons did you learn from this experience? How can those lessons improve your performance or simplify the task in the future? The proposal manager can lead the discussion, but if the proposal manager is part of the problem or if there is conflict about which lessons need to be learned, you might want to bring in an outside facilitator.

To engage in continuous improvement, you need to make a conscious, consistent effort to gather information about how effectively each proposal succeeds in achieving its purpose. Keeping track of the “lessons learned” from each project, and then using them to modify content in your database, steps in your process, or components in your training, will help all team members deliver more value, communicate more persuasively, and enhance your contributions to your company.

No comments: