June 23, 2010

Lessons Lost

You often hear people saying that they want to capture the “lessons learned” from an important project, such as a major proposal.

My question is what do they do with those lessons after they capture them? Because they sure seem to disappear pretty quickly, given the number of proposals that repeat the same mistakes again and again.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Lessons Lost

Last fall I worked with a company that was in a pretty desperate situation. They hadn't won a single bid for over a year. They had survived on some large projects that generated cash, but those were winding down. If they didn't win a major opportunity—and soon—they would be forced to lay off hundreds of employees.

They had an opportunity to respond to an RFP for a huge engineering project, something that was perfect for them. They asked me to help, because they saw it as a must-win situation and somebody in their management group thought my methods might work.

I began by asking for certain kinds of content and insights into the engineering project and the government agency that was funding it that they hadn't gathered. When I arrived on site, I led a series of workshops to create client-centered and persuasive responses to each of the 20 major "questions" or topical areas in the RFP. And when we got to the section on personnel, I asked them to throw out their traditional resumes, which were long and boring, and write them in a completely different way.

For some contributors, the process was invigorating. They enjoyed doing things in a new way. For others, the process was more painful. But at the end of the process, they had a response to the RFP that was persuasive, value oriented, and client centered. And a few months later, they learned that they had won.

That was good news, obviously, and I took a large measure of pride in having helped them. But since then, I have learned that they have not incorporated a single thing we did into their standard processes. We found that doing things differently, following a different process, putting the emphasis on different areas of content, resulted in a win. You might even call those "lessons learned". But none of them were preserved. Instead, they have gone back to doing things the same old way—the way that had failed to win a single deal for over a year.

This is an extreme example, but one that's nevertheless common. In proposal operations, in spite of lip service to the contrary, lessons learned are quite often lessons lost. If you are a habitual reader of Dilbert, as I am, you may be cynical enough to simply accept the notion that senior managers would completely disregard lessons learned that produced hundreds of millions of dollars of success after months and months of failure. But I think the real cause of lessons learned becoming lessons lost has more to do with processes than with personalities.

Most proposal organizations, and indeed most sales operations as a whole, have no institutionalized process for capturing lessons learned. The argument might be that each proposal, like each sales opportunity, is unique. Each poses its own challenges. What works on one proposal may have little relevance to the next.

As you probably know, if you have read my comments over the years, I think that is nonsense. Although the specifics of each proposal vary, they vary within predictable ranges. By documenting what works, what contributes to greater success, what saves time or eliminates quality problems, we increase our ability to produce successful work in the future. Yes, the proposal itself will be different—perhaps very different—but the processes and tools we use will be very similar from one opportunity to the next, and focusing on improving those processes and tools is absolutely vital if we are to show steady improvement in both effectiveness and efficiency.

So why do so many proposal operations skip the process of gathering, documenting, and institutionalizing lessons learned? One reason is that they are immediately neck deep in the next bid effort. They believe they have no time to pause for reflection. As soon as today's proposal has been delivered, we must rush off to work on tomorrow's.

Another reason is that there is no budget set aside for this kind of effort. As a support organization, the proposal operation must be very careful to show that every minute of time and every dollar of budget is being directed toward winning business. Something that's one step removed, like capturing lessons learned, could be criticized as frivolous, so proposal managers avoid doing it.

A third reason is that in many organizations the proposal effort is decentralized. In a decentralized organization, it's extremely difficult to gather any kind of information on what's working, and it's even more difficult to learn what doesn't work. After all, who wants to volunteer to be the example of how not to do it?

Finally, lessons learned are often lost because the proposal operation and the sales organization as a whole may not have any system in place for implementing change. In an engineering or project management environment, change management is a well-defined part of the process. There are documented steps for institutionalizing a better process when you discover one. That is seldom true in sales or proposal operations.

What's to be done? The first step, I think, is to acknowledge that doing things the same way, over and over, without being open to changes that may improve results, is a recipe for stagnation and eventual failure. If you can get your organization to make that cultural shift, then here are some suggestions for capturing lessons learned and incorporating them into your standard procedures:

• Conduct regular lessons learned meetings with the sales and proposal development team. At a minimum, this should happen right after a major bid has been completed. Ask: What worked? Where were the obstacles? What workarounds or solutions did we come up with?
• For problems that come up repeatedly, create a task group to analyze the root causes. Ask: What preventative measures can be implemented? What gaps in capabilities should be closed?
• What did you do differently? Did it work? Was there anything you did that was so effective you think it should become part of your standard approach in the future? If so, document it and figure out how to make sure everybody embraces it. Training? Checklists? Tools? What's going to make this new way of working the standard way in the future?
• At least once a year, stand back from your standard processes—you're unquestioned "best practices"—and question them. What's being done simply because it's always been done? What's no longer adding value to the final deliverable? Can these steps be eliminated? Can they be changed and made more effective?
• Establish a formal process for institutionalizing change. Document the changes. Incorporate them into internal training. Modify your ProposalMaster and RFPMaster databases or the user interfaces to reinforce the changes. Begin including the use of these new methods into performance appraisals. Figure out what's going to work to convert lessons learned into accepted standard practices as quickly as possible, and then follow through.

If you would like some help in figuring out what lessons you have learned and what lessons other people learned that you can borrow, give us a call. From working with hundreds of companies in dozens of markets, we can help you jump start the process.


Profiling is not allowed in a criminal case, but it makes a lot of sense in your business case. By establishing a set of behaviors and characteristics that define your best customers, you create a pattern or profile to use in searching for new ones.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant


Can you describe your best customers? Would you recognize them if you bumped into them at a conference or on a sales call?

You may be rolling your eyes at this point. Of course I recognize my best customers! I'm in their offices eight to ten times a year! I'm more likely to recognize them than I am to pick out my spouse's cousin at a wedding!

Right. But what I'm referring to is whether or not you've created a profile of your best customers. One that identifies the nature of their business, their business model, their financial situation, key recent events, significant pending changes, their current infrastructure, and any other characteristic that helps define them.

When I developed the first version of ProposalMaster almost 20 years ago, I did it based on the observation that most of my clients had a limited number of vertical markets to which they sold their products and services. Within those markets, there were half a dozen or a dozen reasons that clients needed their products and services. There were certain options and features that were of particular interest to certain kinds of buyers. By defining the typical buyers and what motivated them, we were able to create a taxonomy of the content sales people needed to deliver persuasive proposals to the buyers they encountered most frequently.

That same thinking can be the basis of creating a comprehensive sales toolkit. Everything from cold calling scripts to negotiation strategies can be thought through in terms of the typical patterns of behavior that you and your colleagues run into. And profiling your best customers can make it easier for you to find them and connect with them. In fact, profiling your best customers should help you figure out the most effective sales process.

Here are some questions that may help you start profiling for profit:
• Do our customers' needs vary by vertical market?
• Do their needs vary by the buyer's role?
• Do needs vary based on other factors, such as:
o Size of the customer's organization?
o Geography?
o Primary source of funding?
o Their use of certain legacy systems?

• Are there certain "trigger events" or "red flags" that are strong predictors of when a customer is most likely to need our help, such as:
o Explosive growth?
o Expansion into a new market?
o Release of new products or services?
o New CEO, VP of Engineering, VP of Sales, or other senior leadership?
o Recent or pending acquisition or merger?
o Obviously broken processes (for example, high rates of product returns, poor quality, late financial filings)?
o Employee morale issues as indicated by high levels of sick time, absenteeism, accidents, workers' comp claims?
o Market share erosion?
o Loss of patent protection?
o Declining productivity?
o Declining revenues?

The specific questions you ask to profile your best customers—and more importantly, your best prospects—will be different from these, of course. But figuring out what they are and then finding the answers to them is an important step forward in creating an empirical basis for your sales process, the tools your sales people use, and the content in your proposal and presentation libraries.

It will probably come as little surprise to you to know that we can help you with that process. We conduct Structure & Strategy sessions for our clients that uncover the right answers to the right questions, which is one of the reasons that companies that implement our proposal software see a near 30 percent increase in win rates on average. Give us a call if you'd like some help profiling for profit in your business.